Media Bias

January 7th, 2007 at 6:22 pm by David Farrar

The Freakonomics Blog has a link to three studies on bias.

The first, which I have covered previously, found that most US media has a significant liberal bias. It basically compared media’s references to thinktanks to references made by Members of Congress.

The second one looks at how often media use phrases used by Democratic and Republican politicians such as “estate tax” vs “death tax”. They find that the average newspaper’s language is similar to that of a left-of-center member of Congress.

In terms of why, they find media respond strongly to consumer preferences. By contrast the identity of a newspaper’s owner explains far less of the variation in slant, and also little evidence that media conglomerates homogenize news to minimize fixed costs in the production of content. So the concerns about owners of media dictating content seem unfounded.

Finally the third study looks at whether newspapers do influence voting behaviour and opinion. They signed random individuals up to the Washington Post (liberal) and Washington Times (conservative), plus a control group. Those receiving the Post were 8% more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate.


33 Responses to “Media Bias”

  1. Nigel () says:

    Where’s my violin, I’m sure it’s somewhere.

    P.S. to (over)balance the equation google welch nbc 2000 election

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  2. Red Devil () says:

    So what do you think? A lot of your posts have links to what other people think but you don’t seem to have a view yourself??

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  3. Linda Wright () says:

    8% is a huge swing – and more than enough to change an election result. I wish the media would report the news and leave us to form our own opinions – 0r at least leave opinion out of their news stories.

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  4. Sonic () says:

    A response

    “If you take the trouble to read the study carefully, it turns out to be based on unsupported, ideology-driven premises and to raise what would it would be most polite to describe as severe issues of data quality”

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  5. matt1 () says:

    I love that, using the Washington Times in a study. The same Washington Times that was set up and controlled by Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
    It’s strange how all these thinktanks etc have appeared with all these studies on liberal bias since Bush appeared. Maybe they’re really just centrists who realise what an absolute disaster this administration has been. You know – a failed Middle East policy, hundreds of thousands dead, civil war, over 8 trillion in debt. Lets face it, the right wing ain’t what it used to be,


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  6. David Farrar () says:

    Matt is a moron who thinks you can’t use the Washington Times in a study because of who its owner is. He fails to even appreciate that in that particular study they were not measuring bias, but whether different newspapers can affect voting patterns (they do).

    Mark fails to even understand the methodology (go read the full study) while Sonic googles for anything that disagrees.

    As for my view, well it has long been that the US media especially is significantly biased against the right, and that these two studies confirm it.

    Other studies such as 90% of journalists vote Democrat also back that view.

    I don’t think there has been a single study ever showing a bias against the left in the US media.

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  7. Sonic () says:

    David, when one side is losing due the argument it starts to blame the media (have you noticed that Malkin et al have came a big cropper in the Jumail Hussain jihad?)

    I would reccomend Al Franken’s “lies and the lying liars that tell them” on the myth of the US liberal media and also this excellent little article

    As fo “googling anything that disagrees”

    You didnt read the link did you.

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  8. Nigel () says:

    Mmm, left wing bias in Media being the root of all evil for the right, nice joke.
    But hey isn’t there a right wing bias in Farmers & Business leaders. Why don’t the lefties complain about this like you are about the media & make it out as the root of all left wing evil & why left wingers never win an election.
    This is such a beatup, if you want to seriously attack Media in New Zealand, I’d look at how Helen Clark has manipulated TVNZ.
    There are legitimate causes for concern, but not some generalised comment like all media are left wing biased.
    If you for instance look at talk back radio in the US, left wing radio is in freefall, where right wing is hugely influencial, Fox News is the biggest cable news provider & the other cable news providers are hardly left wing ( compared with say the BBC ).
    In the end no one is forced to read a newspaper/watch TV/read a blog/internet news site & in open economies there are minimal barriers to entry for alternative providers ( cash being one, but the internet is a huge leveler there ), witness Fox News’s rise in the US ( though it’s falling back now ) & the explosion in radio stations in New Zealand.
    Of course one could also argue that as yours is (significantly ) the biggest political blog in NZ, that blog’s in NZ are right win biased, maybe true, but that’s based on the quality of the offerings. Still based on your logic, should we artifically limit kiwiblog postings to even the political blog scene in NZ ?.

