An excerpt from the MRC’s 1994 book by
Brent Baker: How to Identify, Expose & Correct Liberal Media
Bias. (You can purchase a copy of this book by going to the MRC’s
This book excerpt will teach you how to identify seven types displayed in news stories and how to analyze stories and reporting patterns to determine if they are biased. Though the examples cited are drawn from the early ‘90s the lessons they teach remain valid and instructive today.
Sometimes liberal bias reflects a conscious choice by the reporter or editor. Sometimes it stems from mere laziness; it can take a lot of work to produce balanced news stories on a consistent basis. And a reporter under deadline pressure may just not understand the conservative viewpoint well enough to explain it in his story. So if the conservative expert he called doesn't call back in time, that perspective won't make it into the story.
But none of these are valid excuses. A reporter's job is to present a balanced story. (Of course, the reporter who tries but fails because he's just so rushed and can't get a conservative to comment deserves more understanding from you than the reporter who never bothers to call a conservative and regularly writes or broadcasts biased stories.)
As you read, listen and watch news stories you probably already notice stories that you think are biased. To see if they really are biased, you need to determine if the story falls into at least one of several forms in which bias occurs:
Types of Bias: Descriptions and Examples of Each
Bias by Commission:
A pattern of passing along assumptions or errors that tend to support a left-wing or liberal view.
This is the most common form of bias. Within the space or time limit constraining them, reporters are supposed to provide roughly equal time to presenting the best arguments of both sides of an issue. If liberals say "A" and conservatives "B," then the story should summarize both perspectives. For example, liberals cite government statistics to show that during the 1980s the rich got tax breaks while the middle class and poor paid more taxes. Conservatives, on the other hand, contend federal figures demonstrate that the rich paid more of federal tax receipts as everyone else paid less. Who's correct? A properly done story would recite the figures and analysis behind both views, so that a news consumer could make up his own mind about which perspective makes more sense.
If the reporter presents only one perspective or passes along only the "facts" espoused by liberals without any acknowledgment that conservatives disagree, then he has committed bias by commission.
Some examples of "facts" espoused by liberals and passed on by the media that conservatives know don't stand up to scrutiny: that the Reagan and Bush Administrations cut funding for social programs (when in fact social spending rose dramatically in both administrations); that the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer during the Reagan years (when all income groups grew richer); and that there are three million homeless people in the United States (when every reputable study places the number well under one million). Still, that doesn't dissuade reporters. Just after Christmas 1992, on the
CBS Evening News, reporter John Roberts found "more than three million homeless in America."
In May 1993, CBS reporter Terence Smith charged: "In 1989, after nearly a decade of federal cutbacks for immunizations, the previously successful measles vaccination program broke down." A quick check by the MRC with the Centers for Disease Control revealed that spending actually rose from $32 million in 1980 to $186 million in 1990, and then up to $257 million in 1992. Some "cutbacks."
On both the local and national level reporters regularly refer to "cuts" when in fact the program was not cut -- its rate of increase was reduced. If a conservative legislator proposes increasing welfare spending 5 percent instead of the planned 7 percent, (while inflation is predicted to hold at 4 percent), that's a one percent real increase. But reporters often call it a "cut."
Why? As explained in a Washington Post opinion piece by James Glassman, because the federal government and many states calculate "budget cuts from an imaginary number called the baseline." The baseline is figured by factoring in population increase and other "technical" measures. A program could cost $50 billion one year while baseline adjustments mean it will take $53 billion the next year to reach the same percent of the population. So if the budget for that program jumps from $50 to $52 billion, politicians will consider that a $1 billion "cut."
The summer of 1993 debate over Clinton's budget also showed how reporters, by choosing the interpretation of one side, commit bias by commission. At the time, Republicans claimed the plan had far more taxes than spending cuts while Democrats insisted the ratio was one-to-one. Some reporters endorsed the Democratic view. A
USA Today reporter asserted Clinton's plan had "slightly more spending cuts than tax increases." A CNN anchor reported "the economic package now in the Senate reduces the federal deficit by more than $500 billion dollars with spending cuts and $249 billion in tax increases," meaning a one-to-one ratio.
In a balanced story, the reporters would have said something like: "Democrats claim the deficit package consists of an equal amount of spending cuts and tax increases, while Republicans argue many of the cuts are phony so that there are three dollars in tax hikes for every one dollar in real cuts." By portraying one view as the correct one, the reporters committed bias by commission.
A few months before the Clinton Administration released its health care reform plan, ABC's
World News Tonight aired a piece summarizing the "managed care" option favored by Hillary Clinton. At one point, reporter Bob Zelnick asserted: "Unlike Mrs. Clinton's plan, under single-payer, employers would no longer have to provide coverage for their employees. There would be no need for private insurance companies, a change studies show could save between 35 and 70 billion dollars a year in paperwork and other administrative costs."
Note that Zelnick didn't say "studies from liberal groups" or "studies from those favoring additional government regulation." He said "studies show," as if their conclusions were beyond dispute. If Zelnick had followed that statement with the conservative view, saying "But other studies from those who think too much government regulation is already a problem show that a single-payer system will cost billions more for increased bureaucratic red tape," then he would have done a balanced story.
>> Documenting bias by commission often requires research. Unfortunately, while reputable books and studies include citations or footnotes, the media (especially television reporters) often ask you simply to believe them. So when reporters cite a specific group or study, try to get a copy of the original report. Most of the time you'll recognize bias by commission because the reporter will have presented only the liberal slant on an issue you know has another side. If you're not sure, find an expert in the field, and ask him if a story's statistics ring true. The offices of conservative state legislators are excellent sources to consult on any issue facing state lawmakers. If they don't know, try a conservative group that specializes in the area in question, or a conservative-leaning professor at a local college.
Bias by Omission:
Ignoring facts that tend to disprove liberal or left-wing claims, or that support conservative beliefs.
To catch this kind of bias you'll have to be knowledgeable about the particular subject. If you know the various points of view on an issue, then you'll recognize when one side is left out. Bias by omission can occur either within a story, or over the long term as a particular news outlet reports one set of events, but not another.
At an early 1992 media conference, CBS reporter Betsy Aaron warned about bias by omission: "The largest opinion is what we leave out. I mean, it sounds simplistic, but I always say worry about what you're not seeing. What you are seeing you can really criticize because you're smart and you have opinions. But if we don't tell you anything, and we leave whole areas uncovered, that's the danger."
An example of bias by omission within a story at both the local and national level can be found in pieces on education spending. The reporter will refer to the need for increased spending to improve test scores, but omit any mention of the fact that many school systems that spend less get better student test scores than those which spend more.
"The White House balks at any federal bailout of poor school districts," reporter Fred Briggs claimed on
NBC Nightly News one evening during the Bush Administration. "It says it's up to the states, to the districts to do it. Critics say that's passing the buck." Holyoke, Massachusetts needs a tax increase, he reported. "Voters in Holyoke are being asked to raise taxes today, something they refused to do twice in the past year....It's one of the poorest school districts in the state."
