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What Media Bias?

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The Media’s Not Biased; It’s Your Perception

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”

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About Sam Sachdev

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Sam, terrific job, fascinating and confirms a lot of my own thoughts on the matter. Welcome!

    Everyone go check out his very cool Allsci mag.

  • Is anyone surprised that a media professor would say the media is not biased?

    “Bias” is actually a tricky term. Bias, in my mind, does not mean you hold a particular point of view; it means you insert that point of view into “news” reporting.

    You often hear about “objectivity” as well. There is no objectivity when humans are concerned. Everybody has beliefs, opinions and points of view.

    So are members of the media objective? No. Are they biased? Sometimes.

    I can tell you as a former professional journalist and close relative of a retired national TV reporter that most journalists are, in fact, liberals. That’s from first-hand experience.

    I have never been surprised by that fact, since kids who go into journalism school are often “out to change the world” and they realize they are heading into a low-paying profession. Those two factors tend to appeal more to liberals than conservatives.

    And if you look at the big conservative “news” people, they are more likely to be converted lawyers, politicians, etc. who made their money long before they entered “journalism”.

    So I think it’s clear that those working in the media, in general, lean left politically, although some will dispute that.

    But it’s one thing to hold a distinct political viewpoint as a journalist and another to push that agenda and viewpoint through the “news” you cover.

    As I said, “bias”, in my mind, is when a journalist’s politics make their way into a news story and are used to distort the facts.

    Bias happens, but it’s not as rampant as the right-wingers would have you believe (except, of course, in the right-wing venues such as Rush, Hannity, etc. where they are much more likely to pass off opinion as “news”). Eliminating bias is the role of editors and producers. And good editors and producers keep the bias out of the news.

    Does bias get into the news? Absolutely. Liberal bias is fairly common, but it’s also common for new outlets to be biased against “big business”, against local politicians, etc. And local news is probably the worst, playing anybody and anything they can off as evil to boost ratings. That’s their particular bias.

    However, I think the most dangerous incidents of bias are those organized on an institutional level. I think the reporting the L.A. Times did in advance of the governor’s race (and the timing of their reporting) shows a clear bias toward derailing the candidacy of Arnold.

  • Eric Olsen

    He didn’t say there isn’t bias, he said it isn’t consistent or systematic over the big picture.

  • Yeah, and I agree with that, which was supposed to be part of my point …

    But I think most of the discussion seems to be “there’s no bias” (the left) or “everything’s biased” (the right). Of course, the truth is in between.

  • Eric Olsen

    Yes, any given story can be biased (and they often are), and even general coverage of a given story can show a bias, but “media bias” as some kind of monolith does not exist.

  • jbjur

    I agree with Professor Lee that there is no conclusive evidence that journalists’ ideological and partisan opinions influence their reporting. In fact, influence does not inhibit news from being reported, i.e. it does not change the nature of the news, but rather the effect. The effect is influenced from a purely subjective level of interpretation so just as Lee’s ball example, one must chose to be unsympathetic or favorable and create a personal an often unintentional bias. However, this bias is shaped not from one source of news, but from multiple interpretations and applications of our paradigm. As far as tastefulness goes, news is to be influential in some non-esoteric way.