Bias

Gerard Matthews. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

The subject of media bias has become a hot topic of contemporary political discourse. Conservatives have succeeded in making the phrase “the liberal media” a staple of the American vernacular while other scholars argue the media promote a more conservative, pro-American, pro-free-market bias. In recent years, best-selling books on the topic have further driven public debate. However, these works rely heavily, if not exclusively, on anecdotal evidence and lack coherent, quantitative analysis to back up their claims. Scholarly studies of media bias have focused largely on elections; empirical research on bias, or slanted presentation, in domestic political issues, such as health care, is lacking.

Agenda Setting, Priming, and Framing

In a 2007 article called “Framing Bias,” Robert Entman suggested that future studies on media bias should incorporate previous work on the effects of agenda-setting, priming, and framing. Agenda-setting research has shown a strong, positive relationship between the amount of attention the media give certain issues and which issues the public regards as important. Priming research suggests that the more prominently an issue is featured in the media, the more important that issue becomes in citizens’ evaluations of political leaders. Finally, framing is a matter of selection and salience—highlighting certain aspects of an issue and featuring them more prominently.

So how does all of this relate to bias? Entman argues that by use of framing, political actors prime audiences to think a certain way about an issue. In other words, the existence and amount of coverage (agenda-setting) and the way it is framed will prime news consumers to think a certain way. News slant exists when news stories feature the preferred framing of one group (say, the administration) over another (i.e., the opposition party) in a dispute. In order to demonstrate bias, one would have to show a consistent pattern of slanted news coverage of a certain issue.

One key determinant of a frame’s success or failure is cultural congruence. These types of messages resonate with the public, falling in line with accepted ideas and attitudes within the dominant political culture. Culturally congruent messages are more likely to be accepted by the general public and the media. Incongruent messages are likely to block mental associations and may even discourage further thinking.

An incumbent administration enjoys an advantage in setting the dominant frame given its resources and media reliance on it as a source. One might call this an “official source” bias. However, presidential administrations have had mixed success in framing certain initiatives. The demise of the 1993 Clinton health care plan is one example of culturally incongruent framing. By highlighting the redistributive impact of the plan and promoting it as a boon to the poor and the uninsured, the administration opened themselves up to counter-frames highlighting individual liberty, effort, and responsibility, which are more culturally congruent notions within dominant political culture in the United States.

Criticism has been leveled that media are too critical of government policies or are not critical enough; favor “horse-race” over substantive coverage; or oversimplify complex events. While lacking empirical evidence of “bias” as defined by Entman, researchers have identified a conservative slant in media coverage of certain cases, such as social movements, unions’ tax policy, and, oddly enough, media bias (more on this below).

In 2005, Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo found evidence of a strong liberal bias in mainstream media; however, their measurement of what constitutes a liberal news outlet is somewhat convoluted. The authors develop an ideological score for media outlets based upon the number of times a news outlet cites a think tank or policy group and compares that with the number of times members of Congress (who have been given a liberalism/conservatism score by the Americans for Democratic Action) cite the same think tank or policy group. This measure seems overly complex and the authors provide no content analysis to examine the context in which these groups were cited. However, this article received quite a buzz within the political world upon its release and remains one of the most-cited media bias studies, especially by conservatives and others who argue the existence of a “liberal media” bias.

In 1992, James Kuklinski and Lee Sigelman examined coverage of U.S. senators throughout the 1970s and 1980s and found the coverage to be fairly objective. In 2000, Dave D’Alessio and Mike Allen performed a meta-analysis, combining existing studies of bias in television network news, and found an admittedly small, liberal “coverage bias,” meaning Democrats received more airtime. However, to say that coverage was biased because one side was given more air time is disingenuous if you do not take into account what the coverage looked like. It is almost certain that a candidate would prefer less coverage to negative coverage.

More recently, a group of researchers from Yale University performed a field experiment by assigning individuals in the Washington, D.C., area to receive subscriptions of The Washington Post and the Washington Times, then conducted exit poll surveys on these subjects after the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial election. They found that those who received the Post were eight percentage points more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate. They also found that a subscription to either paper resulted in a decrease in approval ratings for President George W. Bush and the Republicans.

Journalists and the Perception of Liberal Bias

Perceptions of media bias seem to be based on one of three premises. First, it is possible that the media actually are biased, although consistent empirical evidence is lacking. Second, apart from whether or not the news media actually do slant to liberal or conservative views, viewers often perceive the media to be hostile to their own political views. Finally, perceptions of bias might be the result of an increase in news coverage of bias, especially claims of liberal bias.

David Domke, a well-known political communications researcher, argues that the growing percentage of the public who say the news has a liberal bias is due not to changes in the news coverage, but to the increase in coverage of liberal bias claims. In a 1999 study, Domke found that, over the course of the 1988, 1992, and 1996 election campaigns, when media reported claims of media bias, 95 percent of the time they were speaking of a liberal bias.