What did Briggs omit? "School administrators stubbornly maintained special programs for poverty-stricken and disruptive students while cutting back programs for the majority of children," wrote
Wall Street Journal reporter William Bulkeley in a story about the same time. "Some voters are angry at school administrators they consider uncommunicative and wasteful." In addition, in the Heritage Foundation's quarterly magazine Policy Review, writer Patricia Summerside spotlighted South Dakota, ranked 51st in teacher salary and 43rd in spending per pupil: "South Dakota's 1988 ACT scores rank fifth among the 28 states that take the test. Its high school graduation rate ranks second."
Looking to liberal politicians as role models while ignoring the successes of those who implemented conservative policies is also fairly common. Shortly after President Clinton took office,
NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw introduced a report on governors "who have raised taxes, cut programs, and yet politically survived." Reporter Bob Herbert referred to "tough economic medicine," including tax hikes by New Jersey Governor Jim Florio, Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker and California Governor Pete Wilson. Preceding soundbites from Weicker, Wilson, Florio, and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles on the merits of taxation, he insisted "the governors say Clinton should stick to his guns." Herbert omitted any mention of governors who balanced budgets by cutting spending, not raising taxes, such as John Engler of Michigan and Bill Weld of Massachusetts.
When South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela visited America in June 1990, the MRC found that none of the networks mentioned his communist past. None reported that he welcomed to his New York City platform three of the four Puerto Rican terrorists who shot and wounded five U.S. Congressmen in 1954. When Mandela went to Cuba to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro in July 1991, the networks did no story.
>> To find instances of bias by omission, keep abreast of the conservative perspective on current issues. See if that perspective is included in stories on a particular event or policy. If it's not, you may have uncovered bias by omission.
Bias by Story Selection:
A pattern of highlighting news stories that coincide with the agenda of the Left while ignoring stories that coincide with the agenda of the Right.
Bias by story selection often occurs when a media outlet decides to do a story on a study released by a liberal group, but ignores studies on the same or similar topics released by conservative groups. During the 1980s newspapers and television stations regularly highlighted studies showing how the rich got tax breaks in the '80s as this or that social problem was caused or exacerbated by "Reagan era budget cuts."
Numerous studies from conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, showed how the rich paid more taxes, social spending was not cut, and social problems were worsened by a breakdown in values. But those conservative studies were rarely, if ever, reported. In other instances, non-ideological research institutes released studies that supported a conservative contention. The American Association of Fund Raising Counsel, for example, found charitable giving by individuals grew dramatically in the '80s. But when a liberal group issues a study showing how the rich made out or advocating more spending to solve a supposed problem, many in the media consider it newsworthy.
"Everyone knows the rich got richer in the 1980s. Now a new study shows how dramatic the change was," Dan Rather began a brief
CBS Evening News story a week before the 1992 election. "According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), more than half of America's new wealth went to the richest one-half of one percent of families," explained Rather. The next morning on NBC's
Today show, Margaret Larson promoted the same study, referring to the "non-partisan Economic Policy Institute" whose "independent study" revealed that during the 1980s "the top one-half of one percent of this nation's families received 55 percent of the total increase in wealth. The concentration of wealth is seen as the most extreme since 1929." But EPI is hardly independent. It was founded by Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Jeff Faux, a former aide to Michael
In fact, the national media are sometimes more impressed with (and less skeptical of) reports by liberal interest groups than government reports. Marianna Spicer-Brooks, Executive Producer of CBS'
Face the Nation, told a MRC analyst that "studies" from the liberal Children's Defense Fund, which aren't original research, but reworked data from government agencies like the Census Bureau, are more reliable than the Census Bureau itself. She asserted: "This is my own peculiar feeling about the Census Bureau. It has proved itself to be unreliable on a number of various issues, but the Children's Defense Fund has made it their business to check out the statistics. They're specialized."
Here's the complete transcript of a June 1993 story read by anchor Tom Brokaw on
NBC Nightly News: "Hunger in America. There are some startling facts tonight. A study conducted by the Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Research at Tufts University claims 12 million American children are malnourished. This problem is nationwide, but it is most serious in the American South." A brief story, but one prompted solely by a press release from a liberal group. In fact, close examination of the Tufts report by the MRC found that 12 million were not "malnourished," but hungry sometime during the year.
Claims from liberal environmental groups are given similar credibility.
New York Times Science Editor Nicholas Wade has conceded that the media often serve as a "passive conduit" for environmental critics. Asked to explain why the media do so many stories on environmental threats that scientists consider minor, Wade told a
Washington Post reporter: "Often we're just doing our duty in following the activism of environmentalists, who make an issue of radon in houses or abandoned Superfund sites. Then it gets taken up in Congress and we have to cover it."
Contrast the media's treatment of ethical charges against Ed Meese when he was Attorney General and Jim Wright when he was Speaker of the House (and second-in-line for the presidency). The MRC compared the number of stories about Meese in January and February 1988 and stories about Wright between January 1987 and February 1988. The media covered charges against Meese in 17 times as many stories in just one-seventh the time. The nightly newscasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS carried 26 reports of charges against Meese in just two months, compared to zero stories about Wright in 14 months.
As it turned out, none of the charges against Meese were sustained, while the charges against Wright drove him from office in disgrace. Anti-Meese charges were considered news, regardless of whether the charges were justified, but accusations against Wright (mostly by Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia) were ignored month after month -- until the liberal group Common Cause joined in the criticism.
When White House Chief of Staff John Sununu was investigated by
The Washington Post for his extensive government travel habits, the Post devoted 27 stories to the supposed scandal. But at the same time, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin had also flown in a lot of government planes, including a flight back from a ski vacation in Colorado. The
Post did no story on Aspin.
Often, charges made by conservatives are (at least initially) written off as the product of paranoia. Charges made by the Left -- that the Korean airliner shot down by the Soviets in 1983 was on a spy mission, or that the Reagan campaign negotiated to delay the release of the Iranian hostages in 1980 -- are taken seriously, regardless of the strength of the evidence.
Look at how the three networks' responded to the "October Surprise" theory, which suggested that the Reagan campaign bargained with the Iranians to delay the hostage release until after the 1980 election. The networks did 27 evening news stories on the theory in 1991. But when major exposés in
Newsweek and The New Republic challenged the dubious sources behind the theory, the network evening news shows did nothing. (By early 1993, Senate and House reports had thoroughly discredited the October Surprise theory, but the networks failed to look at how they had been used.)
>> Like bias by omission, to identify bias by story selection you'll need to know the conservative and liberal issue agenda -- the events of concern to the two sides of the political scene. See how much coverage conservative issues get compared to issues on the liberal agenda. If a liberal group puts out a study proving a liberal point, look at how much coverage it got compared to a conservative study issued a few days or weeks earlier. If charges of impropriety are leveled at two politicians of approximately equal power, one liberal and one conservative, compare the amount of coverage given to each.
