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date: 08 July 2020

Theories of Media Bias

Abstract and Keywords

Ideological or partisan media bias is widely debated despite disagreement about its meaning, measurement, and impact. The assumption that news should be objective is itself the object of considerable debate. Assertions of a conservative or establishment bias in the news often draw on critical theory, which argues that news preserves the hegemony of society’s ruling interests. Assertions of liberal bias draw on surveys of journalists’ attitudes and content analyses of news coverage. This case has recently been bolstered by economic modeling. However, numerous content analytic studies have failed to find a liberal bias. This has led to efforts to explain public perceptions of liberal bias in terms of cognitive psychology and elite manipulation. Other explanations include structural biases and media negativism. Internet-driven changes in journalism, including an increase in partisan news, may force a rethinking of the entire debate or even render it irrelevant.

Keywords: media bias, political bias, ideological bias, selection bias, commercial bias, partisan press, objectivity, propaganda model, hostile media effect, negativity

Media bias is a concept the widespread use of which belies equally widespread disagreement about its meaning, measurement, and impact. Although the concept is debated by scholars and the general public alike, academic and public opinion often diverges in the meanings ascribed to the term and the conclusions drawn about its nature and prevalence. In academic circles, media bias is referenced more often as a hypothesis to explain patterns of news coverage than as a component of any fully elaborated theory of political communication. Indeed, Entman (2007, 163) recently bemoaned its status as a “curiously undertheorized staple of public discourse about the media … bias is yet to be defined clearly, let alone received much serious empirical attention.”

Although studies have examined it in many countries, the most concentrated empirical research on the topic has taken place in the United States (Kaid and Stromback, 2008), reflecting the predominance of empirical social scientific perspectives as well as the historical development of political journalism in this country. The US commercial media system, which functions relatively free of state control and has its own professional norms, was the originator of “objective” journalism and remains its chief expositor, however objectivity is defined (Rothman, 1992; Starr, 2004). With the loosening or breakup of government control over electronic media through deregulation in recent decades, many European journalists now seek to emulate the American model, although the European conception of journalism as a literary narrative still functions as a countervailing tradition (Hallin and Mancini, 2004; Kaplan, 2009; Donsbach and Klett, 1993).

The discussion that follows deals with broad-based efforts to characterize media bias in political or ideological terms, rather than with regard to specific characteristics such as nationality, race, religion, gender, and sexual preference, or in particular political controversies such as abortion, gun control, or abortion rights. However, negativity or bad news bias is included because it is often presented as an alternative explanation for findings differently characterized as ideological or partisan bias. Where partisans may see a bias against their side, it is argued, the negative coverage may actually reflect a more general tendency to criticize all sides.

(p. 404) Objectivity and Bias

Charges of media bias draw their strength from the widespread assumption that the media should be unbiased or objective, particularly in their treatment of politics and public issues. To be sure, there are coexisting traditions, such as “watchdog” journalism, enterprise or investigative reporting, interpretive journalism, literary journalism, advocacy journalism, and most recently, civic journalism. Since the early twentieth century, however, American journalism has staked its claim to professionalism and social service primarily on the separation of facts and values in reporting (Schudson, 2001). Objectivity has become a core professional value in other countries among independent media as well, although it is interpreted somewhat differently in other national and cultural settings (Donsbach and Klett, 1993).

The development of an objectivity standard in American journalism has often been explained in terms of technological advances and changing economic incentives that occurred during the nineteenth century (Shaw, 1967; Stensaas, 1986; cf. Carey, 1989). However, Schudson (2001, 158) has argued against “economic and technological reductionism” in explaining the rise of objectivity. Instead he distinguishes between objectivity as a journalistic practice, on the one hand, and a professional norm, on the other. The adoption of objectivity as an industry standard was part of a broader societal trend toward rationalization and professionalization (Schudson, 1978, 122). Journalists thereby established their professional integrity by distinguishing themselves from the partisan manipulation of information involved in propaganda and public relations (Kaplan, 2009).