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  9. Linda Wright () says:

    Bias shows up in subtle ways – and in ways not so subtle.

    EG “Mr XX slunk out by the back entrance to avoid being asked questions” or “Mr XX left by the back door avoiding the waiting media pack”

    Same event – the first with a negative spin, the second more straightforard reporting.

    The story on Don Brash taking a holiday (shock, horror!) was not so subtle.

    Journalists seem to think they need to ‘spin’ the news to make it more interesting – how about just telling us what happened!

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  10. Andrew Bannister () says:

    I don’t think there has been a single study ever showing a bias against the left in the US media.

    Have you ever watched FoxNews?

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  11. Sonic () says:

    Republican party chair Rich Bond explained that conservatives’ frequent denunciations of “liberal bias” in the media were part of “a strategy” (Washington Post, 8/20/92). Comparing journalists to referees in a sports match, Bond explained: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.”

    On the survey of reporters

    “Reporter Robert Parry exposed the survey’s weaknesses in a 1997 piece: The polling group that conducted the survey sent its questionnaires to 323 journalists covering some aspect of Congress. Only 139 completed surveys came back, and nine of them left the question about their presidential vote blank.

    While you might reap accurate results from a Vulcan mind probe of just 130 members of the Washington press corps, you’d want to make sure the 130 surveyed were the right 130. But that’s not the case with this survey. Only 60 of the 323 questionnaires went to journalists at the elite organizations that set the news agenda: the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, PBS, National Public Radio, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, the Associated Press, and Reuters. Instead, the pollster told Parry, most of the surveys were sent to Washington staffers at regional newspapers (the Boston Globe, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News) or at the chain wire services (Knight-Ridder, Newhouse), with a quarter of the questionnaires going to pipsqueak pubs like Indian Country Today, Hill Rag, Washington Citizen, and Government Standard.

    The survey guaranteed its respondents anonymity, so nobody knows who, exactly, returned surveys. But we can guess: Self-important big-shots surely round-filed the nosy Q & A, and flattered small-fry probably obliged. I’d be astonished if more than 10 of the 60 elite journos surveyed bothered filling out the form.”

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  12. Pascals Bookie () says:

    Linda, I agree that the media would, in an ideal world, just report what happened.

    However we need to be on gaurd against those who are trying to spin us by pretending to be objective.

    In the example given here of the “Death tax” vs “Estate Tax”, the tax in question is called the Estate Tax more often because that is what it’s name is. “Death tax” is an invention of the taxes right wing opponents. Thus, objective reporters would call it the “estate tax”, those that call it the “death tax” are engaging in right wing spin. That such an error was made in this study really does call it’s objectivity into doubt.

    Let’s say that a paper in NZ refered to the Helen Clark’s party as the ‘Liarboor Party’ in it’s stories, while a different paper called them the ‘Labour party’. Would it mean that there was a left wing bias in the second paper, as this study would have you believe?

    Given the failings of the Republicans in almost all poilcy areas, would you expect readers of an objective reporting of those failures to vote for their opposition?

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  13. tom hunter () says:

    Same old arguments so same old posts seem relevant…..

    Read the interview below conducted between Hugh Hewitt(HH) and Mark Halperin(MH), political director of ABC News and co-author of a new book – The Way To Win: Taking The White House In 2008 – that is aimed at Democrats.

    In the interview Halperin defends the more traditional view, that unbiased news coverage (excepting commentary or opinion journalism) is an honorable if never fully achievable goal. But his other comments are of interest here, from the horses mouth as it were.

    MH: You’re asking me should people be skeptical? I think anyone who’s conservative should be skeptical of anything the old media does.

    HH: But the old media is overwhelmingly liberal, correct, Mark Halperin?

    MH: Correct, as we say in the book.

    HH: And so everyone that you work with, or 95% of people you work with, are old liberals.