Bias by Placement:
A pattern of placing news stories so as to downplay information supportive of conservative views.
Does a story appear across the top half of the front page, or is it buried back with the obituaries and the horoscopes? News editors exercise great discretion in their placement of stories. The news they consider most important and/or most likely to sell papers goes "above the fold" on the front page, where it can be read as the newspaper sits on the rack. Less important stories go on the bottom half of the first page, on the first page of other sections of the paper, on page two or three, and so on.
Bias by placement can occur with television or radio news -- making a story the lead versus running it 25 minutes into an hour-long newscast. But, it's a lot easier to identify this kind of bias in a newspaper where placing a story on page one versus on the bottom of an inside page makes for a dramatic contrast.
There are limitations on a newspaper editor's discretion, of course. He must fit stories together in an attractive way and place stories around advertising, a job that is like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle. He must use graphic elements such as charts, graphs, and photos effectively. But as a general rule story placement is a measure of how important the editor considers the story.
In the spring of 1993 The Washington Post ran a front page story focusing on a Fairfax County, Virginia Republican Party roast where Oliver North imitated a homosexual calling the White House, complete with lisp. The story focused on how the incident showed Republican "insensitivity" toward a minority group. Condemnation quickly followed, much of it from Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, a Democrat. Yet two months later,
Post staff writer Donald Baker reported that Wilder donned his own lisp. Responding to a reporter's question concerning his future marital plans, "the Governor [Wilder] feigned a lisp and a limp wrist in replying, ‘Oh Don, you shouldn't have.’" While North made Page 1, the
Post revealed the Wilder incident at the end of Baker's story on page 7 of the Metro section.
One of the most obvious expressions of bias by placement came in
The Washington Post's coverage of 1989 and 1990 abortion rallies. Post ombudsman Richard Harwood took his own paper to task, noting the NOW pro-abortion rally the year before dominated the front page, generating a dozen stories taking up 15 columns of space. But the equally large 1990 pro-life rally received two stories in the Metro section.
Another form of bias by placement is the placement of facts within a story. Again, this is a kind of bias that occurs much more in print than broadcast media. A television or radio story lasts anywhere from a few seconds to two minutes, and so only has time for one or two brief soundbites from each side. It really doesn't matter where in the story the two sides are presented, just as long as they are given equal time and weight.
Newspaper stories are usually written in a "pyramid" style -- that is, the most important facts are supposed to appear early in the story, with each paragraph a little less important than the previous paragraph. Newspapers use that style for two reasons: (a) so that editors, editing a story to fit the available space, can cut from the bottom up, and (b) so that the average reader will get the most important facts. Editors know that, the farther down you go in a news story, the fewer readers you have.
Studies have shown that, in the case of the average newspaper reader and the average news story, most people read only the headline. Some read just the first paragraph, some just the first two paragraphs, and some read just to the bottom of the column and don't bother to read the continuation. Very few people read the average story all the way through to the end, especially if it is continued to another section of the
When the liberals at People for the American Way released a report questioning the travel habits of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas,
The Boston Globe put the story on its front page, but didn't mention People for the American Way until the eighth paragraph, after the story had jumped from page 1 to page 17.
Robert Rector, a poverty expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, laughs at his regular "slot" in
Washington Post news stories on studies released by liberal groups. Rector regularly appears in one of the last paragraphs, which the
Post then considers balanced. "The income gap between rich and poor widened in the 1980s," began
Washington Post reporter Spencer Rich in a 1991 news story on the latest study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Rich included several quotes from CBPP chief Robert Greenstein, but he waited until the second-to-last paragraph before letting Rector point out that the source for the CBPP figures, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), doesn't include $130 billion in non-cash government benefits in its calculations.
In a 1993 story, Boston Globe reporter Peter Gosselin explored the possibility that overspending by the federal government is not what caused the huge deficit. The third paragraph of Gosselin's article read: "`On the vast expanse of the domestic budget,' former Reagan budget director, David A. Stockman wrote recently, `overspending is an absolute myth.'" The next five paragraphs summarized Stockman's arguments, explaining his "myth" that Congress has been "beefing up already bloated bureaucracies, handing out pork-barrel projects, and distributing government benefits as if they were candy."
In the 12th and 13th paragraphs, Gosselin quoted Brookings Institution economist Henry Aaron, who insisted that the public doesn't "have any awareness at all of the fact that most of government has shrunk as a share of GDP."
Not until the 17th paragraph did Gosselin turn to a conservative expert: "`He must have drunk too much Beltway water when he was here,' Scott Hodge, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, quipped of Stockman. `There are plenty of plans around' for balancing the budget without tax hikes, said Hodge. And there are, among them a proposal by Heritage for cutting government spending by more than $600 billion during the next five years."
>> To locate examples of bias by placement, observe where a newspaper places political stories. Compare the placement of a story that makes a liberal point or makes a conservative look bad to a story on a similar topic that makes a liberal look bad. Whenever you read a story, see how far into story the conservative viewpoint first appears. In a fair and balanced story, the reporter would quote or summarize the liberal and conservative view at about the same place in the story. If not, you've found bias by placement.
Bias by the Selection of Sources:
Including more sources in a story who support one view over another. This bias can also be seen when a reporter uses such phrases as "experts believe," "observers say," or "most people think."
When a reporter says "most experts believe...," he often means, "I believe..." Quoting an expert by name does not necessarily add to the credibility of a story, because the reporter may choose any "expert" he wants. The same goes for the use of politicians or "man on the street" interviews.
Experts in news stories are like expert witnesses in trials. If you know whether the defense or the prosecution called a particular expert witness to the stand, you know which way the witness will testify. And when a news story only presents one side, it is obviously the side the reporter supports.
Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution is one of the most quoted experts in Washington, or in television terminology, "talking heads." So he knows how journalists often go looking for quotes to fit their favorite argument into a news story. Hess wrote in
The Washington Post: "If I don't respond appropriately, they say they'll get back to me. Which means they won't. This is a big city and someone else is sure to have the magic words they are looking for...TV news is increasingly dishonest in that increasingly its stories are gatherings of quotes or other material to fit a hypothesis."
Who qualifies as an "expert" depends on the story. Obviously, someone identified on-screen as a "budget analyst," "terrorism expert," or who has the name of a specific research institute under his name is being used as an expert. But in a story on education, in addition to citing an "education analyst," a reporter may quote a teacher, PTA leader or principal. In the context of the story, these people are all experts -- the reporter is citing them because of their knowledge of the topic.
Besides "experts," the two most often cited sources are politicians and "man on the street" quotes or soundbites from those portrayed as representative of the community. "Man on the street" quotes allow a reporter to load a story with non-expert testimony that supports one point of view. This happens most often with television news stories. In 1990 the MRC found that CBS reporter Ray Brady not only selected pessimistic economists, but followed the same pattern in choosing non-experts. Of 41 soundbites from such "man on the street" interviews, 74 percent were negative, 8 percent were positive, and 18 percent were ambiguous. Not one of the "average people" aired in 1989 or 1990 said something positive. One woman told Brady: "We eat at coffee shops, the few that are left. Most of them have gone out of business."