From the outset, however, there has been a stream of criticism against the adoption of objectivity as a journalistic norm. It has been described as an unattainable ideal, a subjective convention, and a mask for personal or political interests (and in that sense, itself a form of political bias) (Tuchman, 1972; Schiller, 1981; Mindich, 1998; Overholzer, 2004). Nonetheless, mainstream American journalism is still usually measured against some standard of dispassionate information-based reportage, which exhibits a concern for fairness, balance, and impartiality (Schudson, 2001).

As a result, bias is frequently conceptualized negatively, as the absence of one or more of these conditions. The term is variously used to refer to distortions of reality, favoritism or one-sidedness in presenting controversies, and closed-minded or partisan attitudes. In the process, it has been treated both as an independent variable in explaining the character of news coverage and a dependent variable to be explained by the news production process.

Scholars accounting for the sources of bias have emphasized the capitalistic system within which the media operate; the ownership and management of news organizations; organizational dynamics within those organizations; and the norms, values, and attitudes of journalists. Although studies of the nature of bias cover a wide range (p. 405) of material, they focus primarily on political ideology or partisanship, negativism, and various structural elements built into operational definitions of news.

Much of the literature criticizes such biases for favoring the existing power structure, hindering civic participation or democratic outcomes, and failing to provide audiences with the information they need to make rational decisions about public affairs. Television has been the leading target of such criticism, but it frequently extends to other media as well. The dramatic changes in communication introduced by digital media in recent years pose a special challenge to theories of bias, as news becomes more malleable, interactive, and audience driven.

Structural (Nonideological) Biases

The debate over bias usually concerns the media’s putative ideological or partisan tilt. However, it is often treated in a much broader context, as any deviation from an objective account of reality. This approach dismisses claims of objectivity as either irrelevant or an impediment to a real understanding of media content. Insofar as news is a specific form of discourse, any of its characteristics can be seen as bias. Such biases are often cast as structural, either to indicate that they are inherent in news or to distinguish them from political or ideological biases.

There is little agreement on the nature and derivation of structural biases. They may be traced to the effects of the economic marketplace, governmental pressures or regulation, organizational processes, and the professional norms and opinions of individuals who construct the news. For example, Cline (2009) includes the following in a lengthy list of structural biases: commercial bias, temporal bias, visual bias (for television), bad news bias, narrative bias, status quo bias, fairness bias, expediency bias, class bias, and glory bias (tendency to glorify the reporter). There is a case to be made for the existence of all these biases. As this example shows, however, listing structural biases can easily become an exercise in taxonomy, with possible overlap among categories. Moreover, the open-endedness of such exercises makes theory building problematic.

Nonetheless, researchers have found that particular structural elements can prove crucial to explaining both the content and effects of news stories. For example, Iyengar (1994) found that in experimental settings, television’s tendency to frame events episodically led viewers to see individuals rather than society as responsible for social problems depicted, while thematic framing produced the opposite effect. More generally, Bennett (2004) argues that the news often creates an illusory portrait of the world, which stems from production biases such as skewed patterns of sourcing, including reliance on official sources, and with content biases toward creating dramatic, fragmented, personalized, and order-restorative depictions of reality.

(p. 406) Conservative Bias: The Critical Tradition

Many scholars have criticized the media for impeding social change and serving powerful interests. But the notion of a conservative media bias is most fully integrated into the tradition of critical theory. This approach treats news as an ideological product that shapes mass consciousness in a manner that preserves the hegemony of society’s ruling interests. A major component of this argument involves the corporate ownership and control of the commercial news organizations that dominate the media landscape, particularly in the United States.

The most influential scholarship in this area is Bagdikian’s (2004) work detailing the ever-increasing concentration of the media industry. In Bagdikian’s view, owners and advertisers shape the news both directly and indirectly, through structural biases linked to news production. Such biases include professional routines that define news in terms that favor the rich and powerful, for example, through an overreliance on official sources and beats, which marginalizes dissenting voices and activities.

The most prominent expositor of this tradition, Robert McChesney, argues that the declining quality of contemporary journalism in the United States is ultimately rooted in the political economy of American capitalism (McChesney, 2008). This view sees the media as a government-sanctioned oligopoly whose misinformation serves corporate interests, rather than providing the tools for public enlightenment and emancipation (McChesney, 2004a). The result is the suppression or constriction of genuine debate by the dominant media firms, which trivializes and marginalizes opposition to the status quo (McChesney, 2004b). Professions of objectivity merely serve to divert attention from the fact that news is an ideological expression of economic interests.

