Thursday, September 4, 2008

Is There a "Liberal Media Bias"?

Glenn Greenwald, in a predictably grating bit of rhetorical overkill, says no:

The very notion of the "Liberal Media" is one of the most inane myths in American politics -- something spat out and repeated in the lowest right-wing sewers for so long that it has become conventional wisdom. ... It's literally hard to imagine a claim that ought to be more discredited in general than the notion of the "liberal media" and its "anti-Republican bias."
The issue of media bias has been debated and studied for decades, and both sides can cite academic research that supports their argument. But the process of defining and measuring "media bias" is so inherently subjective that I don't think it's possible to conduct an objective empirical study. I tend to think there is a "liberal media bias," based on two facts. First, surveys have consistently shown that journalists are far more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. For example, a 1999 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found:
At the bigger papers, 61 percent of newsroom respondents described themselves as Democrats (or leaning toward Democrat) and only 10 percent as Republicans (or leaning toward Republican). At small papers, the number of Democrats (and leaners) drops to 48 percent and Republicans (and leaners) rises to 21 percent.
Second, neurological studies have shown that people's feelings toward a political party dramatically affect the way their brains interpret political news. In his book The Political Brain, Drew Weston described a great study he and two colleagues conducted during the 2004 election. Westen and his colleagues studied the brains of 15 self-identified Democrats and 15 self-identified Republicans as they were presented with a series of slides that showed undeniably inconsistent statements by John Kerry. The partisans were asked to consider whether Kerry's two statements were inconsistent, and were then asked to rate the extent to which Kerry's statements were contradictory, from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). They then repeated the process with undeniably inconsistent statements by George W. Bush, and again with inconsistent statements by politically neutral males. Here's how Westen described the results:
They had no trouble seeing the contradictions for the opposition candidate, rating his inconsistencies close to 4 on the four-point rating scale. For their own candidate, however, ratings averaged closer to 2, indicating minimal contradiction. Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush. And as predicted, Democrats and Republicans showed no differences in their response to contradictions for the politically neutral figures. ... The results showed that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to "reason" to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neutral footprints as they do it. When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress. ... The brain registers the conflict between the data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion. We know that the brain largely succeeded in this effort, as partisans mostly denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidate's words and deeds. Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly -- as best we could tell, usually before subjects even made it to the third slide [which asked them to consider whether the statements were inconsistent]. The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the circuits normally involved in reasoning. But the political brain also did something we didn't predict. Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn't seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning.
This is basically the root of the well-known "confirmation bias." So given that (1) journalists are overwhelmingly Democrats, and (2) party affiliation dramatically affects the way our brains interpret political news, is it really possible that there isn't a liberal media bias? No empirical study of newspaper stories or talking heads on TV is ever going to be able to objectively determine whether there's a liberal media bias, because what people think constitutes "liberal bias" depends on their party affiliation also. I don't perceive a liberal media bias, but then again, I'm a Democrat, so my brain would presumably interpret political news the same way a biased liberal media would. But if we know that the inputs are heavily biased, it's very likely that the output is biased as well.


Anonymous said...

I think that the larger problem with news in the U.S. is its shallow treatment. There is little real analysis. Unfortunately, politics is treated under the assumption that there are only two possible viewpoints on an issue, and that there is no such thing as nuance. Reporters rarely seem willing to ask difficult questions or not be satisfied by vague answers to the questions they do ask. If news agencies dealt with issues in more detail, I think the issue of bias would wane.

... said...

Look at fox news. Journalist are prone on pleasing the editor - and keeping their job. And most editors lean to the right.

Anonymous said...

The facts have a liberal bias. That is the main problem. Fix the facts and all is well.

Midget Launcher said...

I think "..." and Anonymous just awarded themselves a tasty little squirt of endorphins.

Good goin', guys.

Never mind what's going on in Keith Olbermann's brain. Wouldn't it be nice if we all were on the lookout our own brains malfunctioning this way?

hhoran said...

The neurological/confirmation bias points might help explain the general point "journalists have biases" (human thought processes work certain ways that reinforce biases, journalists are human, ergo...). But it says nothing about the claim that "professional mainstream US journalists consistently show systematic bias in favor of Democratic party policies and against Republican party policies". I'd acknowledge this might never be fully addressed by empirical analysis, but you are ignoring an awful lot of simple logic. What (at any point in time are the Dem/Rep policies that would engeneder these kinds of hugely emotional (logic overriding) responses? There's huge diversity among registered voters of both parties in terms of policy preferences, both general and extreme "hot-button". Why wouldn't journalists' "hot buttons" be much more skewed towards professional issues (whatever storylines are easier to write, or will more easily resonate with audience/bosses, etc) than with personal policy judgements on the economy/immigration/national defence etc?. I think you see journalist bias overriding logic and evidence much, much more in terms of overstating the horserace aspects of elections versus issues, and overstating politics in general versus economic/social issues (favoring stuff that is easy/fun/profitable for journalists versus stuff that is complicated and harder to sell). Jumping to the conclusion that Republicans are fundamentally correct that the news media works systematically against their policy objectives seems silly and unjustified.

brad said...