When the Pope visited Denver in the summer of 1993, the
CBS Evening News examined how the Pope would "find much of his American flock gone astray, disagreeing with and violating fundamental Church teaching." In addition to having an imbalance of experts, one soundbite from an Archbishop versus four from those opposed to Church teaching (a liberal Catholic newspaper editor, a liberal Catholic scholar and a nun favoring female priests), all eight soundbites of average Catholics were critical of the Church. A teenage girl said: "You know, the Church says, abstain, abstain, abstain, but that doesn't fit our society today."
On the January 22, 1990 CBS Evening
News, anchor Dan Rather introduced a story on the latest events in the Soviet Union with the sentence: "Bruce Morton sampled the debate in this country." But Morton's sampling ranged from left to left: Ellen Mickiewicz of the Jimmy Carter Center, Ed Hewett of the Brookings Institution, William Hyland of the liberal-leaning journal Foreign Affairs, and CBS consultant Stephen Cohen.
In September 1990, The Washington Post reported on the Census Bureau's annual measurement of poverty.
Post reporters Spencer Rich and Barbara Vobejda wrote: "Economists across the political spectrum said yesterday the current economic picture could mean an even greater rise in poverty." The
Post followed this with two economists: Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution and Isabel Sawhill of the Urban Institute, two indistinguishable liberals.
As U.S. troops were moving into Somalia in late 1992, ABC's Kathleen deLaski took the opportunity to look at hunger in America. Her story began with video of a food bank and soundbites from Jesse Jackson and Arsenio Hall decrying the hunger problem. "Some food aid groups are calling for more spending at home, particularly after a recent study showed that the numbers of undernourished swelled by 50 percent in the last decade," deLaski declared leading into a soundbite from Robert Fersh of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). deLaski failed to identify FRAC as a liberal spending advocacy group or to provide a conservative's perspective.
A December 1991 Washington Post headline declared: "Economists Advise Against Rushing to Cut Taxes." Staff writer Eric Pianin reported how "prominent economists and financial experts" were against tax cuts.
Who were some of the economists and "financial experts" the
Post quoted? The story highlighted liberal icon John Kenneth Galbraith who advised more federal spending "regardless of the impact on the deficit." Every expert quoted was liberal: Robert Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office, which Pianin failed to identify as Democrat-controlled; Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute; George Korpius, Vice President of the AFL-CIO; Roy Ash and Dean Phypers from the liberal Committee for Economic Development; then-House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta (D-California); and an aide to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Illinois).
>> To find bias by use of experts or sources, stay alert to the affiliations and political perspective of those quoted as experts or authorities in news stories. Not all stories will include experts, but in those that do, make sure about an equal number of conservatives and liberals are quoted. If a story quotes non-experts, such as those portrayed as average citizens, check to be sure that about an equal number come from both sides of the issue in question. Also check to see if a reporter's generalization about how "economists across the political spectrum" or "most health care specialists" is supported by subsequently cited experts. If they are all or overwhelmingly from one side of the political spectrum, then you've come across bias by use of sources.
Bias by Spin:
Emphasizing aspects of a policy favorable to liberals without noting aspects favorable to conservatives; putting out the liberal interpretation of what an event means while giving little or no time or space to explaining the conservative interpretation.
Party spokesmen who talk with reporters after a presidential debate, seeking to convince them that their candidate won, are called "spin doctors." One expert on the news media, Professor Michael Robinson, explains "spin involves tone, the part of the reporting that extends beyond hard news;" it's a reporter's "subjective comments about objective facts."
You can see the effect of spin on what a news consumer takes away from a story by comparing how two journalists report the same or similar event. Six months into his presidency, a
Washington Post-ABC News poll surveyed the public's view of President Clinton. Referring to the identical poll, the Post and ABC provided two very contrasting spins. On
Nightline, anchor Chris Wallace intoned: "He's sounding tougher. He's acting friendlier to the press. And the polls show his long downward slide is ending," as an on-screen bar graph cited the
ABC-Washington Post poll. The next morning, The Washington Post headline read: "Disapproval of Clinton's Performance Reaches New High in
Which was right and which was wrong? Both. Neither. Each chose to emphasize a different aspect of the poll. The poll asked whether people "approved" or "disapproved" of Clinton's performance and found a slight increase in Clinton's approval rating since a previous poll. That's what
Nightline reported. The poll also found Clinton's "disapproval" level at the highest point for any President since World War II. That's what the
Post chose to emphasize.
Our favorite example of spin control comes from CBS economics correspondent Ray Brady, the networks' Prince of Darkness when it comes to negative news on the economy. On October 12, 1989, home prices were down. That's great news for buyers, but not for sellers, so Brady focused on the sellers: "In the past, the American dream of owning your own home always had a sequel -- live in it, then sell it at a huge profit...So another dream has faded." Five months later, on March 16, 1990, home prices were rising, so the conclusion switched to the buyers: "So they keep looking. Thousands of young couples like the Wares, looking for that first house, looking for what used to be called the American dream."
During the '92 campaign, NBC Nightly News looked at the effectiveness of campaigning in small towns. The network offered two very contrasting views. "There's a huge pool of economic anger in these small towns, and Clinton is trying to exploit it...In the heart of America, Clinton is finding the hurt of America," reporter John Dancy found.
In the very next story, reporter Tom Pettit asserted: "Quayle also likes working obscure small towns in the South...The Quayle campaign stop begins to resemble Disney World's Main Street -- the crowds predominantly white, but Quayle officials say he has been in many ghetto areas, but says he hasn't been there recently because there aren't many Republican votes there....No urban decay, no problem...Why is Quayle avoiding big cities?" Historian Michael Beschloss answered: "The strategy is keep him away from places he can do harm." After which, Pettit concluded: "Right now, he is presenting his vision to the America of the past -- small town America."
NBC gave viewers the Democratic spin on Clinton's small town campaigning, but instead of providing the Republican spin on Quayle's travels, they put the Democratic spin on it too.
Also look to see if the spin makes one side's ideological perspective look better than another. Legal reporters reflect liberal spin when they assert that only liberal judges are interested in defending "individual rights." When liberal Supreme Court justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall resigned, reporters repeatedly warned that the conservative Court would repeal civil liberties. CNN's Candy Crowley intoned: "Also at risk in a court without Brennan: the limits of individual freedom."
Following Marshall's resignation, CBS reporter Bruce Morton crystallized the liberal spin: "The new court is very different from the old Warren Court and its philosophy is likely to rule for the next 25 years. The Warren Court stressed concern for individuals and individuals' rights...The Rehnquist Court is much more concerned with the rights of government, the state, authority. Government can tell the difference between good and evil in this philosophy and should encourage the one and forbid the other."
