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Bias is in the Eye of the Beholder


The annual spate of public opinion surveys on the mass media are in, and they reveal an interesting mix of skepticism and ignorance with regard to the issue of “bias.” These surveys also suggest that public distrust of the mass media has reached a historic high.

Survey figures from the last month by Gallup are noteworthy in that public distrust of media is at or near historic highs. When asked “how much trust and confidence” they share in the mass media, 55 percent of respondents claim “not very much” or “none at all.” This figure is up from 46 percent in 1998 and 50 percent in 2005. Forty-seven percent believe that the media are “too liberal,” compared to 13 percent who feel they are “too conservative” and 36 percent who feel they are “just about right” in terms of their ideological orientation.

Results from a recent poll from The Hill magazine find similarly high levels of distrust. The survey of likely voters finds that 68 percent feel the media as biased, with more than twice as many thinking the media display a liberal over a conservative bias. Fifty-seven percent of the survey’s respondents feel reporters are somewhat or very unethical.

Most stark in its findings is the Pew Research Center survey, which finds public distrust in media is now at a historic level. Opposition to the mass media is at a 26 year high, covering the entire period in which the Pew survey questions were asked. These findings demonstrate that: 66 percent feel that news stories “are often inaccurate” (compared to 34 percent in 1985); 77 percent feel the media “tend to favor one side” (compared to 53 percent in 1985); while 80 percent feel that media are “often influenced by powerful people and organizations” (compared to 53 percent in 1985).

Public distrust in media is not surprising considering the symbiotic relationship between journalists and government. Most people, at least on the most basic level, seem to recognize this reality when they equate media with a “liberal bias” in favor of Democratic officials. However, there is much naiveté driving these survey numbers, as anyone who closely studies media content will tell you. Very little evidence exists in empirical studies validating the idea of a liberal bias; if anything, most authoritative evidence points to an official source bias in which government (more generally speaking) determines the parameters of public political reporting and debate.

It helps to look to already existing studies when analyzing the question of media bias. One important place to look is a Journal of Communication meta-analysis, which examined nearly 60 quantitative studies of media content in the post-World War II period in search of bias. The meta-study found no consistent evidence of liberal bias, despite extensive energy being spent looking for such a bias. My own research, confirming the results of numerous other studies over the last few decades, finds strong evidence of the official source, rather than liberal media, bias. The official source bias is most evident when looking across many different public policy issues. Journalists are not so much biased in favor of liberals so much as they look to government officials more generally to set the agenda for reporting. During periods when Democrats control government (meaning Congress and the White House), coverage actually appears liberally biased because journalists are forced to look to Democratic actors who dominate government. Conversely, during times of Republican control of Congress and the White House, reporters are far more likely to quote conservatives and Republicans, due to their position of institutional advantage. Finally, when control of Congress and the White House is split between the parties, one sees a balanced mix of sourcing for Republican and Democratic officials. The important lesson here is that the mass media are primarily biased in favor of officialdom, rather than in favor of liberal officials, or any other types of social actors (for example non-state actors). Efforts to restrict reporting to the views of officials over those who would challenge the political status quo inevitably leads to a rather narrow view of the world – one which excludes the views of the majority of Americans, who are extraordinarily distrustful of the entire political-economic system.

If there is no evidence in favor of the “liberal bias” claim, why is it so prevalent in the public mind? The answer is not complicated, and was suggested in the meta-study mentioned above, as the study’s authors argued that “it is clear that the major source of bias charges is the individual perceptions of media consumers, and in particular, media consumers of a particularly ideological bent.” In other words, there are a slew of political officials and pundits who maintain a vested interest in disseminating this myth, and getting media consumers to uncritically accept it. More specifically, conservative officials and pundits (particularly of the Fox News and right-wing radio variety) benefit from creating delusional, paranoid images of self-persecution. Such claims are seen as vital in pushing the political discourse further to the right, and in successfully implementing a conservative political-economic agenda.

Conservatives will likely dismiss the above claims as simply inaccurate, or even paranoid and conspiratorial. A closer look at the evidence, however, suggests the criticism is dead on. The best predictor of whether an individual believes the media are liberally biased is not content – considering that I already documented the failure to find consistent evidence of such bias in reporting. Rather, factors such as partisanship and ideology play the primary role. Analyzing Pew Research Center data from 2009, which asked respondents about whether they believed the media were “liberally” biased or “un-American” in their reporting, one finds that Republican and conservative ideological respondents were far more likely (than Democrats, independents, liberals, and moderates) to express such distrustful opinions. These relationships remain, even after statistically accounting for other demographic variables such as income, education, age, sex, race, and others. Other studies have largely found the same results. Analysis by media scholar Mark Watts, for example, finds little evidence of liberal bias, but that increasing public perceptions of bias are a product of increased media discussion of media bias.

Perceptions of liberal media bias, then, are primarily a function of the projection of conservative and Republican viewers. These viewers have been told regularly by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Republican leaders that the media are liberally biased. They’ve come to believe in this myth because it conforms to their belief system – commonly promulgated in right-wing media – that there exists some overarching liberal conspiracy designed to marginalize conservatives and weaken or destroy the Republican Party. In short, people believe what they want to believe because it suits their ideological interests.

The issue of “liberal media bias” recently re-entered the news when political science scholar Tim Groseclose published his polemic work, Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. The study was endlessly celebrated by Fox News and conservative radio as evidence of liberal treachery in the mass media. Groseclose relies on age-old claims that, because the majority of journalists express liberal views on social and moral issues, and because most of them vote Democratic, these personal biases must translate into professional liberal biases in coverage. This challenge is called into question not only by the mountain of data included in the meta-study above, but also according to the internal inconsistencies in Groseclose’s own approach. Sadly, Groseclose seems to be unaware that national surveys of journalists finds that, while they may vote Democratic and be liberal on social-moral issues, they are also quite conservative on economic issues. By applying Groseclose’s own logic, then, one is forced to conclude that there is no consistent evidence of liberal bias in reporting. If journalists really do allow their personal biases to translate into professional biases (a claim most media scholars reject), then coverage has to be liberal on social and moral issues, and conservative on economic issues. This pattern would hardly represent evidence of a liberal media bias across many different types of stories.

It is not surprising that the mass public is distrustful of the mass media. When asked in surveys, Americans display an overwhelming distrust of most political institutions, including not only the mass media, but Congress, the judiciary, the executive branch, and corporations themselves. In a time of economic instability, growing poverty, and chronic income and financial insecurity, Americans are increasingly critical of a governing system that they feel has failed in providing for their basic needs. This general distrust, however, can at times manifest itself in ignorant and destructive ways. So it is with the “liberal bias” claims, which misdirect public attention away from the very real bi-partisan, official source bias of the media, and toward some mythic media conspiracy to marginalize conservatives in favor of an “elite liberal agenda.”  We should be careful to acknowledge this reality next time we hear friends, family, or acquaintances lamenting the “liberal media elite.”

Anthony DiMaggio is the author of numerous books, The Rise of the Tea Party, due out in November 2011 from Monthly Review Press, and other works such as Crashing the Tea Party (2011); When Media Goes to War (2010); and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He has taught American politics and International Relations in Political Science at a number of colleges and universities, and can be reached at: [email protected]  

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