NEW EVIDENCE OF LIBERAL MEDIA BIAS
By Andrew G. Selepak*
(Editor’s Note: This study found evidence that conservatives were more likely to perceive media bias than liberals, but that both conservatives and liberals detected bias in media outlets that leaned against their political perspectives. In the end, however, because conservatives were more critical of the media both in general and in response to specific outlets, the results seem most consistent with the claim that a liberal political bias exists in the mainstream news media.)
Claims of media bias are not new, but increasing claims of bias, especially a perceived liberal media bias, have led to diminishing credibility ratings among news outlets, and an increased level of skepticism of all news coverage.
A 2004 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that 53% of Americans agreed with the statement, “I often don’t trust what news organizations are saying,” and 48% believe that the people who decide on news content are “out of touch,” and those numbers are rising. In 1987, 62% of the public believed election coverage was free of partisan bias, down to 53% in 1996, 48% in 2000, and 38% by 2004.
Research suggests that when equal and opposing views are presented in an objective news story, some observers may deem half the story as inaccurate and thus biased, instead of balanced. However, if objective reporting is the cause of perceived bias, there should be an equal number of claims of bias from conservatives and liberals, and both sides should be equally distrustful of the news. However, previous research shows this to not be the case, as conservatives overwhelmingly make more charges of bias in the media than their liberal counterparts.
Conservative claims of a liberal media bias are having an impact upon public perceptions of news coverage. According to research by the Pew Center, this led to an overall audience decrease for many of the major broadcast and cable television outlets and a perceived decrease in credibility for the news as a whole. Republicans have turned from traditional news sources to additional media such as Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, Bill O’Reilly’s TV and radio programs, and the Fox News Channel, while Democrats’ viewing habits have remained mostly unchanged. This shift by the Republican audience has led to an overall polarization between where Republicans and Democrats obtain their news, with Republicans, and more specifically conservatives, becoming increasingly distrustful of the mainstream media.
Republicans, however, are not alone in perceiving media bias. Studies find that claims of a media bias favoring Republicans are increasing among Democrats as well, up to 29% in 2004 from 19% in 2000. In 2004, a majority of independents reported that there is a bias in news tilted toward one political party or another, 57% up from 49% in 2000; though independents are divided as to which party the coverage favors. Yet, despite the number of claims of bias in the media, a survey conducted by the Pew Center found that 67% of Americans report they prefer to receive unbiased news, while only 25% of Americans report being in favor of news reflecting their political leanings. To understand why the perception of bias has increased, it is important to understand how researchers define bias, and how it is being perceived in the media.
Bias is defined in one study as a “perceived attribute of a news source whereby the individual news source, or the group the news source represents, has a clear vested interest in a cause or action relative to maintaining or changing the status quo? (and) a biased journalistic perspective, then, would mean only one side, not two or more sides, of an issue is presented.”
Perception of bias is associated with the perception of accuracy and credibility, and a decrease in a news sources’ credibility renders that source less useful; as perceived credibility declines, conceivably, so does the audience. Since 2002, only the Fox News Channel has seen a growth in viewership, mainly from a growing Republican audience, while other news and cable outlets have seen their audience share go flat if not decline. Most notable is CNN, whose credibility rating among Republicans dropped from 33% in 2000 to 26% in 2004, and the percentage of people watching CNN dropped from 35% of the U.S. population in 1993, to 22% in 2004.
Fox Vs. CNN
By comparison, the Fox News Channel’s credibility rating moved up from 26% in 2000 to 29% in 2004, and the percentage of people who watch Fox News rose from 17% in 1998 to 25% in 2004, giving the Fox News Channel a larger audience than CNN. The Fox News Channel has become Republicans’ most credible source for the news among television and cable news outlets, and CNN is now Republicans’ second most trusted source.
Among Democrats, CNN’s credibility rating was 48% in 2000 and by 2004 that number dropped only slightly to 45%, remaining Democrats’ most credible news source. Meanwhile, in 2000, the Fox News Channel received a 27% credibility rating among Democrats, with a slight drop to 24% by 2004, to become Democrats’ least trusted news source among television and cable news outlets.
The above trend remains constant for print outlets as well. Democrats find the major print outlets to be more credible than Republicans, with The New York Times having the most noticeable disparity between Republicans and Democrats. In 2004 the Pew Center found that the New York Times received a credibility score from Republicans of 14% compared to Democrats with 31%. Republicans’ perceived bias of the New York Times is most likely caused by the Time’s reputation for a relatively liberal editorial page, and because the paper has not endorsed a Republican Presidential candidate since Eisenhower in 1956.
