The BS on Bias 

“Fairness” debate misses the point.

GOLDBERG: Oh so wrong.
  • GOLDBERG: Oh so wrong.

This weekend, the annual conference of the International Communication Association was held in Chicago. Scholars from all over the world came to discuss the latest research in political communication and media studies. One presentation, Friday's session on media bias, was of particular interest to me as it was based on my work as a graduate student.

Research on the media has provided more questions than answers. Part of the problem is proving a causal relationship between any two phenomena (say, news coverage and public approval of political candidates). However, one thing that rings true time and time again is something called the hostile media effect. It's the idea that no matter their political views, people believe the news is always slanted against them. So when we talk about media bias, the issue is somewhat of a moving target.

Early studies on bias focused on the amount of coverage that political parties received on national newscasts. If the networks spent more time on Democrats, some suggested this was proof of a liberal bias. However, these studies didn't take into account the content of that coverage. Just because one party gets more air time doesn't mean it was positive.

Conservatives have made the phrase “liberal media” a staple of modern political discourse, but there's really no hard evidence to show this is true. Best-sellers like former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg's “Bias” attempted to show this was the case, but that book, like others by Ann Coulter and the like, were based on anecdotal evidence. Once you come up with a way to put numbers to it, the picture looks a little different. One team of researchers found that when news outlets talked about media bias, 90 percent of the time they were talking about “liberal bias.” So, even their coverage of bias was biased.

Most studies to date have looked at elections (Does one candidate receive more favorable treatment than the other?) But what about issues? Going beyond whether the coverage is positive or negative, what are the arguments based on and who gets quoted? I wanted to look at something that was politically divisive, an issue where the lines were clearly drawn. The State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, was a perfect fit.

SCHIP is a government program aimed at providing health care for children in low-income families. The program is administered by each state (in Arkansas, it's called ARKids First) and is hugely popular with the public and their representatives. Legislation to expand the program passed both houses of Congress but the bill was eventually vetoed by President Bush, who argued the program would lead to “government run health care,” and that the program was too expensive.

So here we had a perfect case. SCHIP was a government health care program aimed at helping children and supported by Democrats. If the media truly were liberal, they would surely show their true colors on this issue. But that's not what happened.

The coverage of SCHIP's expansion was slanted in favor of the Bush administration's position (55 percent of the coverage was slanted against the program). But once you looked past the tone, it got even worse. The administration was the most-quoted source by far and when combined with other Republican sources, outnumbered Democratic ones by a nearly five to one margin. 

Negative arguments were ideological (i.e. “socialized medicine”) and economic (i.e. “this costs too much”), two things that scare the public when it comes to health care. Positive coverage was based mostly on the program's efficiency, a much less emotionally-charged argument and one that is less likely to hit home with the public.

So on SCHIP, the media were far from balanced. Some questions remain. If a program has immense popular support should the coverage really be 50/50 in the first place? Also, there's got to be something said for objective truth. A lot of the positive coverage was based on facts — that the program would cover more children, for example. Should that be considered positive, or just neutral?

My study focused on major newspapers and television networks, institutions that are losing their influence. Future studies will have to look at other sources, including news blogs and other social media. In an increasingly fractured and so called “hostile” media environment, where people can seek out sources that comport with their beliefs, objective truth is increasingly harder to come by and distortions thereof more difficult to identify.        




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