After Byron White resigned in 1993, Washington Post reporter Joan Biskupic wrote: "Replacing White, a conservative, with a liberal voice would give Clinton a chance to loosen the conservative hold on the bench. That could move the court toward a broader interpretation of individual rights and away from a preference for governmental authority." Conservatives, of course, contend that supporting property rights against environmental regulation and emphasizing the rights of crime victims, represent a defense of individual rights. By adopting the liberal view of what constitutes individual or civil "rights," a reporter is relaying the liberal spin.
>> So, check the spin on a story. If liberal politicians are offering one interpretation of an event or policy, and conservatives another, see which one a news story matches. Many news stories do not reflect a particular spin. Others summarize the spin put on an event by both sides. But if a story reflects one to the exclusion of the other, then you've found "bias by spin."
Bias by Labeling:
Attaching a label to conservatives but not to liberals; using more extreme labeling for conservatives than for liberals; identifying a liberal person or group as an "expert" or as independent.
The power to label politicians, activists and groups is one of the media's most subtle and potent powers. The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould may be a Marxist, but he makes a valid point: that labels tell you as much about the person applying the labels as they tell about the subject being labeled. Gould wrote, "Taxonomy [the science of classification] is often regarded as the dullest of subjects, fit only for mindless ordering and sometimes denigrated within science as ‘stamp collecting'....If systems of classification were neutral hat racks for hanging the facts of the world, this disdain might be justified. But classifications both direct and reflect our thinking. The way we [put things in] order represents the way we think." In other words, classifications, or labels, matter.
Terms like "right-wing" are used to describe hard-line communists and staunch capitalists, Israeli Zionists and Soviet anti-Semites, apartheid-loving bigots and Clarence Thomas supporters. And liberals complain about conservatives being "simplistic."
Meg Greenfield, [the late] editorial page editor of
The Washington Post, noted that "every time there is a confrontation somewhere in the world, we manage to dub the good guys liberals and the bad guys conservatives and pretty soon that is the common currency." Indeed, that thinking was shown by a 1992
Los Angeles Times in Education election kit for teachers which offered these definitions:
"Conservative: An individual or policy that opposes change in political and social matters."
"Liberal: An individual or policy that favors change in political and social matters. It can also imply tolerance and open-mindedness."
Bias by labeling comes in two forms. First, the tagging of conservative politicians and groups with extreme labels while leaving liberal politicians and groups unlabeled or with more mild labels. Responsible conservatives are sometimes stigmatized as "far right," "ultra-conservative," or "right-wing extremists," while radicals, even Marxists, are called "progressives," "liberals," or "moderates." In other cases, conservative groups are identified as conservative, while liberal groups are described in neutral terms such as "womens group" or "civil rights group," or favorable terms such as "children's rights supporters," "free-speech activists," or "clean-air advocates."
In stories about Supreme Court Justice Byron White's retirement and President Clinton's nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to fill his slot, CBS News correspondent Rita Braver displayed a penchant for labeling judicial conservatives as "far right" or "ultra-conservative" while soft-pedaling the ideology of liberals. Of White's departure, she asserted his "leaving will mean that the voting power of the far right will be greatly undercut." Braver declared Ginsburg is "considered a moderate to liberal, but today she cited this guideline to judging from ultra-conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist." A few days later, Braver remarked: "You've got to remember this is an extremely conservative Supreme Court, so [Ginsburg's] not really going to be terribly liberal."
Comparing the 1992 Democratic and Republican conventions, the MRC discovered quite a disparity: While the Democrats gathered in New York City were dubbed moderate more often than liberal by a margin of 51 to 38, Republicans in Houston were described with various conservative labels over moderate ones by a margin of 9-to-1. In total, viewers heard 118 conservative labels vs. 13 moderate ones. No Democrat in New York was ever described as "far left" or "hard left," not even Tom Harkin or Jesse Jackson. But in Houston, on five occasions each, CBS and CNN used "hard right" and/or "far right" to describe Republicans.
In the first night of the Republican convention coverage ABC issued 19 "conservative" labels. Peter Jennings mused it was "very much conservatives' night. A very conservative opening prayer" and later noted that Dan Quayle "is very much preferred by the Republican right." At another point, Cokie Roberts found "an extremely conservative convention." Later in the week, Jennings asserted that the convention had "been colored by the party's most conservative elements."
Dan Rather claimed it was Pat Buchanan's job "to set a frame of reference around a moral majority right, heavily influenced party." To reporter Bob Schieffer the delegates represented "a very, very conservative group of Republicans." In total, Republicans got tagged 18 times, five of those "hard right" or "far right." Dan Rather twice described Pat Buchanan's speech as "hard right." On the last night, August 20, Connie Chung called Dan Quayle's speech "far right" and asked Pat Robertson: "Has the party gone far right enough for you?"
In four days of Democratic coverage, CNN attached 22 labels to Democrats, but at no time did CNN label any Democrat "far left." When the GOP gathered, CNN issued 49 ideological labels, five of them "far right." In fact, in the first night from Houston CNN used 25 labels, three more than all week from New York. On Monday from the Republican meeting Candy Crowley announced: "As for what Buchanan has to say, this is really an appeal to the far right." Co-anchor Catherine Crier asked analyst William Schneider whether "the Republicans made concessions to the far right in hopes that the rest of the Republican Party isn't watching." On the last night, Charles Bierbauer recalled Buchanan's speech as being "heavy-handed conservative" and Frank Sesno labeled Buchanan and Bill Bennett as "very hard, far right conservatives."
Numerous other studies have found a wide disparity in how liberal and conservative groups are labeled. Consider the two major women's political organizations in the United States -- the conservative Concerned Women for America and the liberal National Organization for Women. By all measures, NOW is at least as far to the left as CWA is to the right. But an MRC study of three newspapers
(Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post) and the three news magazines showed that NOW was labeled liberal in only 10 of 421 newspaper stories (or 2.4 percent of the time) in 1987 and 1988. CWA, with three times the membership of NOW, was only mentioned in 61 stories in the same time period, but was labeled conservative 25 times (41 percent).
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), consistently rated by various groups as one of the three or four most liberal U.S. Senators, rarely receives an ideological label in news stories, while Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) is often referred to as "conservative," "right-wing," or "far-right." During the 1990 campaign, an article in Time called Helms an "ultra-right conservative," but described his liberal opponent, Harvey Gantt, simply as "former Charlotte Mayor."
The same pattern holds true for comparisons of the conservative Heritage Foundation (labeled in 59 percent of major newspaper stories) and the liberal Brookings Institution (just one percent), the conservative Family Research Council (45 percent) and the liberal Children's Defense Fund (under 4 percent), and other similar pairings. The conservative organization or individual is regularly labeled, but the liberal counterpart is not. Why? Because the national media see liberal groups as "us" and conservative groups as "them."
