When it comes to story selection, media coverage isn’t really biased to the left nor to liberalism, a new study shows.
For as long as there has been media (and likely as long as there will be one), there will be allegations of bias and prejudice. You need not look further than US President Donald Trump to see just how far these allegations can go.
Like many other politicians before him (though with unprecedented virulence), Trump regularly accuses the media of being biased against him — but according to a new study, this isn’t really the case.
Hans Hassell, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, makes his findings clear in the title of his study: “There is No Liberal Media Bias in the News Political Journalists Choose to Cover.”
“Contrary to popular narratives and despite the fact that journalists skew to the left politically, there is little to no bias in what reporters choose to cover,” Hassell said of his study’s findings.
Unbiased political media coverage is vital for a healthy democracy. Most Americans (like people in all democratic countries) want the media to be as unbiased as possible — 78% of Americans believe that it is never acceptable for a news organization to favor a political party over another. However, since 1989, the number of Americans believing the media is biased has nearly doubled, and we are seeing these effects in the increasingly polarized society around us.
Concerns about bias towards liberalism are particularly prevalent. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 64% of Americans believe the media favors the Democratic Party (compared to 22% who said they believed it favored the Republican Party)
To put this to the test, the team looked not only at how journalists write a particular story — but also the types of stories they choose. This is particularly important because you can cover a certain story impartially — but if all you cover is a specific type of story, that’s not really impartiality.
“Scholars of media coverage only view the final product and do not observe the full set of stories that might have been available in the world for journalists to potentially cover,” the study reads.
Although journalists themselves show a clear bias towards liberalism, this is not reflected in the coverage they choose. Using a combination of a large-scale survey of political journalists, data from journalists’ Twitter networks, election returns, a large-scale correspondence experiment, and a survey experiment, the researchers found that the media exhibits no bias against conservatives (or liberals for that matter) in what news that they choose to cover — contradicting the long-term bias hypothesis.
In a way, the public is sort of right. The journalists themselves are biased to the left, but this doesn’t really spill into their coverage, and researchers report “no signs of ideological gatekeeping biases”.
This phenomenon is particularly interesting since journalists have both economic and individual ideological pressures to exhibit bias in what they cover. The fact that they resist doing so suggests that something else is balancing this — presumably, either the ethos of ideological balance (present in every journalism training school), or potentially careful editors that keep biases in check. The study did not analyze the reason why this happens, but it did highlight it as a potential area of future research. The researchers note:
“While it is hard to know for sure what mechanisms are driving our findings, our results are consistent with a mix of self-policing by journalists or oversight of newspaper managers (which may not be as liberal as journalists themselves).”
The study concludes:
“Regardless of the exact reasons for a lack of ideological bias, our results provide concrete evidence that counters popular narratives by political pundits, academics, and even President Trump himself. Despite repeatedly claiming that the media chooses to cover only topics that are detrimental to his campaign, presidency, and followers, we find little evidence to comport with the idea that journalists across the United States are ideologically biased choosing what political news to cover.”