Are you convinced that President Bush is treated unfairly in the media? Or, are you furious at the little skepticism the media had about the proposed invasion of Iraq? Political liberals and conservatives, alike, often complain that the media treats them, their candidates or their positions unfairly or unequally. Tien-Tsung Lee, a professor at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University, argues, in his dissertation, that in most cases, it’s not ideology that is the perception of bias. Rather, the media is largely centrist and objective, and its those who read, watch, and listen to the media that interpret bias from where there is largely none.
A long list of conservatives, from Rush Limbaugh to conservative politicians, argue that the media is pro-Democratic, pro-abortion, pro-labor, anti-business, anti-Christian, and, probably till recently, anti-national defense. Tien-Tsung Lee notes that in all cases, there is no scientific evidence, or its insufficient, confirming these biases. One other primary complaint from conservatives is that most journalists are Democratic. According to Lee, this is true. Nonetheless, Lee added, there is no conclusive evidence that journalists’ ideological and partisan opinions influence their reporting.
The argument that political liberals often present is that media owners and editors are often Republicans and, therefore, its in their interest to support, and not criticize, government and business. They also argue that, because much of the media is dependent upon advertising and because most journalists are from the upper-middle-class and the dependence of journalists on news sources such as government officials and conservative think tanks, they’re encouraged not to be critical of government or business.
David Domke, a communications professor at the University of Washington, notes that these arguments are only valid given the right context. Consistently, however, over a longer period of time, no bias has been found. “Some scholars have found a liberal media bias. Other scholars have found a conservative one. I think what it largely comes down to is context. What issues are being covered, in what context? You have to take into account these contextual situations. Journalists who examine a variety of situations, variety of issues, variety of people, would find that there is no consistent media bias ideologically. However, in any single topic, person, you could well find media coverage that is heavily favorable to one topic or one person,” said Domke.
Using this as a premise, that no consistent media bias has been found, Tien-Tsung Lee argues that it’s the consumers of media information that are finding bias. That is, “no matter how objective and balanced a report is, observers are going to perceive a bias,” wrote Lee in an email interview. To illustrate this point, he uses an example of a ball that’s on a center line. If viewed from the right, the viewer only sees the ball’s right side. If viewed from the left, the viewer only sees the ball’s left’s side. In support of his argument, Lee points out that those who support political groups or causes, those who identify themselves as on the right or left, are likely to see the media as unfair or hostile to their cause and favorable to their opponents. In experimental study, for instance, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups were likely to say that the same media content, about the 1982 war in Lebanon, would cause neutral viewers to become unsympathetic to their side and favorable towards the other.
Nonetheless, as Lee notes, the media, of course, is not always objective. Its coverage of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, for instance, he says was biased in favor of the Bush administration’s position. “I don’t think the U.S. mainstream broadcast media have done a satisfactory job in their coverage of the war, or the discussion leading to it,” wrote Lee. Nonetheless, favoritism towards one political party or ideology, Lee writes, isn’t consistent. For instance, a 1965 study of Time magazine found that they were negative towards President Truman, a Democrat, positive towards President Eisenhower, a Republican, and balanced towards Kennedy, also a Democrat.
To test his thesis, Lee used two methods, he examined studies of how ideology relates to perception of the media, and he designed a questionnaire that he sent to political journalists. His conclusions regarding ideology confirmed the Hostile Media Theory. That is, the more ideological you are, to the left but especially to the right, the more likely you are to perceive media bias. Conservatives, for instance, are more likely than liberals and moderates to believe that the news media have a bias. Relatedly, Republicans are more likely to perceive bias than Democrats and Independents.
When Lee designed the questionnaire, he was interested in testing to see if, what others studies had confirmed, that most journalists are politically liberal. In addition to questions that asked about how they perceive how their ownership affects their reporting and how they perceive the objectivity of other political journalists, the study used a scale to test the journalists ideology. Rather than conservative and liberal, there were two others: libertarian and populist. A liberal was for personal liberties and against the free market. A populist was also against free markets and against personal liberties. A conservative was for free markets and against personal liberties. And, a libertarian was for a free market and for personal liberties. Using this scale, he found that most journalists identified themselves as libertarians. Unlike a traditional liberal, these journalists favor a smaller government, tax cuts, and what conservatives often mention, personal responsibility. Also, because of the strong tradition of objectivity, of presenting as many viewpoints as there are, Lee hasn’t found that there is any relation between a journalist’s ideology and their reporting.
One problem with Lee’s conclusion, David Domke argues, is using the term “media bias”. “A theory bias of media bias would suggest that there’s something about the covering of events that could be true or not true, and that things that are not true are biased,” said Domke. This, Domke explains, is often impossible. What often happens, Domke added, is that rather than an objective understanding of an event, circumstances develop that cause the media to favor one side. Like Lee, however, he doesn’t believe that the media is ideologically biased, but he believes the circumstances and the favoritism is different for every news story.
What many scholars do, Domke notes, to avoid using the unclear definition of “bias” is to abandon the word and define another, such as “favoritism”. The advantage of this, Domke explains, is that rather than assume that an objective reality can be agreed upon, it’s possible to measure balance in news coverage. It’s possible, for instance, to measure if one side receives more news coverage than another.
Another problem may be that the journalist’s have self-identified their ideology. Because objectivity in journalism is a practiced tradition that most journalists consider important, it could have been that journalists were influenced to not state their ideology but rather consider themselves centrists. “I think among journalists there’s a population that wants to think of themselves as centrists, so they’re more likely to present themselves that way; they might not be lying but convinced themselves that they are,” said Domke. This criticism, Domke added, could apply to all studies that require journalists to self-identify their ideology.
Lastly, according to Domke, Lee’s argument seems to be implying that journalists are exempt from responsibility. “I do believe that there’s a role for journalists’s in the issue of accuracy. I do believe that journalists can inaccurately report something, to leave the idea of bias only in the mind’s of the beholder I think absolves journalist’s of that responsibility,” said Domke.
Please see the Allsci online monthly science magazine for these additional stories:
“Frequently ( and Infrequently) Asked Questions About WMDs”
“Using Cognitive Science to Design Political Ads”
“The Weapon’s Inspector Who Knew Iraq Had No WMDs”