The Public Recognizes the Media’s Liberal Bias
Americans’ perception of the national media as too biased and too liberal have grown significantly over the past two decades. In less than twenty years, since the 1985 Times Mirror polls began routinely assessing the public’s perceptions of the national media, the percentage of Americans who perceive a liberal bias has doubled from 22 percent to 45 percent, nearly half the adult population. Even Democrats now generally regard the press as a liberal entity.
In 1985, 22 Percent Saw Liberal
Bias: Back in 1985, the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press surveyed 4,000 Americans to document their attitudes toward the news media. Generally, the results showed positive attitudes toward journalists, who were awarded high marks for “believability” and “likeability” by the public. “Network anchorpeople, correspondents and commentators all get higher believability scores than the President,” Ronald Reagan, the Times Mirror poll observed.
On the other hand, “although Americans like the press, the public also expresses serious reservations about press practices and performance,” the report noted. “Clear majorities feel the news media are too invasive and too negative. A close majority [53 percent] feels that the press tends to ‘favor one side’ in its coverage of issues. A plurality [45 percent] senses ‘political bias’ in reporting....Slightly over one-fifth of the sample (22 percent) believes news reporting is liberally biased.”
In the 1990s, More Faulted One-Sided
News: Since that survey was taken, the gap between the media and the public has grown considerably. A dozen years later, the same research group — now the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press — found that “the American public is more critical of press practices, less enthusiastic about the news product and less appreciative of the watchdog role played by the news media than it was a dozen years ago when The People and The Press surveys were inaugurated.”
In March 1997, two-thirds of the public (67 percent) felt that “in dealing with political and social issues” news organizations “tend to favor one side.” That was up 14 points from the 53 percent who gave that answer in 1985. In an indication that media liberalism was to blame, conservatives were most likely to detect favoritism. According to the poll, Republican voters were “more likely to say news organizations favor one side than are Democrats or independents (77 percent vs. 58 percent and 69 percent, respectively).”
Of respondents with an unfavorable view of network TV news, 50 percent did not give a reason for their dissatisfaction, leaving “news is biased” as the most cited reason at 14 percent. Another seven percent listed “give opinions not facts,” and three percent gave “too liberal” as their response. Those reasons totaled 24 percent; conservative bias did not make the list.
Three in Four See
Bias: Pew’s pessimistic findings were matched by a 1996 Harris poll of more than 3,000 adults conducted for the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). According to CMPA’s analysis, “nearly two-thirds (63 percent) believe one side is favored in presentation of the news; an even larger majority of 77 percent thinks that there is at least a fair amount of political bias in the news they see.”
“This bias is described as liberal by a plurality (43 percent) of all adults,” the report continued, while 19 percent described a conservative bias. CMPA discovered that “nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of all Republicans believe that the news media favor one side in their reporting...compared with only two of five (40 percent) Democrats.”
Interestingly, CMPA’s analysis concluded that while “complaints about bias used to come mainly from political conservatives, our survey indicates that this limitation no longer exists....Even self-described liberals agree: 41 percent see the media as liberal, compared to only 22 percent who find the news to be conservative. Among self-designated conservatives, of course, the spread is even greater: 57 percent say the media are liberal and 19 percent see them as conservative.”
“These findings challenge the argument of some journalists that bias is purely in the eye of the beholder. Although conservatives are three times more likely to see liberal rather than conservative bias, moderates and liberals alike see liberal bias in the media twice as often as they see conservative bias,” CMPA concluded.
Journalists Think They’re Doing Well; Public
Disagrees: A 1998 survey of 3,000 Americans sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) as part of a $1 million project “to improve the credibility of newspapers and journalism” found three-fourths of the public (78 percent) agreed that the media are biased. When asked specifically about the slant of their hometown newspaper, nearly half (47 percent) said their local paper was more liberal than they were, with 34 percent perceiving the newspaper as more conservative.
As part of their credibility project, ASNE also surveyed more than 1,700 newspaper editors and staff, most of whom denied that biased news was a problem. When asked to grade their own newspapers on many of the different facets of bias, the majority of journalists tended to give themselves high marks, feeling “their paper does an ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ job,” ASNE stated in
Examining Our Credibility: A Report for the ASNE Journalism Credibility
That ASNE study also determined that a significant percentage of journalists disagreed with the public on whether it journalists’ principal duty was to analyze and interpret the news or to report the facts: “While 93 percent of average Americans express a desire to get their news ‘straight up,’ believing that ‘the major job of newspapers is to get the facts right, not to tell me how to interpret those news events,’ only 68 percent of journalists believe in this mission.”
2000: Nine in Ten Say Views Affect
News: A Pew survey conducted in the final weeks of the 2000 campaign showed further deterioration in the media’s public image. According to the report, “over the past eight years, there has been an increase in the number of voters who say that reporters often allow their political preferences to shape news coverage. Fully 57 percent of voters hold that view now, compared to 49 percent in September 1992. Nearly nine in ten (89 percent) say that journalists at least sometimes let their political views affect coverage, while just 9 percent say this seldom or never occurs.”