While analysts such as McChesney and Hackett (1986; Hackett and Zhao, 1998) stay close to the neo-Marxist origins of this tradition (Jay, 1996), its most widely known formulation is Herman and Chomsky’s (1995) propaganda model. This model treats the media as a filtering mechanism that distorts reality in a manner that serves ruling elite interests by “manufacturing consent.” The original model identified five filters—ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak (media criticism), and anticommunism. Today the war on terror increasingly serves as the ideological equivalent of anticommunism (Mullen, 2009).

Critical theory treats the media primarily as agents of social control. However, some scholars writing from a critical perspective regard journalists less as passive corporate lapdogs and more as guard dogs who sometimes criticize the powers that be, but spring into action to protect the system whenever a serious threat to its stability arises (Olien, Donohue, and Tichenor, 1995).

Recent empirical studies have produced a more variegated portrait of the media’s social role as sometimes accommodating the needs of alternative and challenging groups (Demers, 2009). For example, Pollock (2007) found that local newspaper (p. 407) coverage, while often tilting along an “axis of inequality,” sometimes reflected the claims and interests of vulnerable and marginalized groups, rather than reinforcing inequality and elite privilege.

Notwithstanding such empirical studies, and despite its highly developed theoretical elaboration, critical theory’s frequent institutional locus, reliance on case studies, fusion of analysis with prescription, and own set of journals oriented toward critical theory and cultural studies, have sometimes led it along a separate track from much of the empirical communication literature,. However, it also provides a backdrop for many other criticisms of media conservatism or status quo bias (e.g., as sexist, racist, nationalistic, etc.) that are not necessarily grounded in a formal theoretical structure (Hardt, 1992). Finally, some scholars, such as Bennett, have tried to find a middle ground between the critical tradition and a pluralist tradition that upholds the importance of objectivity as a journalistic norm (Bennett and Lawrence, 1995).

The Liberal Bias Debate

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the critical approach, which treats journalism as an intervening variable in the political process, are theories that portray news bias as an expression of the manifest or latent ideologies of journalists. This view is usually encountered in the context of popular media criticism from the political Right, which often takes as its starting point the political liberalism or Democratic-leaning voting patterns of major media journalists (Rusher, 1988; Goldberg, 2002; Bozell, 2004).

Attitudes vs. Content

The personal liberalism of journalists has been demonstrated by numerous surveys, which also show that liberal perspectives are most pronounced at prominent media outlets and on social and cultural issues (Lerner, Nagai, and Rothman, 1996; Kohut, 2004; Weaver et al., 2006; Noyes, 2008; Mayer, 2011). These findings hold for editors as well as reporters, although not necessarily for newspaper publishers (Media Research Center, 1998; Neuwirth, 1998).

Based partly on this evidence, Rothman (1979, 1992) posited that the national media represent the emergence of a postindustrial elite whose post-bourgeois values (Inglehart, 1971, 1977) place them at odds with traditional elites such as business and the military (cf. Bell, 1973, 1976). Lichter, Rothman, and Lichter (1990) combined survey data with content analysis to argue that journalists unconsciously project their shared, predominantly liberal, assumptions onto their coverage.

The existence of unconscious partisan biases operating in news judgments was supported by a multinational study by Patterson and Donsbach (1996). With few exceptions (Kuypers, 2002; Groseclose, 2011), however, neither the methodology nor the (p. 408) conclusions of this approach have been adopted by most media scholars. Few scholars have disputed the predominance of liberal attitudes among journalists, although there are exceptions here as well (Croteau, 1998). Based on a participant-observation study of network news organizations, Gans (1980) concluded that the news reflects a set of “enduring values” held by journalists, which include ethnocentrism, altruistic democracy, responsible capitalism, small-town pastoralism, individualism, moderatism, the desirability of social order, and the need for national leadership. Gans located the origin of these values in the early twentieth-century Progressive movement.