The conventional wisdom on bias, especially liberal bias, whether in journalism or scholarly literature, focuses heavily on how personal political views of journalists might affect news content. In his best-selling book Bias, former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg argued that journalists and media elites cannot help but slant the news because of their largely shared liberal views. “Almost all of them think the same way on the big social issues of our time: abortion, gun control, feminism, gay rights, the environment, school prayer,” he said. “After a while they start to believe that all civilized people think the same way they and their friends do. That’s why they don’t simply disagree with conservatives. They see them as morally deficient.”

Goldberg and others argue that journalists, as a demographic, tend to be liberal. Indeed, as a collective group, journalists are more liberal than the general public. However, these authors fail to recognize that a journalist’s political persuasion is only one of many factors that could lead to slanted coverage. In fact, some journalists work so hard to prevent their personal biases from creeping into their work that they overcompensate and end up supporting the opposite viewpoint.

Certainly a journalist’s personal political opinions influence their thinking and possibly their work, but during the course of a given day, journalists have to contend with a number of other issues. The time constraints and deadline pressures of a newsroom affect a reporter’s final product as do other institutional factors like monetary considerations or newsroom politics. Journalists don’t have the time or money to seek out every source or explore every possible avenue.

A lot of current debate focuses on whether a report gives “both sides” of the story, if it is “fair and balanced.” But sometimes a story has more than two sides. It’s also possible that both sides are making claims and only some of them are true. It is the journalist’s job to determine the truth of any situation, to the extent that he or she can, and report it as fairly as possible to members of the public who could not attend the city council meeting, or the state representative’s press conference, or the Supreme Court hearing. This sounds simple enough, but as mentioned above, a journalist has to manage many obstacles when reporting a particular story. Who are the players involved? Are they credible? Are they telling the truth?

The journalist serves as the conduit through which messages are sent and when average people flip on the news or pick up a newspaper in the morning, they’re not only seeing a news item through the ideological eyes of a particular journalist, but they are also witnessing a framing battle between participants in that story. Which side’s message was given more attention? Was the congressman presented as a credible source while the local Green Party candidate was marginalized? Were all sides presented fairly? The way average news consumers answer those questions is likely to result from their own personal biases. It is the journalist’s job, in the face of that scrutiny and criticism that is sure to come from the reader, to report the facts.

The “Game” Frame

There is one type of bias that scholars do agree on: the media’s tendency to frame policy issues in terms of a “horse race,” or a “game,” focusing more on political strategy and competition rather than substantive issues or underlying interests. The “game” frame is more likely to appear in election campaigns than substantive policy- or issue-based coverage. Horse-race coverage bleeds into other public policy issue areas as well.

In his 2004 book, Projections of Power, Entman used a somewhat different terminology to distinguish between horse-race and more substantial reporting. He argued that procedural frames (including “game” or “horse-race” frames) emphasize political actors’ successes and failures, and the legislative process in general. Substantive frames, on the other hand, are those that are “clearly relevant to audience members’ understanding and acceptance of a policy remedy.” In their landmark book The Spiral of Cynicism, Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson argued that the use of strategic or procedural frames in news coverage creates feelings of cynicism and helplessness toward the political process that discourage participation. In 2000, Regina Lawrence said this phenomenon was particularly unfortunate, given that “news organizations are most likely to approach the political world with the superficial and cynical game schema at precisely those times when public opinion is most likely to be formulated, mobilized, and listened to by politicians: during elections and highly consequential legislative debates.” Relying on strategic frames has the added benefit of making a journalist’s job easier. Focusing on the “horse race” gives the impression of being “fair and balanced.” It also, Lawrence said, allows journalists to display a level of expertise that does not require extensive research or a deep understanding of complex issues.

The Limits of 50/50 Coverage

As noted above, discussion of bias begs the key question: what should news coverage, in general, look like? If congressional and popular support are strongly in favor of a particular program, is 50/50 coverage that gives equal time and legitimacy to both sides really ideal? Some have argued that the side which wins the framing competition in news media can have an impact on public opinion. In 2005, Kevin Armitage argued that counterclaims challenging the “global warming” frame, and especially given their equal treatment in media coverage, have resulted in something of a stalemate. “At the time when science confirmed the existence of global warming, the public in the United States grew less sure of its reality,” Armitage said. “Clearly the intense media pressure of right-wing global warming deniers has had a profound effect.” The implication, at least in this case, is that news coverage should reflect fact, based on evidence and scientific consensus, rather than journalistic norms of reporting “both sides.” In 2005, researchers Sandy Tolan and Alexandra Berzon argued “the weight many journalists give to such [‘lack of consensus’] views, in insisting on balance but not on putting it within a broader scientific and political context, appears to be at the heart of the confusion among Americans.”

Future research into slant or media bias should seek to establish a theoretical foundation for thinking about the issue. What is the existing conventional wisdom? How do Americans form opinions on this or any issue? What factors are likely to influence news slant, beyond whether or not a claim is positive or negative? In normative terms, it could be argued that—as with the global warming debate—media coverage of important policy issues or legislative debates should reflect, as much as is possible, the empirical evidence, instead of ensuring that dueling ideologies are equally represented irrespective of their own support or validity.