The second kind of bias by labeling occurs when a reporter not only fails to identify a liberal as a liberal, but describes the person or group with positive labels, such as "an expert" or "independent consumer group." In so doing, the reporter imparts an air of authority that the source does not deserve. If the "expert" is properly called a "conservative" or a "liberal" the news consumer can take that ideological slant into account when evaluating the accuracy of an assertion.
CNN provided a good illustration of misleading labeling during the 1993 debate over health care policy. In one story, reporter John Holliman included two interviews: "health care expert" Bob Brandon of Citizen Action, and Ron Pollack of Families USA, which Holliman identified as a "consumer group." In reality, both men represent groups pushing a Canadian-style system of socialized health care that outlaws insurance companies. So both should have been labeled "liberal."
People for the American Way (PAW) is a left-wing group which sees the "religious right" as its enemy and fought Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination. But a 1992 Associated Press story described PAW as "a 300,000-member, nonpartisan constitutional-liberties organization."
Another version of this comes out in coverage of the abortion battle. Reporters will label those wanting abortion kept legal with their preferred label, "pro-choice" or "pro-abortion rights." But they usually will not describe those on the other side by their preferred label, "pro-life."
The Washington Post Deskbook on Style suggests: "The terms `right-to-life' and `pro-life' are used by advocates in the abortion controversy to buttress their arguments. They should generally be used as part of an organization's title and in quotations, but not as descriptive adjectives in the text. Use `abortion-rights advocates' for those who support freedom of choice in the matter, ‘antiabortion' for those who oppose it."
>> When looking for bias by labeling, remember that not all labeling is biased or wrong. A story calling Senator Helms "conservative" is accurate; as is a reporter's reference to Pat Buchanan as "the conservative co-host of CNN's
Crossfire." But any story labeling conservatives should also label liberals. So, the story should read: "Pat Buchanan serves as the conservative co-host of CNN's
Crossfire, sparring across the table each night with the liberal Michael Kinsley."
Bias by labeling is present when the story labels the conservative, but not the liberal; when the story uses more extreme-sounding labels for the conservative than the liberal ("ultra-conservative," "far right," and "hard right" but just "liberal" instead of "far left" and "hard left"); and when the story misleadingly identifies a liberal official or group as an "expert" or "independent watchdog organization."
Bias by Policy Recommendation or Condemnation:
When a reporter goes beyond reporting and endorses the liberal view of which policies should be enacted, or affirms the liberal criticism of current or past policies.
As described earlier, when reporters list possible solutions to society's problems, the solutions often follow the agenda of the Left ("raise taxes," "cut defense," "have taxpayers pay for abortions," "issue more government regulations"). And when reporters review past policies, their evaluations follow a liberal script ("Reaganomics made the rich richer and the poor poorer," "slashes in social spending caused increased infant mortality and homelessness," "the lack of an energy policy has made the U.S. dependent on foreign oil," "too much defense spending has driven us into bankruptcy").
Most news stories simply relate a sequence of events, but when a story mixes reporting with specific recommendations for government policy, that's bias by policy recommendation. When a reporter conclusively declares that a past or current policy has failed, that's bias by policy condemnation. Taken together, this bias occurs whenever a reporter, without any attribution, offers a definitive policy evaluation.
Time magazine regularly includes specific policy recommendations in the middle of stories.
Time's "Planet of the Year" story at the end of 1988 included -- as examples of the actions government "must" take to avoid ecological catastrophe -- a wish list of liberal ideas.
Time has recommended raising the tax on gasoline at least 25 times in the last four years. On August 8, 1990, Detroit reporter S.C. Gwynne asked for the biggest tax hike: "The most effective solution, many experts say, would be a combination of market incentives and somewhat higher fuel-efficiency standards. A stiff gasoline tax of $1 per gal. would encourage consumers to choose more economical autos."
Time called for a gas tax hike four times in the first seven issues of 1993. In the January 25 edition, columnist Andrew Tobias wrote: "As for gasoline -- which costs about $3.75 per gal. throughout Europe -- Ross Perot was right. Phase in a 50-cent tax over five years, and you raise $50 billion a year." The February 1 issue included Senior Writer Eugene Linden's idea that the U.S. "might follow [Norway's] example and implement a carbon tax, which encourages efficiency and the use of cleaner fuels." In the February 15 issue, John Greenwald called the gas tax "an ideal target" that makes "good economic and ecological sense."
On the bias by policy condemnation side, in the January 6, 1992 issue,
Time staff writers labeled Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu's resignation the year's "Best" environmental news. The article called Sununu "notorious for his hostility to environmentalists and their agenda," and claimed, "If it was good for the earth but bad for business, Sununu's opposition generally persuaded the President."
Time listed the White House wetlands policy as one of the "Worst" environmental events, calling it "all wet....during his presidential campaign, George Bush promised `no net loss of wetlands.' But under pressure from business, his administration proposed a new definition of a wetland that would open at least [30 million acres] of off-limits land to development."
Time failed to explain why it's such a great idea to violate the Bill of Rights, which prohibits the government's taking of property without compensation.
A year later, a new administration was about to assume office and
Time's year-in-review evaluation turned optimistic, praising the Clinton team. Under "best environmental news,"
Time listed: "1. Al Gore's Election: Only a year ago, environmentalists were resigned to spending four more years as voices crying in the wilderness. The anti-ecology Bush-Quayle Administration looked tough to beat, and among the Democrats who weren't going to try was Al Gore, author of the environmental manifesto
Earth in the Balance. Now that he will head Clinton's green team, look for efforts to boost energy efficiency, preserve wetlands and reduce global warming."
But Time is not the only news outlet to at least occasionally abandon any pretense of objectivity and delve into issue advocacy. For several years ABC's
World News Tonight has run a nightly series of reports called the "American Agenda." These are essentially essays in which reporters highlight various proposals for solving the nation's problems. While some reports have publicized creative private solutions to social problems, often the reports endorse the same old government "solutions."
In 1991, ABC reporter Carole Simpson promoted the programs of France's socialist prime minister, Francois Mitterand, as more efficient and caring than the United States: "When you see how France cares for its children, you can't help but wonder why the United States won't do the same for our children. Americans continue to study and debate what to do about poor children, but the French decided long ago. Their system of social welfare is based on the belief that investing in the children of France is investing in the future of France."
A good interviewer will play "devil's advocate," making the person being interviewed respond to the arguments of their opponents. But when an interviewer endorses a viewpoint, then they've committed bias by policy recommendation. During a 1993
Today show interview with a criminologist about how to curb teen violence, Bryant Gumbel asserted: "So in the absence of the obvious solution in this country, of better gun control. Obvious. What kind of practical things do you suggest could be done of an immediate nature?"