Most important, communication scholars have largely failed to find liberal bias in places where one would expect to see it, such as coverage of presidential campaigns and political institutions. For example, Niven’s (2002) comparison of the tone of coverage of similar objectively measurable conditions, such as unemployment and murder rates, under Democratic and Republican administrations at different levels of government found no consistent evidence of partisan favoritism in the reports.

Similarly, in a widely cited meta-analysis, D’Alessio and Allen (2000) examined the content analysis literature evaluating presidential campaign news over several decades. They found no consistent bias toward either Democratic or Republican candidates in three areas: gatekeeping bias (selecting stories that favor one party over the other), coverage bias (the amount of coverage of each party), and statement bias (the valence or tone of coverage).

Finally, any consideration of the major media’s ideological tilt must take into account the importance of two sources of overtly conservative perspectives on the news: talk radio and Fox News Channel (Alterman, 2003; DellaVigna and Kaplan, 2006; Jamieson and Cappella, 2008). Their commercial success spawned liberal counterparts such as the now defunct Air America radio network and MSNBC’s shift to more liberally oriented programming (Oravec, 2005; Terwilliger, McCarthy, and Lamkin, 2011).

Increase in Partisanship

The effect of this shift toward more partisan news has been demonstrated by numerous content analyses. For example, in the 2008 general election MSNBC’s coverage of Barack Obama was more positive, and Fox News’s coverage was more negative, than the broadcast networks’ coverage (Pew Research Center, 2008). Similarly, during the 2004 election the broadcast network coverage favored Kerry, while Fox News coverage favored Bush (Pew Research Center, 2005).

The development of avowedly partisan electronic media organs may be part of a broader tendency in recent years for news outlets to become more opinionated. For example, in a study covering a decade of newspaper coverage, Puglisi and Snyder (2011) found that Democratic-leaning newspapers (as defined by their editorial endorsements) gave more coverage to scandals involving Republican politicians than scandals involving Democratic politicians, while Republican-leaning newspapers did the opposite, with the average partisan leanings of readers held constant. Similarly, (p. 409) pro-Democratic newspapers systematically gave more coverage to high unemployment during Republican administrations, while pro-Republican newspapers again showed the opposite pattern (Larcinese, Puglisi, and Snyder, 2011).

Alternative Approaches

The lack of evidence of consistently liberal media bias had led to efforts to understand the widespread and growing public perception to the contrary (Media Research Center, 2011) through the lens of cognitive psychology, by applying concepts such as the hostile media phenomenon, biased attribution, and the third-person effect (Davison, 1983; Vallone, Ross, and Lepper, 1985). The central point is that people’s perceptions of media bias are shaped more by their own perspectives than by actual media content (Dalton, Beck, and Huckfeldt, 1998). The public’s increasing belief in liberal media bias has also been explained as the product of a rhetorical strategy of conservative political elites seeking to gain a partisan advantage by delegitimizing the media (Domke et al., 1999).

However, debate over the media’s putative liberal tilt was recently rekindled by the work of Groseclose and Milyo (2005a, 2005b). Their novel methodology involved arraying media outlets along a left-to-right ideological spectrum, according to the ideological valence of activist groups and think tanks cited in news stories. Then they applied the same exercise to congressional speeches and matched the two lists. This procedure located most major media outlets to the left of the average member of Congress. Their conclusion that this finding demonstrates liberal media bias proved immediately controversial and has stimulated continuing debate (Gasper, 2011; Groseclose, 2011).

In addition, the controversy has been kept alive in recent years by an accumulating body of research done by economists, some of which appear to support the notion of a liberal bias. However, this research is sufficiently distinctive in both its theoretical orientation and its methodology to warrant separate consideration.

Economic Models of Bias

In recent years economists have played a growing role in developing new models of media bias based on supply and demand. Pioneering work by Hamilton (2004) showed that such recent changes in journalism as increased negativism and soft news, as well as an ideological tilt, could be at least partly explained as responses to changing economic incentives, many of them produced by technological advances. The fact that audiences gravitate toward news that reflects their own views (and regard news sources that challenge their views as biased) gains importance in this context, because maximum utility assumes the best match between the supply and demand sides.