Conflating Democrat and liberal is begging the question, and at the very least a big mistake, if not outright dishonest.
Further, you probably know as well as I do that editors and publishers tend to identify as much more conservative and Republican than their employees, and their views are more determinate of the content in the media than reporters.
I don't see where you've demonstrated anything but the fact you have biases of your own.

Mike said...

One problem with the neurological analysis is that it shows a snapshot in time. People can demonstrably change their opinions over time. Read about the years before the civil war when many people, numerous states and a large fraction of the nation changed their opinion on the slavery issue. The Civil Rights movement changed the minds of millions. So did the Suffragette Movement.

Or watch the evolution of someone's views over his life.

Yes, the neurology experiments show that our *initial* reaction to our beliefs being challenged is to resists nd for our brains to support this resistance. But over a long time, reason can slowly wear away that resistance. We also have inbuilt resistance to realizing we're in a bad relationship. But people get out of them, eventually, all the time.

Human beings are stubborn, but they are not impervious.

Facts Ma'am said...

I think this study is fascinating, and explains quite a bit regarding individual reactions (and blog comments) at the very least. Thanks for posting this.

Michael, IL said...

This is a fair common sense argument, but if it were this simple, there wouldn't be an argument at all.

A few things that can greatly distort these biases:
(1) It doesn't matter that 61% of all reporters are Democrats, what matters is, what about those covering politics?
(2) It also matters what the political preferences are of the newspaper editors, who control both the reporters words and their careers.
(3) It matters what the publishers think, and the type of people they hire. Considering most owners of papers care about money as much as content, you have another major conflating factor.
(4) People who are aware of biases but serious about their work can overcompensate for their biases in the opposite direction. While the liberal blogs went nutso with Sarah Palin gossip, the mainstream media showed, for the most part, restraint. It wasn't any of the real news but Us Weekly that was the most salacious in its treatment.
(5) Regional bias and urban bias are far more likely to influence coverage than political bias. New York based reporters live in NY and therefore don't have an internal meter for what rural beliefs are, though they may have a pretty solid feel for what urban Republicans feel. So I think newspapers don't capture, say, the Democratic blue-collar union worker any better than they capture the Republican farmer, or whatever. Point being, this is an urban/rural problem, not a conservative/liberal problem.
(6) framing. The media increasingly refuses its duty to try to find the truth, and instead plays a mediator between the left and right. In that kind of context, it's not that reporters are liberal or conservative, it's that they aren't really doing their jobs.

Anonymous said...

I am definitely on the Liberal Media is a Myth side. I don't dispute that there may very well be more Democrats than Republicans in the media. But I don't think that matters much. It's more telling to ask who owns the outlets?

Probably the least Liberal media outlet is radio. I can't even get Air America or even NPR in my area. T.V. is a bit more balanced. There are several Liberal shows but there is no Liberal equal to the Fox News outlet. I think Liberals MIGHT have the advantage in print media, but that seems to be one foot out the door.

Overall, I'd say that the Right is dominating due to corporate ownership and that is becoming more and more so every day.

Anonymous said...

In Australia we have a government owned broadcasting agency that was so consistently displayed a liberal bias, that they were ordered by the (conservative) government to conduct 'bias' audits. One of the findings was that because such a large percentage of the journalists were left-leaning their consensus of what they considered to be 'centre' was still actually quite some way to the left. So in their view news agencies they considered to have a strong right-leaning bias, were widely perceived to be even-handed by the broader community.

Diversity of opinion should be encouraged, especially in the media, but this is unlikely to happen if most journalists march to the beat of the same drum.

Anonymous said...

News organizations are owned, managed, supported, reported, edited and broadcast by CONSERVATIVES.

Conservatives do not have LIBERAL BIASES. Conservatives tell outright lies.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to news organizations I only follow a handful (and mostly online). Those all seem to have a moderate liberal or conservative bias. I don't perceive liberal pages to be more abundant overall, but the major/bigger pages do tend to be more liberal with Fox News perhaps as the only and most obvious exception. But then again as I said I only follow a handful of news pages.

Where I do see a clear imbalance is TV shows. While TV shows do not always send a political message, oftentimes they do. And when you look at network shows or even cable shows, most of them that have political leanings have a clear liberal bias. One might argue that this is even more "sneaky", because people are not necessarily aware that they're being fed political information when they watch these shows.

One must also understand though that while liberals do have some batshit crazy ideas that really piss me off, on balance they are just right a lot more often than conservatives are. (And I mean from a logical, objective, pragmatic and/or scientific perspective.) So maintaining actual balance between liberal and conservative views would probably be hypocritical at best.

Disclosure: I'm neither liberal nor conservative. I'm perhaps closest to a libertarian, but not as radical as the party with the same name.


If you do not agree with liberals than theirs a biase

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