Media Bias Is Real, Finds UCLA Political Scientist

While the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is conservative, the newspaper's news pages are liberal, even more liberal than The New York Times. The Drudge Report may have a right-wing reputation, but it leans left. Coverage by public television and radio is conservative compared to the rest of the mainstream media. Meanwhile, almost all major media outlets tilt to the left.

These are just a few of the surprising findings from a UCLA-led study, which is believed to be the first successful attempt at objectively quantifying bias in a range of media outlets and ranking them accordingly.

"I suspected that many media outlets would tilt to the left because surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democrat than Republican," said Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist and the study's lead author. "But I was surprised at just how pronounced the distinctions are."

"Overall, the major media outlets are quite moderate compared to members of Congress, but even so, there is a quantifiable and significant bias in that nearly all of them lean to the left," said co‑author Jeffrey Milyo, University of Missouri economist and public policy scholar.

The results appear in the latest issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which will become available in mid-December.

Groseclose and Milyo based their research on a standard gauge of a lawmaker's support for liberal causes. Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) tracks the percentage of times that each lawmaker votes on the liberal side of an issue. Based on these votes, the ADA assigns a numerical score to each lawmaker, where "100" is the most liberal and "0" is the most conservative. After adjustments to compensate for disproportionate representation that the Senate gives to low‑population states and the lack of representation for the District of Columbia, the average ADA score in Congress (50.1) was assumed to represent the political position of the average U.S. voter.

Groseclose and Milyo then directed 21 research assistants — most of them college students — to scour U.S. media coverage of the past 10 years. They tallied the number of times each media outlet referred to think tanks and policy groups, such as the left-leaning NAACP or the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Next, they did the same exercise with speeches of U.S. lawmakers. If a media outlet displayed a citation pattern similar to that of a lawmaker, then Groseclose and Milyo's method assigned both a similar ADA score.

"A media person would have never done this study," said Groseclose, a UCLA political science professor, whose research and teaching focuses on the U.S. Congress. "It takes a Congress scholar even to think of using ADA scores as a measure. And I don't think many media scholars would have considered comparing news stories to congressional speeches."

Of the 20 major media outlets studied, 18 scored left of center, with CBS' "Evening News," The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ranking second, third and fourth most liberal behind the news pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Only Fox News' "Special Report With Brit Hume" and The Washington Times scored right of the average U.S. voter.

The most centrist outlet proved to be the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." CNN's "NewsNight With Aaron Brown" and ABC's "Good Morning America" were a close second and third.

"Our estimates for these outlets, we feel, give particular credibility to our efforts, as three of the four moderators for the 2004 presidential and vice-presidential debates came from these three news outlets — Jim Lehrer, Charlie Gibson and Gwen Ifill," Groseclose said. "If these newscasters weren't centrist, staffers for one of the campaign teams would have objected and insisted on other moderators."

The fourth most centrist outlet was "Special Report With Brit Hume" on Fox News, which often is cited by liberals as an egregious example of a right-wing outlet. While this news program proved to be right of center, the study found ABC's "World News Tonight" and NBC's "Nightly News" to be left of center. All three outlets were approximately equidistant from the center, the report found.

"If viewers spent an equal amount of time watching Fox's 'Special Report' as ABC's 'World News' and NBC's 'Nightly News,' then they would receive a nearly perfectly balanced version of the news," said Milyo, an associate professor of economics and public affairs at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Five news outlets — "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," ABC's "Good Morning America," CNN's "NewsNight With Aaron Brown," Fox News' "Special Report With Brit Hume" and the Drudge Report — were in a statistical dead heat in the race for the most centrist news outlet.  Of the print media, USA Today was the most centrist.

An additional feature of the study shows how each outlet compares in political orientation with actual lawmakers. The news pages of The Wall Street Journal scored a little to the left of the average American Democrat, as determined by the average ADA score of all Democrats in Congress (85 versus 84). With scores in the mid-70s, CBS' "Evening News" and The New York Times looked similar to Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who has an ADA score of 74.

Most of the outlets were less liberal than Lieberman but more liberal than former Sen. John Breaux, D-La. Those media outlets included the Drudge Report, ABC's "World News Tonight," NBC's "Nightly News," USA Today, NBC's "Today Show," Time magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, NPR's "Morning Edition," CBS' "Early Show" and The Washington Post.

Since Groseclose and Milyo were more concerned with bias in news reporting than opinion pieces, which are designed to stake a political position, they omitted editorials and Op‑Eds from their tallies. This is one reason their study finds The Wall Street Journal more liberal than conventional wisdom asserts.

Another finding that contradicted conventional wisdom was that the Drudge Report was slightly left of center.

"One thing people should keep in mind is that our data for the Drudge Report was based almost entirely on the articles that the Drudge Report lists on other Web sites," said Groseclose.  "Very little was based on the stories that Matt Drudge himself wrote. The fact that the Drudge Report appears left of center is merely a reflection of the overall bias of the media."

Yet another finding that contradicted conventional wisdom relates to National Public Radio, often cited by conservatives as an egregious example of a liberal news outlet. But according to the UCLA-University of Missouri study, it ranked eighth most liberal of the 20 that the study examined.

"By our estimate, NPR hardly differs from the average mainstream news outlet," Groseclose said. "Its score is approximately equal to those of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report and its score is slightly more conservative than The Washington Post's. If anything, government‑funded outlets in our sample have a slightly lower average ADA score (61), than the private outlets in our sample (62.8)."

The researchers took numerous steps to safeguard against bias — or the appearance of same — in the work, which took close to three years to complete. They went to great lengths to ensure that as many research assistants supported Democratic candidate Al Gore in the 2000 election as supported President George Bush. They also sought no outside funding, a rarity in scholarly research.

"No matter the results, we feared our findings would've been suspect if we'd received support from any group that could be perceived as right- or left-leaning, so we consciously decided to fund this project only with our own salaries and research funds that our own universities provided," Groseclose said.

The results break new ground.

"Past researchers have been able to say whether an outlet is conservative or liberal, but no one has ever compared media outlets to lawmakers," Groseclose said. "Our work gives a precise characterization of the bias and relates it to known commodity — politicians."

-UCLA-

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