Thus, a news consumer’s utility from seeking out news is maximized by matching the consumer’s own perspective (the demand side) with that of the news source (the supply (p. 410) side). As Hamilton (2004, 73) put it, “Political bias in media content is similar to product differentiation.” For example, he argues that a liberal perspective on television news on issues such as crime and education may reflect the marginal utility to the networks of increasing viewership among young females, who share both an interest in these issues and a liberal perspective on them.

Hamilton’s cross-disciplinary work has gained a wide audience among communications scholars. There has been less cross-pollination of other recent economic research, much of which aims at developing models that explain bias (or its absence) in terms of maximizing profitability. For example, Gentzkow and Shapiro (2008) argue that competition in the news market should lower bias, by providing consumers with feedback on inaccurate and distorted reporting (as in cities with competing newspapers). Alternatively, Mullainathan and Shleifer (2005) claim that competition is more likely to increase bias, by producing market segmentation along the lines of consumers’ own biases (as it has among the cable news networks).

These studies have so far produced no overall consensus among economists on media bias. However, those that do impute bias tend to locate it to the left of center (Puglisi, 2011; cf. Sutter, 2001). For example, in a theoretical supply-side approach, Baron (2006) argued that profit-maximizing news organizations have an incentive to permit biased reporting because it is most efficient to employ journalists who define career advancement partly in terms of promoting their own worldviews. Since US journalists lean toward the left in the aggregate, so will news coverage. In an empirical demand-side approach, Gentzkow and Shapiro (2006) arrayed newspapers according to their use of politically charged phrases (such as “death tax” or “workers’ rights”) that matched those preferred by Democratic or Republican legislators. They found that the average newspaper’s language was on the center-left, which was also close to the profit-maximizing point.

Along with the Groseclose-Milyo study, economic studies such as these have rekindled the liberal bias debate, which had seemed all but settled among communications researchers. Some of these studies rely on assumptions that may not reflect real-world conditions, and others may use imperfect measures of tone. Nonetheless, this work provides a fresh perspective that may further enrich this area of inquiry by stimulating new interdisciplinary approaches.

Media Negativity

Theories of media negativism provide an alternative to those of ideological bias, while retaining a focus on journalists’ personal attitudes and professional norms as causal agents. In line with the literature on cognitive distortions cited above, this concept also helps to explain the increase in public perceptions of media bias. With all else being equal, we would expect news consumers to be more likely to attribute negative media evaluations of their preferred policies and candidates to bias, while accepting (p. 411) negative evaluations of opposing policies and candidates as accurate reflections of reality. However, news coverage can still favor one candidate, officeholder, or policy over another, despite having an overall negative tone (Council for Excellence in Government, 2003; Farnsworth and Lichter, 2011).

In an early study, Robinson (1975, 1976) used the term “videomalaise” to describe the alienating effects of negative television news coverage of public affairs. However, media negativity first attracted sustained attention from scholars during the 1990s, as numerous studies suggested that negatively toned coverage was increasing, with detrimental effects on public discourse and civic engagement (Smoller, 1990; Patterson, 1993; Cappella and Jamieson, 1996; Just et al., 1996; Fallows, 1997). A parallel stream of research traced the increasing willingness of news organizations to focus on scandals involving the personal behavior of political actors and to adopt a prosecutorial style of coverage (Garment, 1991; Sabato, 1991; Kalb, 2001; Sabato et al., 2001).

Patterson (1993) argued that the political controversies of the 1960s and 1970s led journalists to play a more active role in politics, especially in presidential election campaigns. Instead of only reporting on candidate activities, journalists saw their new role as protecting the public from candidates’ efforts to deceive them. This gave campaign coverage an increasingly negative tone. It also led journalists to become a kind of third force in American politics, criticizing both major political parties in ways that increased the influence of journalists vis-à-vis politicians. Patterson (2000) later extended this criticism to coverage of government and public affairs.

Jamieson and her colleagues argued that the problem was not only negativism but cynicism, which included the use of strategic or conflict-oriented frames (Cappella and Jamieson 1996, 1997; Jamieson and Waldman 2003). The concept of strategic frames is analogous to what Patterson (1996) termed the media’s “game schema.” The cynicism of strategic framing lies in its implication that politicians’ rhetoric and behavior can be reduced to strategies of gaining power.