    MH: I don’t know if it’s 95%, and unfortunately, they’re not all old. There are a lot of young liberals here, too. But it certainly, there are enough in the old media, not just in ABC, but in old media generally, that it tilts the coverage quite frequently, in many issues, in a liberal direction, which is completely improper. And it goes from the big and major like CBS’ outrageous story about President Bush’s draft record right before the 2004 election, to the insidious and small use of language describing Nancy Pelosi’s liberal policies and ideas different than they would Newt Gingrich’s conservative ones.

    HH: And these liberals…you know, Terry Moran on this program said…Terry Moran on this program from ABC, your colleague…

    MH: Right.

    HH: …said that the media hates the military, has a deep suspicion of it. Do you agree with that?

    MH: I totally agree. It’s one of the huge biases, along with gays, guns, abortion, and many other things.

    …..and from earlier in the transcript.

    MH: First of all, I never say MSM, because I don’t believe the old media is mainstream. They’re out of the mainstream on most of the issues I’ve been referring to. So I don’t use that phrase.
    I believe that as I’ve said several times, happy to say again, that anyone who’s conservative in this country has every justification to be skeptical about anything, an internal memo, or product that goes on the air, from the old media, because of a forty year or more history of liberal bias on a range of issues.
    And after what CBS News did in 2004, regarding the President’s National Guard record, I would be…I am thankful that any conservative looks to us ever for news and information, given how outrageous what they did was.

    The point has been made that we cannot infer a left-wing bias in the US media (even within the context of the US being more right-wing than NZ) because of the treatment of the Clinton administration in the 1990’s. But I think that is confusing political or idealogical bias with the general media approach that bad news sells. Something as salacious as a semen-stained dress was always going to trump any favouritism towards Clinton, the Democrats or left-wing policies, just in pure news terms.

    But aside from such traditional, sensationalist, ‘it’s THE story’ approaches towards primary news items, the US media was and is biased towards the left, mostly in terms of what Halperin accurately describes as “… the insidious and small use of language…”.

    It’s that use of language, the everyday mini-editorialising within a supposed straight reporters piece that is the real problem, together with the everyday decisions as to what stories will be covered.

    For all of the beatup of Clinton by the media in the US it should be noted that they did not go after him on the Kosovo bombing campaign about the lack of UN or Congressional authorization in the way they have about Bush in Iraq. That was because most US journalists (as Fisk and Pilger bitterly noted) effectively supported the actions.

    On a different topic one study showed that some 80% of news stories on the US economy were negative in November 1992 while only 13% were in January 1993. That certainly fits my memory of the coverage – and I say that as someone who very much wanted Clinton to win.

    As far as taking commentary from Al Franken or The Nation is concerned, why not dump in Chomsky or Pilger. Certainly from their perspective the US media is not left wing enough. The standard sarcastic comment from both men being that it supports the ‘liberal’ world view.

    Our local worshiper of both men, John Campbell, made reference to this same theme in 2002 in the wake of Nicky Hagar’s Corngate story, John’s subsequent ambush of Helen Clark, and his subsequent beating by journalists he had thought were on his side. Campbell ruefully acknowledged that until then he had not realised how true was Chomsky’s observation that “debate is governed by the liberal media”. But of course it should also be noted that Campbell had no such concerns with Hager’s latest story, whose target in that case was…..

    As DPF has said, none of this should be surprising or controversial when one considers that 80% of US journalists have identified themselves in blind polls as Democrats. Given that fact one would hardly expect anything else from the antique media. The real question is how much bias is idealogical and how much just hack partisanship – my weighting would be on the latter.

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  14. Sonic () says:

    I must agree with Tom, if I hear one more call for socialist revolution from the New York Times I am going to cancel my subscription!

    Of course we all recall how the US media savaged Bush about his lies re WMD in Iraq, oh hold on no they didn’t they actually printed them!

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  15. PaulL () says:

    Nice revisionist history Sonic.

    Which lies were those? The ones that the British, Germans, French and Russians were also putting about? The ones where all available intelligence said that he had WMD? The ones where he had WMD in the past, had stated his intent to get them again, and was refusing inspections of the sites where he may have been manufacturing them? The ones where the Iraqis themselves thought they had them?

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  16. David Farrar () says:

    Andrew – Fox News is (very slightly) biased towards the right, but the overall media mix is very clearly the other way.

