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Bias in the Media

By Kelly and Pax

July 30, 2004

     "Studies into the agenda-setting function of the press confirm that media 'have a great deal of influence' upon political decision making and that they are especially influential in telling the general population what to think about" (Kuypers 5).  This is why it is so important that the media, especially the news media, be neutral.  The media is biased whenever it provides erroneous or out of context facts to support a certain viewpoint.  The media is also biased whenever it "frames" issues a certain way.  Issues are framed when they are presented in a manner so as to be viewed a certain way. Many scholars argue that framing can actually decide how we view a situation. (Kuypers 7)  A biased media affects the public's understanding of current events and issues without giving the public all the facts.  Opinions based on biased information are not usually the same as opinions based on neutral information.  So for the public to make informed decisions on issues and politics, they must be given neutral information.

Attempts to Prevent Bias

     Members of the media realize the negative effects media bias can have and make real efforts to prevent bias.  Some of these efforts include

* Journalistic Codes of Ethics

* Diversifying the Newsroom

Journalistic Codes of Ethics

     Many media organizations have codes of ethics meant to guide member's actions in order to allow for coverage that is in the public's best interest.  Breaking the code of an organization usually results in punishment of some type, sometimes including having membership discontinued.

     Codes of ethics often include clauses that expressly forbid biased news coverage.  For example, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' statement of principles asserts in Article 4:

"Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly."  (Kuypers 201)

The Society of Professional Journalist's code of ethics states in part that its members should

"Examine their cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others."   (Kuypers 201)

Many other organizational codes use similar language and promote similar beliefs.  Scholars disagree on how effective codes of ethics are in preventing bias.  Since many would argue that, as Peter Jennings put it, "bias is...in the eye of the beholder" (Goldberg 3) some people may see bias where there is none, or refuse to see bias that is there.    

Diversifying the Newsroom

     Many people suggest that a more diverse newsroom may be the best way to prevent bias.  The American Society of Newspaper Editors has issued a mission statement saying that newspaper staffs should reflect their communities' diversity by the year 2025 or sooner.  It states that the "newsroom must be a place in which all employees contribute their full potential, regardless of race, ethnicity, color, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability or other defining characteristic."  (ASNE)

     Alan Acosta, bureau chief for the Hartford Courant, explains diversity's importance in limiting bias by stating that the press in large part looks at the world through a white perspective.  This makes it difficult for unbiased coverage to exist.

     Attempts to diversify the newsroom have been successful to varying degrees.  While some scholars say there has been little progress toward diversity over the years, others say progress have been immense.  Some argue that diversity in appearance is less important than diversity in thought, and that attempts to make the newsroom more diverse in terms of appearance and statistics may not be the optimal way to insure diversity in opinion and values.  This argument will likely continue well into the foreseeable future.

Bias in the Media

     Despite attempts to prevent bias, some say bias still saturates the supposedly neutral news.  The most common claim is that there is a liberal bias, although some liberals call these claims a "necessary mechanism for moving (or keeping) analytical coverage in line with their [the conservatives] interests." (Alterman 14)   A less common but still prevalent claim is that corporate ownership of the networks gives news and other programming a conservative tilt.

Liberal Bias

     Those who argue that there is a liberal bias in the media are quick to point out that "there isn't a vast left-wing conspiracy in America's newsroom."  (Goldberg 4)  What really exists, they argue, is much more problematic.  Conservative journalist Stephen Hayes, who attended the Columbia School of Journalism, one of the most prestigious journalistic schools in the nation, claims that only two of the two hundred students in his class were openly conservative (Goldberg 211).   A feminist professor who disagreed with Hayes' political views actually said to him during class, "Mr. Hayes, if you think you have a point, you don't!" (Goldberg 212)  That the most prestigious school of journalism would be such an "intellectual gulag" (Goldberg 211) points to part of the reason the media's bias is left-leaning, according to some.  The problem, they argue, is that so many journalists are liberal on the most controversial issues of our time.  A 1981 study found that "at least 81% [of the journalists polled]...voted for the liberal Democrat for president in every election going back to 1964...90% favored abortion; 83% found nothing wrong with homosexuality..."  (Kuypers 203).  The nation is sharply divided on these issues even today, and yet the vast majority in 1981 had a liberal viewpoint.  These numbers are interesting considering many studies have shown that journalists consider themselves "middle of the road" on many controversial issues (Vivian). However, finding nothing wrong with homosexuality is hardly middle of the road.  The Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group,  argue that journalists "have a certain worldview based on being in Manhattan" that "leans" toward liberal viewpoints (MRC).  The fact that many highly influential journalists socialize with others who share political views could cause these journalists to view themselves as middle of the road (Goldberg).