Jamieson and Cappella (1995) used experimental data to show how strategy frames produced a more cynical interpretation of politics than did issue frames. This could occur not only in campaign discourse but also in policy debates. For example, the debate over President Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform plan illustrated how strategic reporting can make people cynical about public policy. Cappella and Jamieson (1997) concluded that the media were creating a “spiral of cynicism,” in which cynical media portrayals of politics led audiences to view politics in a more cynical manner.

These theories of media negativism were criticized by Norris (2000a, 2000b), who argued that the effect of media exposure depends on the previous levels of trust and political engagement among audience members. Based on survey data from the United States and Western Europe, she argued that politically trusting and engaged individuals seek out more media coverage, which increases their trust and engagement. Norris termed this a “virtuous circle.”

Later studies have focused on how the process is affected by differences in types of media exposure and audience characteristics, such as partisan affiliation and level of trust. The most recent research suggests that the spiral of cynicism exists most clearly for (p. 412) the television news audience, harking back to Robinson’s early theory of videomalaise (Moy and Pfau, 2000; Valentino, Beckmann, and Buhr, 2001; Mutz and Reeves, 2005; Avery, 2009).

Conclusion

The debate over media bias has drawn on a wide range of theories and methods. The tradition of critical theory has produced a rich literature that portrays the news media as a conservative force in politics. To some degree, however, this conclusion is built into the theory itself. Conversely, much popular media criticism has posited that journalists’ personal attitudes produce a liberal tilt in their coverage. Most scholarly studies have failed to support this conclusion, however, and the increasing public perception of liberal media bias has been linked to audience biases and strategic efforts by conservative elites. However, recent studies have rekindled this debate, while attributing biased coverage to economic incentives rather than journalists’ mindsets. Finally, negativity bias provides a well-documented alternative explanation for perceptions of ideological bias in the news. However, negativity bias and ideological bias are not necessarily exclusive.

Thus, the question of whether the media have an ideological bias and, if so, in what direction it tilts is unlikely to be settled soon. In addition to competing approaches and conceptual differences, the development of theory has been slowed by the absence of agreed-upon metrics to measure bias. Much of the empirical research is based on content analyses of how individual issues or topics are covered, which do not permit generalizations about broader patterns of coverage. However, a number of approaches in recent years have sought to provide more systematic measures. These include comparisons of news coverage with measures of real-world conditions, such as economic indicators or crime rates, and attempts to link certain components of news stories, such as journalists’ choice of language and citation of sources, with their counterparts in the realm of partisan politics. Other approaches that have facilitated a broader perspective include meta-analysis and computer-assisted content analysis.

Another ongoing problem for this field lies in sorting out levels of analysis, based on competing explanations from different schools of thought. The same phenomenon may be explained differently in terms of alternative explanatory frameworks. For example, negativity bias has been interpreted as a product of journalists’ professional norms, an antipolitical progressive ideology, a watchdog mentality, and a conscious or unconscious response to economic incentives (cf. Schudson, 2007). Particular issues may be sorted out piecemeal, but there is currently little prospect of a fusion of theoretical approaches.

It may be that the ideologically relevant characteristics are overdetermined and cannot be broken out into separate, mutually exclusive components. Or previous research strategies may not have been sophisticated or inclusive enough. Entman (2007) takes a positive step by arguing that bias should be treated in the context of theories of media (p. 413) influence based on framing, priming, and agenda setting. Uses and gratifications theory, with its focus on active audience, may prove equally important in understanding the sources and dynamics of bias in the next generation of news media.

The digital revolution also poses a special challenge to theories of media bias. It is possible to overstate the impact of the Internet on the creation and distribution of news. For example, among the twenty-five most heavily trafficked news sites, twenty-two are those of legacy media or aggregators that rely heavily on traditional news organizations (Pew Research Center, 2011). Nonetheless, the study of media bias faces considerable hurdles in adapting to a media environment in which it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the journalists from the audience. News and opinion are becoming more difficult to disentangle, even as the dissemination of news becomes more interactive and user driven. Thus, a field of inquiry that is already characterized by great theoretical and methodological diversity faces new challenges in dealing with a media landscape that has a rapidly changing topography.

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