Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Bias in News Reporting

When Fox News came out with its claim that it offers "Fair and Balanced" reporting and their star performer, O'Reilly, started calling his show the "No Spin Zone" most of us, probably including Fox employees, had to smile. Everyone knows that Fox is heavily biased in favor of conservative points of view except, of course, those who are on the political right who may regard the reporting on this cable outlet as fair and balanced since it accords with their views of what is going on. It is interesting that Fox has not, so far as I know, claimed that it is objective. It is also interesting that no one else claims to be fair and balanced so arguably we have an instance here of "methinks the lady doth protest too much." The Times tells us that they present "all the news that's fit to print." I'm not clear what that means exactly. I'm not aware of any other such claims but I suspect those I don't know about would be similarly amusing.

I am prompted to blog on bias because my local paper ran an op-ed piece yesterday by Cal Thomas, a regular contributor, titled "The Words are Out: Big Media bias is becoming more and more evident." He may not be responsible for the precise language used in this head but he would surely approve of it. In his piece we find the continuing conservative refrain that the broadcast networks like to employ liberal democrats and they exhibit a liberal bias. He writes, "For people who believe the broadcast networks are biased and employ mostly people who favor liberal Democrats and oppose conservative Republicans" I won't complete his thought since all I care about is the antecedent of his conditional which expresses a proposition it is perfectly clear he believes is true. I have always been puzzled by this point of view since broadcast networks that have news shows and newspapers, for that matter, are owned by giant corporations or rich people, many of whom are conservative (all of the Murdoch media outlets, for instance,). I give you in evidence the conservative bials of news outlets, the Sinclair group which owns a large number of TV stations and which forced its TV stations to run a long anti-Kerry piece during the last Presidential election campaign. Check out what Viacom owns at the Columbia Journalism Review's web site and ask yourself this: Is Viacom a liberal corporation? I would imagine that should CBS be promoting left wing causes Viacom would tell them to stop. What we have here in the claim by Thomas that the networks like to hire Liberal Democrats rather than Conservative Republicans is the Big Lie. If you tell a whopper long enough people will tend to believe it and conservatives have been harping on the anti-conservative, pro-liberal bias they claim exists in the major media for years -- decades, perhaps. Interestingly, Thomas does not name names -- we must accept his point of view on faith.

The last time I remember liberals simlarly squealing like s stuck pig was during the Vietnam War when the content of the news reports about this war were fed to journalists by the military and the Johnson administration. That was before journalists started going out into the field to see what was going on. After a long while, coverage became more independent of the military's preferred point of view. Of course, liberals like to poke a stick in the eyes of people like Rush Limbagh and aura Ingraham.

At the Media Research Center's annual "Dishonor Awards" dinner which Mr. Thomas hosted, the "winners" were announced. "Who were the judges who picked the `winners'?", you ask? Did they include Ted Kennedy or Tom Daschle or Hillary Clinton along with some conservatives. Of course not. They were people like Rush Limbaugh, Steve Forbes, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Robert Novak and Mary Matalin, people who are merely conservative and others that are very right wing. And who were the winners? Naturally they were anyone who said things favorable to liberal persons (people like Dan Rather who are perceived by the right wing as liberal) or took liberal positions. Notice that the name "Media Research Center" in no way suggests that this organization is of, by, and for the political right. They use the magic word "research" which suggests that this Center is objective in the way that we hope scientists are. Naturally, the Media Research Center has no such lofty goal in mind. It is of, by, and for conservatives, including those on the right wing.

Bias in news reporting can enter in a variety of ways -- the selection of news stories, the selection of sources for these sources, the writing of the stories, and the placement of these stories all play large roles. It is my belief, based on a number of years of thinking and reading about bias dating back to when I started working on my book on the Language of Politics (and political journalism), that what aggravates conservatives the most about news coverage is the selection of the subjects of news stories. Right now, most of the news coming out of Iraq is negative and conservatives don't like hearing or reading negative stories for they imply that their conservative President is not doing a very good job. I suspect they want to read not about American casualties or infighting among those Iraqis charged with coming up with a set of leaders for their new government but about Americans creating schools and hospitals. The negative stories find their way to the front page in just the same way that tornadoes, car crashes, and big fires and floods do -- people are interested in these things. If journalists consistently reported in a way that the people don't like, they will quit reading or listening to the media that present their stories. That's how the free market works.

I did a search for "all the news that's fit to print" and came up with a very long story on the National Review's web site arguing that the New York Times biases its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian against Israel. By and large, coverage of this conflict has been pro-Israeli in this country. Actions by Israel that kill Arabs who are in Gaza and the West Bank and actions by Hamas and Al Fatah and others that result in Israeli deaths are portrayed very differently. The latter are treated as the result of terrorist acts, while the latter are not. This would be a very good story to read carefully to see if you think the Times coverage is biased or is simply "fair and balanced." I have my own ideas but I would be interested in yours.

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Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that said "Annoy a liberal - work hard an be happy." I wonder if the perception is that liberals like bad news because that precipitates change, a liberal virtue.