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  17. pfft () says:

    “Fox News is (very slightly) biased towards the right…”

    Jesus i go away for the hollidays to come back to find some things never change.
    (very slightly) what a load of bollocks!

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  18. Nigel () says:

    I think DPF should define which components of Left/Right he is upset about.
    Are you talking
    – Economics ( Globalisation, free market )
    – Social Policy ( welfare policies/healthcare )
    – Religious Policy ( abortion, contraception, role of religion in state ).
    – Defence

    Because as far as I can tell if DPF thinks Fox is slightly right, then he can’t be talking Religious Policy or Defence, they are way right there, maybe Social Policy is slightly right & lastly on economics they are left ( pretending to be right, but attacking outsourcing, supporting trade restrictions etc, very populist mix really ).

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  19. Sonic () says:

    Paul. I know it is hard for you guys to give it up but the weapons did not exist any more and everyone knew it.

    I know it is hard to admit you were fooled but they are not going to show up now mate, there is no secret bunker about to be uncovered full of big missiles in it.

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  20. mark () says:

    “Fox News is (very slightly) biased towards the right”

    That makes me smile.

    If one talking head is talking reasonably (about the truth) and one is making vitriolic attacks and following a set of talking points regardless of what the other person is saying, who comes accross better to Joe Public?

    Btw, that was a big part of the Helen vs Brash debates. Helen was better at getting her debating shots in while Don constantly was derailed by attempting to actually answer the points that she threw out there. The debates weren’t about who could answer the problems posed by the other better, they were about who could get the snappiest soundbite accross.

    Linda – I agree with you on media and their bias and how everything would be better if they stuck much more closely on reporting facts, but I have to say that I find the ‘rebuttal’ links posted in this thread to be much more compelling than the links in DPF’s main post.

    DPF is driving an ideaological point here, the myth of the liberal media. Sure, journalists are (by and large) left wing. But their editors are (by and large) right wing. Why is there not such effort put into studying that i wonder?

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  21. Linda Wright () says:

    The bias also shows up in the way the media ‘handle’ different politicians.

    Helen Clark just has to say “There’s nothing to see here, move along” and generally they do move along!

    Only when the facts are blindingly obvious to everyone do the media start to ask difficult questions of this government.

    There should have been front page editorials demanding the resignation of this government after the extent of their pilfering of taxpayers’ money to steal the last election became obvious. And it should not have stopped. What they did was outragous and they have totally got away with it!

    It is rare to get balanced coverage of climate issues – and it is not settled scientific fact that humans have caused the Earth to warm up or even, if we have, that we can do anything to stop it. Or even if we should try. But to question this is considered heresy!

    It is rare to get balanced coverage of many other issues as well. The bias may not be left/right at all times, but it sure is present!

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  22. PaulL () says:

    Sonic, I didn’t dispute whether they existed, I disputed whether it was a lie. For something to be a lie, you have to say it when you know it isn’t true. Otherwise it is just called being wrong, which is quite a different thing.

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  23. mark () says:

    Linda, I agree that Helen Clark does seem to have the moniker ‘teflon helen’ for a reason. I guess it’s down to the same issues raised by Noam Chomsky in ‘Manufacturing Consent’. Incumbent politicians know or learn how to spin the media into giving them the media outcomes they are after, or (through natural selection) they will fall to other politicians who are more able in the dark arts of politics.

    I disagree that labour has got off scot free though. They have to respond on the pledge card because the public will kill them at the polls over it otherwise. They way they have handled it thus far might lose them the next election anyway.

    Just to nitpick on your other point, I do think that it is settled scientific fact that human industrial activity has contributed to global warming. I agree that there may not be much we can do to stop if (if as you say, we should).

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  24. Steven Price () says:

    Fox leans “slightly” right? You’re joking, right? If that gives some idea of where you think the centre is, then wow, no doubt at all, the US media is a pack of screaming lefties, and the NZ media are basically communists.

    Which shows how utterly out of whack you are here, David. On the issues where the US media does lean solidly liberal: gun control, abortion, gays… I’m guessing from reading your blog that you’re a commie too. And on the issues where the press leans rightward (the economy, the war – at least, until recently), that’s not bias at all?