As the earlier surveys had shown, much more of the public detected a pro-liberal tilt than a pro-conservative skew in the press. “Twice as many voters [47 percent] say the media is pulling for a Gore victory compared to those who think the media is hoping for a Bush win [23 percent],”the survey revealed, although, paradoxically, the Pew poll also found that a wide majority of the public believed both candidates had been treated fairly by the press.
Six in Ten See Political Bias &
Inaccuracy: After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the public’s approval of the news media increased along with other institutions, but that increase proved short-lived. Another Pew survey, this one conducted in July 2002, found that “public criticism of the news media, which abated in response to coverage of the 9/11 attacks, is once again as strong as ever.” That poll showed nearly six out of ten Americans (59 percent) agreed that news organizations “are politically biased,” while almost the same percentage (56 percent) agreed that “their stories and reports are often inaccurate.”
Three Times More See Liberal Bias than Conservative
Tilt: A Gallup poll conducted in February 2003 asked whether, “In general, do you think the news media are — too liberal, just about right, or too conservative?” As the other polls had discovered, far more respondents identified liberal bias as the problem (45 percent) as worried about a conservative tilt (15 percent), while just 36 percent said coverage was about right.
Plurality of Democrats See Liberal
Bias: In a July 2003 survey, Pew found that twice as many Americans (51 percent) believed news organizations have a liberal bias than a conservative bias (26 percent). Not only did a majority of Republicans and independents hold this view, but a plurality of Democrats (41 percent) thought the media had a liberal bias, compared with 33 percent of Democrats who saw a conservative bias.
The public is not wrong: news organizations are, in fact, disproportionately liberal, and far too many reporters approach their stories with a liberal mindset. Every study of the past 25 years has proved this point. The only question is when will the media elite recognize that a liberal bias erodes their credibility with mainstream and conservative audiences, and make ideological diversity in their newsrooms a goal?
Conclusion: A Double-Standard on Diversity
For years, enhancing the diversity of newsroom staffs has been a central priority for reformers both outside and inside the news media, particular within the rarified media elite. Of course, when they talk about more “diversity,” media chiefs almost always mean increasing the percentages of women reporters, African-American reporters, Asian-American reporters, Hispanic reporters, or representatives of other demographic minorities. Their argument: a newspaper or television station cannot be fair and balanced if its staff does not reflect the community they serve.
The media have taken the need to improve their demographic diversity very seriously. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) each year categorizes more than 50,000 individual newsroom employees to determine the precise percentages of minorities and women who work at the nation’s newspapers. The editors’ October 1998 statement on diversity insisted upon the following goal: “The nation’s newsrooms must reflect the racial diversity of American society by 2025 or sooner. At a minimum, all newspapers should employ journalists of color and every newspaper should reflect the diversity of its community.”
But when it comes to the political and ideological make-up of newsrooms, the media’s pro-diversity logic breaks down. On the one hand, those who wish for more demographic diversity say reporters are not interchangeable — a white male reporter and an Hispanic female reporter, for example, would make different decisions about how to cover a news story as a consequence of their different backgrounds and experiences. Thus, a diverse news staff would help a news organization remain sensitive to all sides, resulting in better and fairer news coverage.
But few in the media acknowledge the corresponding requirement for ideological diversity. While it seems obvious that audiences would benefit if the news, especially political news, was reported and edited by a diverse mixture of liberals, conservatives and moderates, most influential media figures deny that journalists’ political views affect the news. Either journalists are so lacking in ideology, or their professional norms are so strictly enforced, that it makes utterly no difference whether newsrooms include more liberals — and far fewer conservatives — than the communities they cover.
All of these studies show the news media are far more liberal than the public, and the most elite news organizations — the networks, big newspapers and newsmagazines — are the most liberal of all. The Media Research Center’s documentation of media content over the past two decades shows this liberalism does skew the news.
Journalists, after all, are not robots — their profession requires them to make choices. Liberal journalists often choose story topics that represent a liberal agenda, they choose to interview liberal-leaning policy experts, and they question officials from a mainly liberal perspective. At the same time, they rarely choose to focus on issues representing the conservative agenda, they choose to minimize the number of conservative policy experts they interview, and they rarely challenge public officials with questions representing a conservative point of view.
Individually, such decisions may be entirely defensible, but collectively they push news content to the left. And while conservative journalists may make entirely different choices, introducing a rightward bias, it is an indisputable fact that liberals in the media vastly outnumber the conservatives.
It’s not a vast left-wing conspiracy, but the effect is the same. The media elite would like us to believe that their news is impartial, objective and non-partisan. But the news they produce is slanted — tilted in favor of liberal policies and liberal politicians and against conservative policies and conservative politicians.
If news reporters were as ideologically diverse as their readers and viewers, it follows that much of the bias that tarnishes the media elite would disappear. If executives, editors and producers insisted on equal treatment of conservatives and liberals, much of the public’s confidence in the news media ability to be fair and objective would be restored.
The public clearly sees the media’s bias. It is up to the media to acknowledge it.
The Media Research Center
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