Conservatives justify their belief that a liberal media bias exists by arguing that journalists are liberal, and that their ideology affects how journalists cover the news. For example, a survey in 1992 showed that 89% of Washington, DC, journalists voted for President Clinton in the 1992 Presidential election. These results may explain why throughout 1992, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) found that more than 70% of the networks’ sound-bites about President Bush were negative, whereas the majority of sound-bites about Governor Clinton were positive.
Before the 2004 election, the CMPA released a report which showed that on broadcast TV networks and weekly news magazines, evaluations of Sen. Kerry were positive by a 2-to-1 margin, and that over 60% of evaluations of President Bush were negative.
Some scholars contend that journalists seek a more activist role in reporting, and that this, combined with a liberal slant, produces a liberal media bias.
To test perceptions of media bias, this study concentrated on two important questions. First, will conservatives perceive more media bias than liberals? Second, will conservatives and liberals have opposite perceptions of bias concerning individual media outlets? To test these two issues, participants were asked to answer a survey and forward it to other members of the general public. The survey measured an individual’s perception of media bias and political ideology. This led to a return of 169 usable surveys of adults, 18 and over.
Only four demographic questions were asked of participants. These questions were included to determine if gender, race, income, or education demographics might affect perceptions of bias. In addition, the question of, “In politics TODAY, do you consider yourself a Republican, Democrat, or Independent?” was also asked as a check on the Political Ideology Score. In response to the question, 39.1% of participants considered themselves Democrats, 32.5% Republicans, and 28.4% Independents, creating a rough one-third distribution.
Perceived media bias was measured using seven questions whose scores were combined to achieve an overall media bias perception score. The format was based on previous research, and scores were measured on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree.
Participants were asked if they believed the news was biased against their views, if their issues were presented accurately in the media, if most news stories were presented in a balanced and fair manner, if news stories usually quote at least two sources, and if they believed Network Television news, editorial pages in National Newspapers, and Talk Radio were biased against their views. The scores from each question were combined and the total created the participants’ perception of bias in the media score, where a higher score represented a higher perception of bias in the media. When tested, the scores achieved a normal distribution but slightly skewed towards a greater overall perception of bias in the media.
To determine political persuasion, each participant was asked to choose a position, from strongly agree to strongly disagree, among a list of ten issues. For each issue listed the option of “neutral or no opinion” was given. A response of No Opinion was considered ideological ambivalence about an issue.
Among the ten issues, liberals were presumed to Strongly Agree with universal health care, embryonic stem cell research, Affirmative Action in college admissions, labor unions, and being Pro-Choice. Conservatives were presumed to Strongly Agree with allowing school prayer, an amendment to ban same-sex marriages, banning inappropriate books from public libraries, using the military to ensure peace, and in favor of the death penalty.
The scores from each question were cumulated on a scale where the lower the score, the more conservative, the higher the score, the more liberal, and middle scores were equated with political moderation. Using participant’s Political Ideology Scores and Perception of Bias Scores, a statistical test showed that conservatives did perceive more bias in the news media than liberals. In other words, the more conservative the respondent, the more likely he or she saw bias in the media.
Testing News Organizations
The final analysis determined if conservatives and liberals find different media outlets biased against their views. To test this theory, participants were asked which, among eight different news outlets, they believed were biased against their political and social beliefs. Responses ranged from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. The outlets were Newsweek, the Rush Limbaugh radio program, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Fox News Channel, CNN, 60 Minutes, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
To test the eight outlets, each participant’s Political Ideology Score was recoded to create distinctive categories of conservative, moderate and liberal. A one-third breakdown was used to roughly match the demographic party affiliation responses. Next, a statistical table was generated for each outlet to determine how the three groups evaluated that outlet’s political leanings. Finally, an analysis of each table was conducted to tell if the difference in evaluations was statistically significant.
Among all eight media outlets, conservatives and liberals had opposing views on which outlets were biased against their views, with all eight results being statistically significant. It is important to note that liberals found some outlets biased while conservatives did not, and with the exceptions of CNN and Fox News, a majority of moderates had no opinion.