A couple of months before the 1992 election,
The Washington Post offered readers a three-part series on why the deficit grew dramatically in the previous decade. The cause cited by reporter Steven Mufson: While Congress had a role, it was mostly Reagan's tax cuts. Recalling how tax cuts were supposed to increase revenue, Mufson countered: "The idea was, in the words of Harvard University economics professor Benjamin Friedman, 'a fairy tale.'" Mufson argued that tax receipts fell in 1983, and in 1984 "barely crept back to the levels of 1982." But he failed to note that from 1984 to 1989 receipts grew an average of eight percent a year, almost twice the inflation rate, while spending mushroomed faster.
Tax hikes were Mufson's recommended solution: "Though the nation's fiscal imbalance has rarely reached such a critical point, the failure of lawmakers to impose taxes in an attempt to curry favor with voters is a problem as old as the republic." Leading into a final paragraph long quote from the first Treasury Secretary, Mufson wrote, "More than 200 years ago...Alexander Hamilton appealed for Americans to recognize the need for taxes. Two centuries later, the plea retains its note of urgency."
Though President Bush abandoned Reagan's economic policies, the
Los Angeles Times blamed supply-side policies for Bush's 1992 defeat. In a "news analysis" five days after the election, business reporter James Risen declared: "Ultimately, Reaganomics was a failure. It produced big political dividends for the Republicans, and it may have contributed to rapid economic growth during the 1980s. But it was, at its core, a governing philosophy based on a deeply flawed economic notion: that tax cuts, especially large tax cuts for the rich, would not worsen the government's budget deficit. Ironically, it was the illogic of that theory that helped bring down President George Bush -- even though it seems clear that Bush never fully believed in the theory himself."
>> Bias by policy recommendation/condemnation should jump out at you, but be careful. A story or sidebar which includes recommendations is biased if it endorses one view over another or urges one particular policy. If a story, however, lists various options or summarizes the policies advocated by both liberals and conservatives, then it does not reflect bias by policy recommendation. Similarly, if it explains why liberals and conservatives feel the policies espoused by the other have been failures, then the story does not exhibit bias by policy condemnation. Bias by policy recommendation or condemnation occurs when the reporter endorses one side's policy recommendation or one side's policy condemnation.
More Than One Type in a Single Story:
The examples we have listed are from the national media, but the same principles apply to local media. It is up to you to examine the media in your area and determine the extent to which labeling and other types of bias appear. Once you have acquainted yourself with the above examples, you should find it easy to spot local bias.
Many stories will reflect more than one kind of bias. The story which displays bias by commission may have an imbalance of experts, so it also shows bias by selection of sources. It may also exhibit bias by labeling. A story which is biased by spin may also reflect bias by omission. To illustrate, remember the story on the Economic Policy Institute study supposedly proving that the rich gobbled up most of the increase in wealth in the '80s? The
Today show's coverage of the study from a liberal group exhibited bias by story selection. But NBC's coverage also showed bias by labeling. Anchor Margaret Larson called the liberal EPI "non-partisan" and referred to its "new independent study."
What Isn't Bias
You may come across stories that you believe fit one of these eight definitions of bias. But, they still may not qualify as examples which you should criticize. With some narrow exceptions explained later in this section, you want to identify bias that occurs in news stories and which favors the liberal view over the conservative perspective.
What isn't bias falls into three broad categories:
- Editorials or opinion columns
- Stories or statements that make the conservative side look bad, but are accurate
- Non-policy stories on a specific event that don't have to be balanced
Newspaper, radio and television station editorials are supposed to take a point of view. The same goes for columns which appear on the op-ed page and commentaries on television news shows. Don't equate a front page news story with an editorial. They are very different items. You should stick to analyzing news stories. They are supposed to be unbiased presentations of the news. When they are biased, the reporter is not doing his job. Editorial and column writers, in contrast, are supposed to take a point of view. They are under no obligation to be fair or balanced.
The only exception: If you are interested in showing that a newspaper's editorials are consistently liberal, or advocate liberal policies more often than conservative ones. Similarly, you can analyze the columnists run by your local paper if you want to prove that contrary to the paper's claim or public perception, they do not balance out. But don't ever cite an editorial or column as evidence of how a newspaper's coverage was biased.
The Daily Herald's coverage of the school bond referendum was biased if its news stories were unbalanced, not if it ran one-sided editorials.
Reporters frequently appear on roundtables or interview shows to discuss their take on current events. On the national level, this occurs on everything from the end of show discussion on NBC's
Meet the Press to C-SPAN's weekly Journalists' Roundtable. As described in the "self-identification" section on page 15, liberal comments during these appearances betray a reporter's political view. But they do not prove the reporter's stories on the particular issue were biased. You can cite these comments as evidence of the liberal views held by reporters employed by a media outlet. But do not cite a journalist's opinion of the school bond referendum as evidence of biased coverage in his newspaper or on his radio or TV station. If you charge a reporter with producing biased stories based upon his off-the-job comments, but then can't show bias in his stories, you'll only have hurt your cause. You will have inadvertently demonstrated that the reporter can separate his personal feelings from his professional duties.
Just because a news story portrays a conservative in a negative light does not necessarily make it biased. If a conservative politician is mired in a corruption probe, mentioning this in a news story is hardly a sign of bias. Refer back to the definition of bias by story selection. If a newspaper runs more stories on a conservative in ethics trouble than a liberal holding an equal or more powerful post, then that is bias. But the very fact that a story includes a negative reference to the conservative politician, does not make it biased.
You must step back from your activist conservative standpoint and look at things from a reporter's perspective. A story might say that a conservative leader "turns people off with his constant negativity and has lost State House supporters because he regularly storms out of meetings when his statistics are challenged." Before assuming the story is biased, ask yourself, "Is it true?" If it is, and you cite it as an example of bias, you'll only hurt your credibility.
During Reagan's White House years conservative media critics had no shortage of biased stories to analyze. The MRC critiqued many policy stories and documented inconsistencies as to which Washington scandals received media attention. Toward the end of the Reagan Administration, correspondents occasionally pointed out how the President dozed off in a meeting. Yes, these stories detracted from Reagan's image and, therefore, hurt his effectiveness when he worked for conservative policies. And yes, at least some were produced by liberal reporters out to damage Reagan. But the MRC did not criticize those stories because they were true. We avoided the problem by sticking to stories, or the parts of stories, dealing with attacks on Reagan's policies and ideas.
News stories dealing with policies should always present both the liberal and conservative perspective. The same rule does not go for stories on events, however, where there are not two sides to explain. A story reciting how the Governor met with a Boy Scout troop in the morning, gave a lunch address to welfare advocates,
traveled to the western part of the state in the afternoon to meet with teachers before attending a fundraising dinner, does not need to include comments from the opposition party.
Similarly, if a liberal or conservative group organizes a roast to a local politician or celebrity, the news story does not need to include critical views of the group's political agenda. It can simply describe how so many people gathered at a certain hotel and heard some politicians say x about y.
If the story on the Governor's day includes comments from him on why the state should impose a surtax to pay for higher teacher salaries, then the reporter should include an opposition view. If a liberal group's event gets covered while a conservative one a few months before went unmentioned, then that's bias by story selection.