9:57 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Very interesting obeservation. In fact, you may have struck the right note for I believe that not only do liberals like bad news of certain sorts because it may stimulate change but also conservatives don't like bad news of certain sorts because they don't want to see changes.

Take news coverage of increasing in global warming. Liberals love the new facts (warmer oceans, glaciers vanishing, and Artic ice melting at a rapid rate) since they want to try to force Bush to take action and/or use the facts to help the Democrats take control of Congress. Conservatives don't like these facts, prefering instead coverage of facts about long term perfectly normal weather cycles.

10:21 AM

Blogger Balfegor said...

Right now, most of the news coming out of Iraq is negative and conservatives don't like hearing or reading negative stories for they imply that their conservative President is not doing a very good job.

I think, as always, it depends on what news you read. Reading Iraqi blogs (which, admittedly, have their own biases, since they typically come from educated and privileged sectors of society) gives a somewhat more mixed picture. Reading military blogs, from people out in the field, gives a neutral-to-positive picture. Looking at the (liberal) Brookings Institute figures actually makes the situation look quite good, by historical standards.

I suspect they want to read not about American casualties or infighting among those Iraqis charged with coming up with a set of leaders for their new government but about Americans creating schools and hospitals.

The casualties are fine -- it's the sense that the news either do not understand the larger strategic context in which those casualties are occurring, or refuse to present those casualties in any meaningful context. On the other hand, a lot of this is the administration's fault, because they have been miserable at actually getting their Iraq policy out to the public.

With the infighting, it is not the reporting on the infighting, which is highly relevant to the success or failure of our endeavours. It is the laughably hysterical tone in which newspapers -- the NYT in particular -- have reported this infighting. E.g. after that one mosque bombing, the Times reports that talks are in ruins! And the talks resume the next day.

The negative stories find their way to the front page in just the same way that tornadoes, car crashes, and big fires and floods do -- people are interested in these things.

Yes, and I have no doubt that these accurately reflect the prejudices and interests of the public who read the New York Times (or other large, liberal papers). Which is comprised largely (though certainly not exclusively) of New Yorkers. Who are largely (though certainly not exclusively) extremely liberal.

In the same way Fox addresses a conservative market, the New York Times addresses a liberal market. What's shocking about this? Conservatives' complaint about the Times is that they pretend to objectivity, when in fact they reflect the parochial outlooks of their reporters, their editors, and their readers, all of whom exist in a particular social and political milieu. Which is New York. Which is liberal. On social issues, at least. And on the flip side, liberals (e.g. Al Franken) think the Fox motto is transparently bunk, and make the same claims about framing and selectivity that conservatives make with respect to most of the major market-dominant urban papers and television news services.

On the other hand, Fox seems to do a better job of responding to its viewers' interests, because they're still growing, whereas the New York Times appears to be suffering from shrinking circulation and a declining stock price. So the Times is doing something wrong. Maybe it needs to pander to New York liberals more openly. (haha)

Re:Very interesting obeservation. In fact, you may have struck the right note for I believe that not only do liberals like bad news of certain sorts because it may stimulate change but also conservatives don't like bad news of certain sorts because they don't want to see changes.

Actually conservatives love (or avidly read, at least) other sorts of bad news, largely about the collapse of civilisation and culture, particularly when it can be connected with hippies and welfare. They are fascinated by budgetary projections indicating that Social Security as currently constituted will destroy the American economy (and pessimistic projections about Japanese and French pensions burdens). They are also fascinated news of UN sex slavery scandals and general corruption, stories about excessive jury verdicts and kooky legal antics, about the failures of the French dirigiste state, and about Britain's National Health. They enjoy stories about demographic apolcalypse, which for whatever reason have been coming out even in the major media quite regularly of late.

10:52 AM

Blogger Balfegor said...

I should also add, it occurs to me, that when conservative organisations criticise the New York Times for bias, their objective probably isn't actually for the New York Times to change its tone to be more conservative-friendly.

I think it's more of a consciousness-raising endeavour, to alert people (1) to the political orientation of most of the people who write and present the news, and (2) to potential framing biases. Widespread dissemination of these criticisms has, I think, succeeded extremely well in neutralising the prestige institutions like CBS or the New York Times enjoyed in the past. They no longer have the power they once had to shift the terms of public debate. And this is what conservative organisations want. They might want the New York Times beaten in a little more, but they've already made extraordinary progress in cutting down the public reputation and prestige of the Times and other media outlets.

They're doing it with academic commentators too, mostly in soft/humanities fields, and shifting the terms of the public discourse significantly in the process.

10:59 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I look at all 'The Media' w/ a cynical eye. I don't think it's really about who's biased & who's not.
Like you say, It's a free market.
Television, Radio, & newspapers rely on advertising & having an audience for that advertising.
Rush Limbagh wouldn't be on the radio if nobody wanted to listen to him.
The facts of any story are objective, of course. But, when some facts are reported & some are not, I guess 'objectivity' is lost in the spin.
I would have to say, don't assume any news isn't biased.
We have a responsibility to try to think objectively.
I haven't got to the National Reveiw article yet.

11:16 AM

Blogger Mr K said...