The results from this study suggests that conservatives do in fact perceive more bias than liberals, and conservatives and liberals perceive opposing news outlets to be biased against their views. The results also show that on the whole, liberals are generally happy with the media, which may explain why conservatives are more likely to perceive a media bias.
With liberals being happy with the media, and because conservatives perceive a general media bias, the study suggests that the media in fact are liberal. This study did not prove the existence of bias in the media, but it does suggest that a bias does exist because perception is reality. Liberals and conservatives did perceive bias, and that perception of bias leads to the reality of bias, which depending on the outlet can be either liberal or conservative.
Although by sex the sample was fairly evenly split, overall the sample skewed towards being more affluent, educated, and white than was expected, and thus vastly different from the general population. Therefore, care should be taken before drawing inferences to the general population. Men and women were tested separately, but there was no statistical evidence to show that gender had any effect on perceptions of bias. As for the other demographic differences, although important, they were not examined independently.
One issue that occurred was that participants in general answered numerous pro-liberal questions with pro-liberal responses which skewed the sample to be more liberal. However, this problem may have been caused by the wording of the questions. For example, 80.5% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that abortion should remain a legal medical procedure; a more appropriate question might have been to ask about Partial Birth Abortions. The questions were chosen in the hopes of having a 1/3 breakdown, but regardless of how participants viewed the question, their answers were not interpreted and instead recorded as marked because the questions were selected from published articles using the intentions of the original researchers.
The Key Test
Although this study found that being a conservative significantly led to a higher perception of bias than in liberals or moderates, the result does not settle the issue of whether conservatives are “trained” to see bias where none exists, or if conservatives have good reason to see bias in a “liberal” media.
To test this, it was important to determine if conservatives found all of the news outlets used for this study to be biased, while liberals found no news outlets to be biased, then there would be statistical evidence that a pseudo-paranoia exists among conservatives that the news media is biased against them.
However, conservatives did not perceive every outlet as biased against them. Not surprisingly, only the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh’s radio program were seen by conservatives as not being biased against their views, while a majority of liberals found both to be biased. Conversely, Newsweek, The Daily Show, CNN, 60 Minutes, The Washington Post, and The New York Times were perceived as having a bias by conservatives, while liberals did not find these outlets to be biased. Although these results are consistent with previous research, this study though added that on two outlets, CNN and Fox News, a majority of political moderates disagreed they were biased against their beliefs; this suggests that to an “impartial observer,” these were the most objective outlets tested.
Although these results do not prove that any of the media outlets named hold a particular leaning or are biased in any way, the results do suggest that conservative and liberal individuals perceive certain news outlets to be biased against their views, while other outlets are either less biased or in agreement with their views. This could suggest that conservatives and liberals perceive opposing news outlets as biased against their beliefs because their views of reality do not correspond to the views presented by the media outlets.
This study offers a response to the media’s own defense of, “We must be doing a good job if we’re getting it from both sides.” The problem is that the media are not getting it from both sides; they are getting it from one side.
Liberals, on the whole, are pretty happy with the media, especially the mainstream media. Meanwhile, this study shows that being a conservative significantly led to a greater perception of media bias, and as credibility declines, so too does the audience.
So as long as conservatives continue to perceive a liberal bias in the mainstream media, conservatives will seek out other news outlets for their news and information which will lead to an ever decreasing audience for the mainstream media that espouse beliefs contrary to the audience.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR CONSERVATIVES?
A new survey confirms that liberals and Democrats dominate the major media.
The website of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) reports the findings from a new book, “The American Journalist in the 21st Century: US News People at the Dawn of a New Millennium.” It finds that 40 percent of journalists described themselves as being on the left side of the political spectrum and conservatives were only 25 percent. Moderates made up 33 percent.
In terms of political party affiliation, 36 percent of journalists said they were Democrats, but only 18 percent said they were Republicans.
Viewed in context, citing Gallup poll data on the ideological make-up of the public, the article on the PEJ website says that 40 percent of the journalists are liberal but only 17 percent of the public is. While 41 percent of the public is conservative, only 25 percent of the journalists are. That means there is a tremendous gulf in terms of the political views of journalists and the public.
The People Vs. The Press
That also means that conservatives and Republicans are being shortchanged in terms of their representation in the media. But don’t look for any affirmative action program to make up the difference. Our media, you see, are interested in hiring liberal journalists representing different sexual orientations or ethnic backgrounds, but philosophical diversity is something that is off the table.
What You Can Do