But do not assume that just because a story does not include conservative views, soundbites or comments that it's biased. After all, if a conservative organization celebrates the tenth anniversary of its founding by holding a roast to honor a state senator, there's no need for a reporter to include negative comments from liberal activists. The reporter has met his journalistic obligations if the story summarizes the events of the evening.
Campaign coverage is a bit more complicated. Obviously, a news outlet is obligated to provide balanced coverage with approximately equal time and space given to the Democratic and Republican Party candidates. (In the primary, a news organization may not realistically be able to cover more than a few candidates and so will have to make a judgment as to which ones have a legitimate chance of winning.) Newspapers, magazines and radio stations should offer balanced coverage of issues raised by the candidates.
There is, however, one exception to the balance rule: A story describing a candidate's activities. To better explain, let's assume there's a two-candidate race for Chairman of the school committee. If a news outlet runs one story a day on the race then that story should note the latest campaign events, endorsements or policy pronouncements of both candidates. If, however, the news outlet decides to run separate stories on each candidate, then they do not need to incorporate the views of the opponent. If one candidate launches an attack against the other, then the reporter must allow the opponent's camp to respond to that charge but, as long as another story is dedicated to covering the opponent, the reporter does not need to include a reaction to every policy pronouncement.
When observing campaign coverage, focus on the overall coverage offered by a media outlet. Taken as a whole, it should offer the reader, listener or viewer a balanced picture of the disputed issues and views of the candidates involved in the race.
Identifying & Documenting Bias in News Stories:
To demonstrate how to detect bias in a news story, take a look at two examples of biased network news stories.
First, here's an ABC World News Tonight story from May 3, 1992, days after the Los Angeles riots:
Anchor Forrest Sawyer: "The death toll in the Los Angeles rioting rose to forty-six today, and that makes it the nation's bloodiest civil unrest in seventy-five years. Now that the smoke is clearing, L.A. residents are arguing over who is to blame. As Tom Foreman reports, many say that blame goes all the way to the top."
ABC News reporter Tom Foreman: "As the clean-up continues, the federal government is being swept into the circle of blame, for failing to address inner-city problems, and leaving poor people in despair."
Rep. Maxine Waters: "Absolutely desperate, absolutely angry, and justifiably so. Nothing is working for them. The systems aren't working."
Foreman: "In recent years, as federal funding for social services has fallen, many have disappeared. Gone are programs for job training, health care, child care, and housing."
Bruce Johnson, L.A. resident: "A lot of black people don't have no jobs or nothing else you know."
Foreman: "Bruce Johnson once worked at a federally funded job. The funding dried up. He has been without steady work since. His wife Pat was getting a federally funded education. That's over too."
Pat Johnson: "I think the government stinks. You want me to be honest, I think it stinks. Like I say, they promise you everything, it give us nothing, you know."
Foreman: "Some people believe the President has not recognized any social motive for the violence."
President George Bush, May 1, 1992: "It's not a message of protest. It's been the brutality of a mob. Pure and simple."
Foreman: "People here say the President should listen."
Woman on street: "Who's going to listen? I bet they listen now. They listen now, won't they. If this is where you have to get their attention, damn it, get it. Any way you can."
Foreman: "Increasingly, people are saying that all of the violence had very little to do with Rodney King. Instead it was the desperate call of a community fighting for change. Tom Foreman, ABC News, Los Angeles."
Foreman's story reflected bias by spin; bias by selection of sources; and bias by commission. Foreman's spin on what caused the riots (the federal government failed to address inner-city problems and that the riots were a "desperate call of a community fighting for change"), matched the liberal spin at the time. Conservatives believed the individuals who committed the violent acts were responsible, not societal pressures.
Except for a George Bush soundbite, which Foreman used to back his thesis that Bush "doesn't get it," the other four soundbites supported the liberal view on what caused the riots. Bias by commission came in Foreman's declaration as a fact beyond dispute that "federal funding for social services has fallen, many have disappeared. Gone are programs for job training, health care, child care, and housing." That's a ludicrous assertion, since federal funding for virtually every social program grew faster than inflation during the 1980s.
Second, here's a March 23, 1992 CBS Evening News story on child poverty:
Anchor Connie Chung: "A new snapshot today of the health and well-being of children in this country. For a growing number of them, it's not a pretty picture. Eric Engberg reports on the young face of poverty in America."
CBS News reporter Eric Engberg: "The way America treats its children from newborns to teens has deteriorated to danger levels according to a study out today. This premature baby, born to a cocaine-using mother in a Washington hospital, weighed one pound, ten ounces at birth. Such underweight births, often a precursor to serious health problems, are on the rise across the country."
Dr. Victor Nelson, Greater SE Community Hospital: "Here over the last few years, we have doubled this to almost fifteen percent."
Engberg: "Other yardsticks for measuring child well-being compiled by the child advocacy group Kids Count point to trouble. While the death rate for infants has declined, the teen years have gotten more dangerous. Violent teen deaths climbed eleven percent in five years. Reason: soaring rates for murder and suicide. More children are having children; there were 76,000 more babies born to single teens in 1989 than in 1980. The number of children living in single-parent families has grown by two million in the decade. The study found one in five children was poor, an increase of twenty-two percent during the eighties."
Douglas Nelson, Annie E. Casey Foundation: "And if we don't turn these numbers around in the decade, we, I mean every American regardless of age or their family status, we're going to be in deep trouble."
Engberg: "As child poverty has grown, social workers have encountered more homeless children."
Marlys Wilson, social service worker: "They forget how to laugh, they just sit, they cry a lot. We have a lot of kids that cry. They've lost a sense of trust."
Engberg: "Americans are very aware that something is wrong in the way children are treated. A poll released with today's survey found that adults, by a margin of two to one, think today's kids have it worse than their parents did. Eric Engberg, CBS News, Washington."
Engberg's story demonstrated five types of bias. First, bias by story selection. A liberal organization released a study with a liberal theme and CBS considered it newsworthy. Second, bias by labeling. The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, are liberal advocacy groups. Engberg failed to properly identify them. Third, bias by commission. Without citing any statistical source, Engberg insisted "social workers have encountered more homeless children." He also cited, without any balancing counterpoint, the Casey Foundation's claim that child poverty increased 22 percent in the 1980s. In fact, even the Children's Defense Fund, a left-wing lobby for increased welfare dependency, calculated that the percentage of children in poverty declined from 22.3 percent in 1983 to 19.6 percent in 1989.
Fourth, bias by omission. In building a case for how the welfare of children deteriorated in the '80s, Engberg excluded critics like Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector, who told
The New York Times the report was "pure mental rubbish" that "ignores $150 billion in welfare; so it doesn't look at the children's standard-of-living conditions." Census Bureau statistics don't consider substantial non-cash welfare benefits such as housing assistance and Medicaid. The exclusion of critics like Rector brings us to Engberg's bias by selection of sources. All three espoused the same point of view.
END of book excerpt
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