     However, just because journalists have liberal opinions does not mean they put their opinions into their stories.  Any journalist will tell you that they work hard to report the news neutrally.  Bernard Goldberg, former CBS news correspondent, feels that regardless of these attempts, bias is still revealed through coverage.  He defends this position by saying journalists, "hang on...to the ludicrous position...that they...are unique-that only they have the ability to set aside their personal feelings and their beliefs and report the news free of any biases, 'because we're [the journalists] professionals' they [the journalists] say."  He goes on to discuss the fact that while journalists report stories on policemen, judges, and corporate executives who let their biases show on the job, journalists feel that they can set aside their biases more completely than others (Goldberg 5-6).

     Many Americans agree with experts who argue that there is liberal bias in the media.  A 2003 Center for Media and Public Affairs study found that 45% of Americans views bias in the media as primarily liberal, while only 15% think of the media as conservative.  A 1997 CMPA study found that even among self-described liberals, 41% believe the mainstream media leans toward the left.  Only 22% of liberals see the media as conservative.  The contrast is even sharper among conservatives, among whom 57% view the media as liberal and only 19% believe the media is conservative. (MRC) 

     With few exceptions, media organizations consistently deny the existence of liberal bias.  Deborah Potter, previously a CNN and CBS reporter and currently an Executive Director of NewsLab, says, "I have yet to see a body of evidence that suggests the reporting that gets on the air reflects any political bias."  However, there are many who say that instances of liberal media bias are well documented and are extremely common.  One example is a piece by Eric Engberg that aired on CBS Evening News in February of 1996. The piece was on the flat tax plan of conservative presidential candidate Steve Forbes.  Engberg called the plan a "scheme" and an "economic elixir."  (Goldberg 16) This sort of language has connotations to con artists, not serious political figures.  Worse yet in the eyes of media watchdogs, is that of the three experts interviewed on the subject, not one thought the flat tax had a possibility of working.  This is despite the fact that Nobel Prize winners in economics Milton Friedman and Merton Miller both supported the flat tax plan (Goldberg).  In the eyes of many, this incident is a prime example of liberal bias in the media.

     Many groups, including the conservative Media Research Center, keep archives of what they view as biased news coverage.  One example is the perceived difference between the actual findings of the 9/11 Commission on the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq and what the media portrayed the findings to be.  While the chairman of the commission was quoted as saying, "Were there contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq? Yes. Some of them are shadowy, but there's no question they were there....", the media picked up a different story.  A front-page headline in the New York Times said "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie." (MRC) These two statements contradict each other.  These and other incidents seem to many to be conclusive evidence of a liberal bias in the media.  However, some find evidence stating the exact opposite. 

Conservative Bias

     Although the majority of Americans view the media as politically liberal, quite a few believe that there is a conservative tilt to the news.  In response to claims of liberal bias, they point to John Johnstone's 1971 survey that found that 84.6% of journalists categorized themselves as middle of the road, a little to the left, or a little to the right.  A 1983 study found that 91.1% of journalists were in those categories.  Some suggest that those "who paint the media as leftist usually are forgetting that news...is concerned with change"  (Vivian 259).  This theory basically suggests that since change is more newsworthy than the status quo, it gets more airtime.   However, since conservatives "favor the status quo" (Vivian 260), they find stories about change threatening.  Thus, according to some, conservatives see liberal bias in stories about change.  Since these stories about change are just a necessary part of a reporter's job, and not a show of political bias, those who see liberal bias base their claims on misinterpretations.

