Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Choice Architecture and the Sean Gallagher Bias Problem

There's a story about the woman who managed school dinners in Chicago for many years. She had huge amounts of data, and did some analysis on the data to understand what the kids were eating, and how it related to menus and displayed. She began to play around with the menus, and the placing of food in display cabinets where the kids would queue to get their lunch. What she found was astonishing. To a substantial degree, with the data in hand, she could control the daily diets of 150,000 kids in the Chicago scool district.

The story is told in a book called Nudge, by a couple of academics in the field of behavioural economics. The woman had created a problem - now that she understood the value of what these guys call a "choice architecture", she was aware that her construction of that architecture would influence the behaviour of those supposedly exercising their free choice. Several moral and philosophical issues ensued, but you can read the book to find out more.

Fast forward to the RTE Frontline programme and allegations of bias against RTE. Whether they like it or not, RTE as the disproportionately large broadcaster in the state constructs such an architecture. It cannot by definition be unbiased, as the presentation of the candidates will influence the decisions people make. Sean Gallagher in particular understood this - the extent to which other channels were open to him were limited, as he had limited funds. So he concentrated on TV. And, ironically, it was TV that got him in the end.

The only real way to avoid bias in broadcasting is to have genuine competition in the broadcasting market, as there is in the US. There are problems with that system too, of course, as anyone who witnesses the lowest common denominator rush for advertising dollars on US TV will attest to, to the extent that the free market demands the rise of a public broadcasting service, PBS. And that is not a matter for RTE, but for government, and public policy. Few governments have dared to cross RTE in the past - but now, with a particularly strong government, and a particularly chastened RTE, is an exceptional opportunity. The question is whether this government has the leadership, and the awareness to seize what could be a transformational opportunity.

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