Does liberal media bias really exist?
Published 10:27 pm Wednesday, May 27, 2015
When I was young, my Dad often complained about how liberal journalists lost the Vietnam War and drove Richard Nixon from the White House. This may explain my interest as an economist in media bias. Many people in a red state like Alabama probably believe, like my Dad, that the national news media is liberal, with the exception of Fox News.
Persistent media bias is harder to square with economics than you might imagine. Let me explain some of the challenges.
First, let’s consider documenting liberal bias. Media watchdogs like to identify news stories exhibiting liberal bias. But what exactly constitutes bias? The clearest case would be factual errors benefitting the liberal position. To prove inaccuracy, you must know the truth, and researchers like me will want to know how you know the truth. If your source is Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, we won’t be impressed. In short, proving factual errors requires independent reporting.
The human element of reporting, the pressure of deadlines, and the impossibility of including every detail inevitably produce errors and omissions. The relevant question is whether errors and omissions more often benefit liberal or conservative positions. Limits to our perceptions and recollections uncovered by psychologists suggest that we might see bias where none exists. We are more likely to recall stories we disagree with than ones we agree with. You might point to several stories from the last week with liberal bias and forget the stories with conservative bias. Furthermore, extensive knowledge about issues you care about allows you to identify numerous omissions in a story. But a liberal might tick off an equally long list of omissions on the other side.
Research does consistently find that journalists are more likely to vote Democratic or describe themselves as liberal. The imbalance is even more pronounced at “elite” national news organizations. Yet will liberal reporters necessarily bias the news? Reporters are trained to report the facts objectively regardless of their personal opinions, and surely some liberals will report objectively.
Bias could still emerge unconsciously, as personal views can inevitably affect our perceptions. If so, a preponderance of liberal journalists can result in biased news. Former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg’s books offer valid examples of bias of this type. But fairly easy antidote for unintentional bias exists: install some conservative editors to review stories. Owners of newspapers and TV stations should have a profit incentive to do this. Pervasive liberal bias should alienate conservatives, reducing the ratings or circulation and consequently revenue and profit.
Surely liberal reporters would not accept a conservative review of their stories, right? But if unintentional bias undermines objectivity in reporting, perhaps they would. And if not, liberal reporters might accept conservative review to keep their jobs. Reduced ad revenue due to liberal bias could trigger staff cuts.
Perhaps the owners are also liberal and want the news slanted. This explains why bias is not corrected, and there have been some liberal media moguls like Ted Turner (CNN) and Philip and Katherine Graham (the Washington Post). But conservative media moguls are probably more common in U.S. history. Fox’s Rupert Murdoch is best known today, while in the past the owners of CBS, Time, and the Los Angeles Times were all notable Republicans.
Today corporations own most major media outlets. Journalism professors endlessly criticize corporate pursuit of profit as compromising the quality of news. But profit-hungry corporations seem unlikely to miss an obvious measure like conservative editors to ensure balance.
Technology has greatly reduced the potential for a uniform liberal (or conservative) bias across all news sources. Such a news monopoly would leave citizens no source for unbiased news. Fifty years ago we had three broadcast TV networks, while most cities had one or two daily newspapers. The advent of cable TV and the Internet have eliminated any potential for liberal bias across all news outlets. Partisan news sources present their own challenges, but they will have to wait for another column.
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. Respond to him at email@example.com and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.