I think there should probably be a move for more objectvity in television media- I suspect a comparison of television to newspapers is not necessarily a good one, as newspapers normally wear their biases on their sleeves- one expects the New York Times to have a liberal leaning.

I think the problem comes from overt bias. I live in the UK, and don't get Fox, so this is from perception rather than actual experience, but I think most liberals problem with Fox is not so much the news chosen to cover, as this is an issue with all channels, no matter how objective they claim to be. The problem comes from commnetary and analysis, something performed quie frequently on Fox (as I understand, and am probably wrong in this). Clearly there is obvious bias here, and I think thats the biggest problem there, rather than choice of news story.

Of course, I could be talking nonsense here....

12:35 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

balfegor, you made some very nice observations and, in the process, revealed my liberal bias. Of course, now that you point it out, conservatives also like bad news if its the right sort.

J_G, your comment on "liberal talking points" being dictated by the Times flies in the face of one liberal study of blogs showing that conservative blogs tend to hit the same talking point each day while liberal blogs do not -- like Democrats generally, they don't belong to an organized political party/point of view. The claim is that the big time conservative blogs exhibit less stickiness (return visitors) as the big time liberal blogs. Take a look at http://www.mydd.com/story/2004/9/13/134457/344 and see what you think about this.

The irony of this conservative attack on the NYTimse is that we at Ohio State had our own nonpolitical reason to question its integrity when they ran a story about the OSU football program predicated primarily on the word of a former TA who, it seems, later went to a mental institution. A committee looked at the claims made and found no foundation for them.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker, which is unrelentingly liberal to a degree that even I can't stand it, ran a little thing on a NYTimes obit about some very old guy who had his testicles removed because he feared he might die of testicular cancer as his brother had. Interestingly, the guy didn't have his testicles removed and the brother who died didn't die of testicular cancer.

While on this point of bias, when I was preparing for my book on the language of politics I desperately wanted it to be as objective, fair, and balanced as possible but I couldn't find the flaws in liberal reasoning. Then one day I had an Eureka! moment when I realized that the flaws in liberal thinking where the same as the flaws in conservative thinking, namely each push (if I may put it oversimply) its own half truth. It was then that I decided to be a left-leaning centrist, at least officially.

1:34 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Great comments so far, everyone. I recall that I wrote on this subject a while back in this post. I came to the opposite conclusion from Mr. K: overt bias is less dangerous than hidden bias. "[G]o with the crazy right-wingers on Fox, because when somebody calls Bush a great man because of what he did today, you can decide for yourself whether to believe that characterization. It's less dangerous simply because it's obvious. Then check out the liberal media to see exactly what it is that they're hiding from you or lying about."

I've been told that an old professor here says that every morning he reads the New York Times, and then to get the other side of the story he reads the Bible.

I'm not really sure if there is or is not a liberal bias in main-stream news outlets. Perhaps the things that make good news (or at least that sell papers or increase ratings) are also things that sound good to liberals. Personally, I like "man bites dog" kinds of stories. That's why my usual source for news (when I have time) is Fark.

2:19 PM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

Kelly, this one's for you since you like "man bites dog" stories.

A friend of my daughters worked for a park district and was in charge of their wildlife sanctuary. In that capacity, Peggy ended up caring for an animal that either had some coyote in it or was all coyote, I don't recall.

Anyway, their relationship was still fresh and Peggy had not firmly established her dominance when the incident took place.

On that particular day, the coyote/dog decided to assert itself with Peggy and lay claim to the alpha position. Without hesitation Peggy clamped down on the animal's ear with her teeth and bit it as hard as she could. The animal got the message. Peggy was boss. She had no more trouble with coyote/dog after that.

Did you like that one, Kelly?

5:09 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I started to read the article by National Review, I was thinking to myself, "this seems a bit nit-picky."
About 1/2 way thro I decided to check out National Reviews home-page, paying attention to the books they reviewed, the articles they printed & who was advertising on their site.

My conclusion? National Review is an obviously 'biased' magazine, itself. I would be stupid to take their word for truth.

If I was interested in the 'New York Times' article, the smart thing would to be to read it myself.

9:56 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

...spinsters...I was one....

Darlin', that's such a brave and moving testimonial. There IS someone out there for each of us! ; )


What was that rule of thumb again? Don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see (read)?

3:46 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Yes, yes, of course; out of country but not complete contact with the linguistic herd. : )

I realize spinster could be a new coinage from "political spin" + agentive -ster, but the fact that the word already exists with a rather different meaning is what tickled my giggle button when you used it.

(You leave Bill O'Reilly playing to an empty house? Doesn't that constitute, like, "cruelty to furniture" or something? I usually flip off the tube before heading out.)

9:06 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

SusieQ: that's the archetype! It's perfect.

2:31 PM

Blogger isabelita said...

We are children of our age,
it's a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
all affairs - yours, ours, theirs -
are politcal affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.

Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don't say speaks for itself.
So either way you're talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,
you're taking political steps
on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it's a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don't even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil.

Or a conference table whose shape
we quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.

Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

by Wislawa Szymborska

5:00 PM

Blogger La Madre said...


8:30 AM


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