     A far more accurate view, to some, is that the media is conservatively biased because of its conservative corporate bosses.  To these people, media monopolization "poses a serious threat to pluralism, democratic discourse and the First Amendment."  (Lee and Solomon 70)  This idea subscribes to A.J. Liebling's famous quote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" (Lee and Solomon 75).  The idea behind these statements is that corporate bosses exert their influence to make sure news coverage portrays them in a positive light.  Although high-level corporate managers rarely directly interfere with news coverage, they can hand pick editors who share their political views.  These editors, in theory, would insert those political views into coverage.  One example of this is that both the "Cathy" comic strip and the "Doonesbury" comic strip have been censored because of anti-Republican content.  Another example of corporate censorship was the Sinclair Broadcast Group's prohibiting of its affiliates to air the Nightline program in which Ted Koppell read the names of the 721 U.S. casualties from the War in Iraq.  The reason for censorship was purely political, as the broadcast group issued a statement saying that the program was "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq." (Progressive

     Other evidence of conservative bias in the media exists in media coverage of the controversial question of abortion.  Many argue that the commentators put on shows where the issue is abortion are almost always white male conservatives.  The president of the Fund for the Feminists Majority, Eleanor Smeal, says that "The major national talk shows are white male conservatives...and on a subject like abortion, don't tell me a 55-year-old man feels like a 35-year-old woman, I mean it's just not possible."  (Lee and Solomon 230)  Media bias can also be argued in the fact that the usual background picture for stories about abortion is usually a "well-developed fetus." (Lee and Solomon 232) Since most abortions occur during the first trimester, this picture does not represent the typical fetus at the time of abortion.  The fetus being used as a logo for abortion stories also makes the fetus look like an individual, a conservative point of view, and also keeps women out of the picture.  This image is hardly neutral, then, and in fact pushes the conservative point of view.

Conclusion

      Although the points of view are very polarized now, and both sides refuse to listen to the other, hopefully in the future the large amount of literature available to the public will stimulate discussion.  In this possible future, both sides would carefully weigh the other sides' concerns and a conclusion that put everyone's concerns at ease could be reached.  Until this time, both sides are likely to find huge volumes of evidence to support their claims, thus continuing to polarize the nation farther on this issue.

Media Bias In Elections

Media bias is an important part of our lives, and recognizing it helps people deal with it and prevent it from influencing their decisions to too great of a degree.  It is important to examine cases where bias occurs so people can develop an understanding of how it can manifest itself.  One especially pertinent case to the discussion of media bias is elections.  During elections people must vote based on their knowledge of candidates, and much of this knowledge comes from the mass media.  The knowledge that voters' gain of candidates can be skewed by media bias; but, this bias can manifest itself in many different ways.  Two of the main ways that bias can occur are through gatekeeping and individual bias.  Individual bias is simply when a journalist cannot prevent their own personal views from influencing their coverage of events and questioning of candidates.  Closely related to individual bias is gatekeeping bias.  Journalists, and especially editors, have control over what stories reach the mass audience of the electorate, or any other group, through the mass media, by controlling the stories that reach the public they can create a bias for or against a candidate or issue in the general populace, this is gatekeeping bias.  Through gatekeeping editors and journalists can keep stories out of the news, preventing the public from learning valuable information about candidates or issues.  Gatekeeping is a form of bias because, consciously or not, editors and journalist may choose stories that are concurrent with their own political philosophy, which can bias the media.  These two forms of bias must be understood for voters to make informed choices about political candidates. 

Journalists may have individual political biases that influence their coverage and questioning of politicians.  Obviously almost all people will have some opinion on political issues and on who should be elected to a political office.  These opinions are obviously hard to prevent from entering journalist coverage of the media, but regardless journalists attempt to prevent any of their opinions from entering their objective journalistic works.  Some people do not believe that the press attempts to keep bias out of the news and in fact in Press Bias and Politics Jim Kuyper asserts, "admissions coming from the press corps itself show remarkable candor about willingness to engage in partisan politics as reportorial practice" (17).  According to Kuyper journalist do not try hard enough to suppress their biases, and in fact, often allow them to emerge freely in their articles, sometimes even purposely putting them there.  The statement that Kuyper makes is very strong, and therefore must be looked at with caution if it does not have any support; but the statement does in fact have supporting evidence from other sources.   For example, Bozell III and Baker note in And that's the way it isn't that during convention coverage of the 1988 Presidential election "CBS and NBC reporters and anchors called the Democratic party its platform and leaders by liberal labels just 21 times.  The same two networks used various conservative labels to describe the Republicans 113 times" (218).  The fact that the Republicans were labeled so much more seems to show that journalists were biased against these candidates.  Considering the nature of convention coverage, where journalists speak live most of the time, this labeling is probably reflective of journalists biases against the Republican party which they, probably unconsciously, express in subtle, hardly noticeable ways such as this.  These subtle biases can still influence people's opinions in slight ways that can swing votes of undecided voters from one side to the other.  Besides these subtle biases there are other more obvious ways that bias occurs in the media.