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  25. Redbaiter () says:

    Leftists hate having their idiotic bogeyman type beliefs like “the media is controlled by the right” challenged as that myth is one of those that is essential to their fucked up worldview.

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  26. Pascal's Bookie () says:

    Redbaiter, I think “leftists” would just like to see some actual evidence of bias, like some examples. What they get instead are silly studies like the one DPF links to, and nonsense like “equal time for fringe opinions”.

    Is it really bias that every time the reserve bank moves interest rates, the story isn’t “balanced” by some social credit lunatic or gold standard nutter mouthing off. Of course not, but rightists seem to want affirmative action freebie airtime for their silly talking points, and whinge about ‘bias’ when they don’t get it.

    I asked you for examples, so in the interest of fairness I’ll give you some in support of my thesis. Global warming sceptics should get about 0.01% of the coverage if it was to be representative of professional opinion, instead they get feature articles and opinion pieces to make their point, and many global warming stories are riddled with caveats that give the impression the idea is controversial amoung the professionals. The death tax vs estate tax nonsense I talked about earlier is another case of the right crying like babies because some journalists have the audacity to not use their ridiculous and innaccurate terminology.

    The Labour party scandals were in the paper for weeks and weeks, with plenty of anti-labour editorials. If the media is so darned lefty biased why did the story about The Hollow Men so quickly evolve into “who stole the emails? Was it labour or Hager”. Strange behaviour for a bunch of lefties don’t you think? I mean, the alledged lefties in the media get a book full of emails showing in explicit detail how the Nats lie and spin to the media, and the very next week these same lefties in the media are accepting the rights theories about robberies and forgeries at face value? It’s ridiculous on it’s face.

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  27. Chris () says:

    In my view, it is not the bias that is the problem, it is the style of reporting. Increasingly ‘editorial’ is becoming part of the news, rather than a comment on it. Journalists leap to telling us ‘why’ something is happening, often before actually telling us ‘what’ has happened.

    It’s not unusual for TV reporters to start a story with a line like ‘National was in damage control mode today’ or ‘Helen Clark threw the government into reverse today’ before they actually tell us what has happened. They then proceed to give us a lengthy explanation of why it has happened (usually their own opinion) and there is no real ‘line’ between their own opinion and the facts of the story. That’s the issue!

    However, ultimately it is not the journalists or the media that are the problem – it is our increasingly short attention spans! The soundbites and quotes in news stories get shorter and shorter, we don’t watch longer interviews or read longer articles beyond the first few paragraphs. Of course, readers in the blog world are different, but also in the minority! Those who rely only on mainstream media for their views of the external world will have a somewhat distorted view.

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  28. Redbaiter () says:

    The lifestyle of leftists is founded on a system of handouts from government. They know instinctively how to support themselves and their friends and fellow believers from the public purse. Anthropological influence on climate change is one of the best scams they’ve dreamt up in years in furtherence of their parasitical ambitions. It always amuses me how leftists, supported as always by their media plants, will spread mistrust concerning the research of anyone not funded by government, yet feign implicit belief in the output of their self serving cronies who are funded by such distasteful entities as the United Nations and a thousand other such organisations all depending on stolen money for their existence.

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  29. Greg M () says:

    I must say I have been dissapointed by Fox. I had heard it could at times lean slightly to the right but having watched it extensively while on holiday Im appalled at its total disregard for balance. the worst offenders appear to be ‘The O’Rielly Factor’, ‘Hannity’s America’ and ‘Fox & Friends’. What annoys me most is how they pick up Republican buzz words and use them over and over again. The most obvious example of this was the day after the Democrats took control of both houses and the fox and friends hosts made reference after reference of Pelosi as a “San Francisco Liberal”. Couldn’t believe how many times they crammed in that line in what was only a 3 hour slot.

    In general terms i think the media do lean to the left but I think the extent to which they do so is exaggerated.

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  30. Tucker () says:

    It’s not a “lieberal” bias….or a “conservative” bias (who the hell can even tell me what those words mean anymore anyway?)….

    The American media has an obvious and blatent corporate bias. The media will run with whatever stories sell. Period.

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