by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

Accusations that the news media are biased are now so common as to become cliché.  Undoubtedly, the media are biased.  In fact, bias is inevitable in human decision making.  Unfortunately, one of the greatest political challenges facing American and other political cultures is the conflation of bias with lying.  The U.S. and international news outlets may indeed show bias, in a variety of ways.  Yet the recent trend of conflating bias with lying is both baseless and deeply disturbing.  The facts reported in the mainstream news media are accurate.  When they are not, retractions are issued.

One of the best-known authors to draw attention to news media power was Walter Lipmann.  In his book Public Opinion (1922), Lipmann pointed out that most people did not observe major world events in person.  Instead, we rely on secondhand re-tellings of these stories. Lipmann called this “the picture in our heads.”  Later in the 20th Century, mythologist Joseph Campbell reminded readers that pre-modern societies relied not on the news, but rather on oral storytelling, myths, and legends to account for things not observed directly, which is something we need to do in order to make sense of the world and our place within it.

In the U.S., the belief that the news media should be objective did not become widespread until the early 20th Century.  Prior to that, newspapers were generally published by political parties for the purpose of advancing the party’s agenda.  The modern-day ideal of the nonpartisan journalist developed as more and more Americans learned to read and newspaper subscriptions became more common.  Yet even William Randolph Hearst’s early twentieth century media empire depended heavily on sensationalistic “yellow” journalism, including the notorious “Remember the Maine” stories that falsely claimed that the Spanish had sunk an American ship near Cuba.  This fueled the drive toward the Spanish-American War.  Yet, as even Hearst himself would report after the short war ended, the ship was in fact sunk by a boiler explosion.

Emporia, Kansas journalist William Allen White was another force toward objectivity in reporting.  Politically active himself, and a friend to powerful people including President Theodore Roosevelt, White was a strong advocate of advancing his opinions via editorials, which were published separately from the news section.  Regarded as embodiments of small-town America, White’s editorials became legendary.   However, he also believed that editorial content should be labeled as such, and separate from news reporting.  He was joined by a host of others.  The first university School of Journalism was founded at the University of Missouri in 1908, and it remains one of the nation’s most prestigious.

During and after World War II, radio and then television news reporters were among the most trusted voices in America, regardless of one’s partisanship.  Personalities such as Edward R. Murrow (CBS radio), Walter Cronkite (CBS television), John Chancellor (NBC television) and Peter Jennings (ABC television) were frequently listed among America’s most relied-upon people, all the way into the first years of the 21st Century.  Now, this has changed.

Particularly notable is conservatives’ lack of faith in the mainstream news media.  In a January 2020 survey, the Pew Trust found that a majority of Republicans surveyed distrusted NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS News.  Of the outlets mentioned, the only one that won majority conservative support was FOX, trusted by 60% of Republicans.  However, even this has eroded since FOX called the 2020 election for Biden.  After the election, a USA/Suffolk News Poll found that trust in FOX among conservatives had plummeted to 34%.  This has accelerated a trend that was already afoot among conservatives–particularly Trump supporters–to turn to online commentary sites such as Breitbart and NewsMax for their news, despite the fact that these outlets often fail to fact-check their reporting, and frequently circulate conspiracy theories such as QAnon. Former President Trump’s first Chief Strategist was Steve Bannon, a founding member of Breitbart who was instrumental in promoting Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that was a forerunner of QAnon.

Of course, news reporting does favor some perspectives over others.  Bias can be categorized various ways.  First, it is important to note that bias may be unconscious.  It is powerfully tempting for all of us to take the perspectives of our in-groups as a baseline establishing what constitutes truth, and to be wary of different perspectives.  One useful approach to classifying bias separates gatekeeping bias from slant.   Gatekeeping bias refers to a possible tendency for reporters to pick and choose what they cover based upon their ideological leanings.  Slant refers to the interpretation of events given in the news story.  Two recent studies indicate that reporters do a pretty good job of controlling for these, regardless of their own political opinions.

Authors John J.G. Hansell, John B. Holbein and Matthew R. Miles tackled the issue of gatekeeping bias in a 2020 article for Science Advances.  They identified reporters’ biases via two means.  First, they asked a sample of local newspaper reporters from several different communities to self-report their political leanings with a survey, and second, they did a meta-analysis of the reporters’ contacts on Twitter and the political leanings that said contacts held.  Both approaches reached the same conclusion:  reporters are remarkably more liberal than the American people as a whole.