Candidates develop relationships with journalists during campaigns, and these relationships can bias the coverage of a campaign for or against a candidate.  Journalists are to "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility"(SPJ) according to the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics which regulates the conduct of all professional journalists.  Yet when covering politics it is important to cultivate contacts inside the 'camp' of the politician in order to gain important information that is not available to other journalists.  This extra information gained through relationships with insiders can give an extra edge to the journalists' coverage of the campaign.  For the candidates too it is important to develop a relationship with journalists or the journalists may become disgruntled with the candidate and begin to produce negative coverage of the candidate. 

The 2000 election provides good examples of why important it is for candidates to develop these relationships with journalists.  Eric Alterman in his book What Liberal Media? States that Gore might have won the election "but for one key and frequently overlooked reason: the almost universal hostility he inspired in the reporters and editors who covered the race" (149).  As a result of not developing close relationships with the press Gore biased reporters against him, which caused negative coverage, which may have ultimately cost him the election.  In Gore's case his treatment of journalists resulted in negative coverage for him, but it can also go the other way.  For example, also during the 2000 election Bush was able to develop close relationships with the press.  In fact, as Richard Wolffe of the Financial Times says "The Gore press corps is about how they didn't like Gore, didn't trust him...Over here, we were writing only about the trivial stuff because [Bush] charmed the pants off us" (Alterman 151).   The journalists became attached to Bush and his personality, and so were not longer able to write objective information about Bush's standing on political issues; they had become biased.  Bias is developed by candidates through close relationships with reporters because it offers advantages in news coverage for the candidate; but it also offers advantages to the journalist because it can give them a better article than they could get without the relationship.  Thus relationships between journalists and politicians are often cultivated.  It is important to look out for reporting that is clouded by close relationships to the subject, because it can gloss over important issues that might otherwise be covered, or it may highlight relatively unimportant issues.  Of course, there are other ways that media can bias coverage, besides close relationships to the people that they cover. 

The Media chooses which issues to cover in campaigns.   In campaigns the media can only cover so many issues and gatekeeping bias is an inevitable result.  The way that editors and journalists choose stories and how they will present them often is a result of their political convictions.  As Kuyper notes "the press not only tells us what to think about (agenda-setting), but also tells us how to think about it (agenda-extension)" (198).  As a result of media's power to set and extend our agenda they can create strong bias in the populace if the media does not discuss one politician's bad traits, but the media focuses on the other candidate's bad traits they will create a negative image of the candidate in the public eye.  This form of opinion making is an obvious case of bias, where opinions that are not factually based influence people's actions.  There is in fact further evidence that the media can create bias in the electorate through its choice of coverage of politicians and issues.  As Alterman states:

"Because campaigns are not expected to pay too much attention to the actual details of policy proposals, particularly on television, and yet are conducted almost entirely in the guise of 'news', this same media can, under the right conditions, make or break a candidate with voters through the manner they choose to portray him or her" (150).

The coverage that Alterman is talking about is coverage that will create a bias in the population.  The media is preventing stories from about the issues from reaching the populace, and this causes the populace to focus on trivial issues about the candidate that the media choose to portray.  Once they public focuses on trivial issues candidates who are less entertaining are at a disadvantage because they cannot generate as many positive articles, as was the case with Gore.  The issues are what is pertinent in a campaign, so when people stop focusing on them they are becoming biased, that is forming opinions based upon unbalanced or even relevant facts. It is important for people to look for bias in media in the form of gatekeeping bias because otherwise they will not be able to adequately understand candidates to vote on an informed basis. 

A subset of gatekeeping bias is the amount of coverage each party receives.  The coverage that each party receives is not equal, and this probably stems from bias on the part of the news agencies and reporters; it is gatekeeping bias because it relates to the stories that news agencies choose to cover.  Obviously people are going to want to advance their opinion, so consciously or not they will change the amount and character of coverage of candidates based on their political opinions.  This can result in unbalanced coverage that favors one side over the other.  In the 1972 Presidential election, the Democratic Party received more coverage than the Republican party, "[o]n CBS and NBC Democrats were emphasized in about 55 percent of the stories about the major parties.  Democrats received an even larger share of the party stories, 63 percent, on ABC" (Hofsetter 112).  The fact that the Democrats received more coverage is an example of bias in favor of the Democratic Party.  As a result of the greater exposure more people were likely to understand what the Democrats thought, and were more likely to be swayed by the Democrats arguments, simply because more of their arguments were presented.  Of course, the fact that the Democrats got more coverage does not mean that the media is totally biased.  In fact, even though the Democrats got a greater volume of coverage than the Republicans, C. Richard Hofsetter notes in Bias in the News that "Republicans and Democrats received about the same proportion of favorable and unfavorable stories on each network" (113-114).  Thus even though the Democrats received more coverage, an indicator of possible bias, than the Republicans the news media was not so biased as to give the Democrats more favorable coverage than the Republicans, which demonstrates that the media is attempting to be fair in its coverage of political campaigns.  The time that each party receives in the media can reveal bias, but studies show that in fact the media does try to maintain some fairness in their coverage of each party

Bias in the media during political campaigns occurs in many forms.  Some of the forms are very subtle, and have only a little affect on people, while others are more blatant and can change opinions rather drastically.  Often the bias is almost unavoidable, such as in gatekeeping, while some can be prevented simply through vigilance on the part of the press.  The media is often biased, but that does not mean that people cannot still use the media.  When using the media a person must be aware of the bias that can present itself in the media.  Once they realize where bias exists in the media people can counteract it by consulting other sources of information; that will allow people to form opinions about issues and elections while minimizing the negative impact of biased media. 

Detecting Media Bias

The previous section dealt with ways that bias manifest itself in political campaign coverage, but political campaigns are not the only important media.  Therefore, it is important that people are able to recognize the bias that can occur in media coverage.  One good source for information on this subject is the book Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in the News Media.  The book details different ways that the media is biased, and how to detect these methods.  One of the easiest ways to detect bias is to read many sources of news.  When you do this you get more facts and can easily cross check them with each other.  When you find missing facts you know that you have found a possible case of media bias.  Even if what you find is not media bias it will still provide you with useful information. 

Another useful way to detect bias is to look for misleading information.  There are many ways that misleading information can be put into an article, even if the journalist does nothing to skew the article. 

Ways to Detect Media Bias

* Editorials that contradict facts given in other articles (Lee and Solomon 36).

* "[A] peculiar - or politically dubious - use of a word or phrase that might stand reality on its head" (Lee and Solomon 37).

* Misleading photographs that contradict the text of an article (Lee and Solomon 47).

* "Headlines are the most-read part of a paper. They can summarize as well as present carefully hidden bias and prejudices" (Excerpted from Newskit: A Consumers Guide to News Media).  Be careful and check if the headline makes sense in the context of the article (Lee and Solomon 35).

* "The spectrum of opinion is narrowly framed by the kinds of 'experts' who are featured in print and broadcast news reports - and by those who are left out" (Lee and Solomon 43).  Just because all the experts presented in the story believe hold one opinion does not mean that all experts in that field do.

* "A lengthy TV news report with a particular slant might go on for a few minutes, only to be contradicted by a significant statement that is buried as an afterthought or throwaway line at the tail end of the story" (Lee and Solomon 44).

By keeping an eye out for all of these different ways media can be biased it is possible to minimize the impact of the bias; but, because so many people do not actively seek out bias or understand the shapes it can take, people are affected by it.  Even if people do try to find bias it is not possible to find it all.  Thus, bias can affect people even if they attempt to find it, but its influence will be more limited.

Conclusion

     The media tries to prevent bias from entering its neutral journalistic reports. Regardless of these efforts, many media watchdog organizations believe bias is a widespread problem.  Some of these organizations find proof of liberal bias, while others find evidence of a conservative tilt to the news.  Elections serve to highlight the many forms of bias in the supposedly neutral news media.  It is important that people recognize bias so that they are able to use the media while understanding its limitations.  The media is an integral part of our life, yet it can cloud our decisions because of the bias that often is a part of the media.  However, it is important that the public does not discount the importance of media simply because there are some instances of bias.  The media is the best source of information for the majority of the public and it is in the public's best interest to continue using the media to collect information while maintaining awareness of its possible bias.

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Produced by students in the THINK summer institute, sponsored by the Davidson Institute and the University of Nevada, Reno, July 2004