Next, Hansell and colleagues conducted an experiment in which they mailed out press releases to the reporters inviting them to interview a new candidate for state legislature.  The candidates were not real.  They varied the candidate descriptions and party affiliations.  Some were Democratic, some Republican, some liberal, some moderate, and some conservative. Hansell et al observed no variation in the likelihood that the reporters would contact the (imaginary) campaign to request an interview.  Despite the fact that most of these reporters were liberal, they were not any more likely to contact the liberal or moderate candidates than they were the conservatives, nor any more likely to contact the Democratic ones than the Republicans.  It was the story, not their own political leanings that drove the reporters’ decisions.

What about slant?  While selection bias would affect the choice of stories covered, slant refers to the way in which they are covered–the interpretations of facts included with the reporting of the facts themselves.  Ceren Budak, Sharad Goel, and Justin M. Rao tested slant by identifying a large subset of articles from a variety of outlets.  They used both mechanical sorting via keywords and similarities, as well as human classification, to identify slant.  Their findings were that most news outlets were right in the middle between Democratic and Republican slant.  Fox News (newscasts only, not editorial programs) and the Wall Street Journal exhibited some lean to the right, or Republican side, but significantly less than some would hypothesize, while the L.A. Times, New York Times and Huffington Post exhibited only modest lean to the left, or Democratic side.  Overall they found that the New York Times and Fox News were closer to one another than many observers would have guessed.  Most other sources were directly in the middle with no slant at all.  Only the sampled outlets known for partisan content, Breitbart on the right and the Daily Kos on the left, exhibited a great deal of slant.

However, one earlier study of think tanks generated a different conclusion.  Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo (2003) examined congruence between members of Congress and media reporting which mentions think tanks.  They found that most of the media outlets studied were more likely to cite the think tanks that were also often mentioned by liberal members of Congress.  Fox News (again, the news portion only, not commentary), the Drudge Report and ABC News were the most centrist.  The other outlets relied primarily on liberal think tanks, when they cited research. The authors controlled for mentions of the think tanks which were ironic or disapproving.

While those on the political right allege a liberal bias, those on the left suggest corporate bias.  What does the research show?  One example is a new study by  Samuel Stabler and Marc Fisher (2020), who find that if a media outlet has an advertising relationship with a brand, there is a modestly reduced chance of the outlet covering negative events with that company.  However, this was not the primary goal of their study and they do stress that the relationship is only modest.

At this point, it may be tempting to revert to the old clichés.  Is this just “lies, damned lies and statistics”– a quote originated by others and popularized by Mark Twain?   After all, the findings of these studies vary, indicating that even with rigorous methods, one’s research question can still influence the results of study.  The first two studies cited here showed no bias, the second two did find bias– two different types of it.  But all of these studies have some critical things in common.  First, none of them argue that reporters intentionally select or slant stories based on their own political views.  And second, none alleges that the media simply fabricate false stories.

On the second, incidents of reporters fabricating stories are quite rare.  One exception is the ex-reporter Stephen Glass, who wrote dozens false stories for The New Republic in the late 1990s.  Fact-checkers found it increasingly difficult to verify Glass’ claims, and eventually he was exposed.  He was forced to resign and a retraction was issued.  Glass’ story later became a movie.  The New Republic clearly should have caught Glass’ fabrications earlier, and the scandal exposed cracks in their fact-checking.  However, the editors and even Glass himself took full responsibility.  In the retraction, TNR editors noted that Glass generally sprinkled false claims amongst true ones in the same article, making it more difficult for fact-checkers unless they were very rigorous.  However, they also noted that “[w]e offer no excuses for any of this.”

United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”  With increasing numbers of Americans getting news from separate outlets based on our pre-existing biases, the divide appears to be deepening.  Professionally-trained reporters and editors working for serious news outlets go to great pains to fact-check their stores.  A certain amount of bias may still creep in, and that bias may even be unconscious.  However, bias must not be conflated with lying.  Even if a legitimate, professional news outlet is biased, there is no reason to accuse them of disseminating lies.  The accusation is simply false.

 

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter