Science + Technology

Media Bias Is Real, Finds UCLA Political Scientist


Whilethe editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is conservative, the newspaper'snews pages are liberal, even more liberal than The New York Times. The DrudgeReport may have a right-wing reputation, but it leans left. Coverage by publictelevision and radio is conservative compared to the rest of the mainstreammedia. Meanwhile, almost all major media outlets tilt to the left.

Theseare just a few of the surprising findings from a UCLA-led study, which isbelieved to be the first successful attempt at objectively quantifying bias ina range of media outlets and ranking them accordingly.

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

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

Theresults appear in the latest issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, whichwill become available in mid-December.

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

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

Next,they did the same exercise with speeches of U.S. lawmakers. If a media outletdisplayed a citation pattern similar to that of a lawmaker, then Groseclose and Milyo's methodassigned both a similar ADAscore.

"Amedia person would have never done this study," said Groseclose,a UCLA political science professor, whose research and teaching focuses on theU.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 newsstories to congressional speeches."

Ofthe 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.

OnlyFox News' "Special Report With Brit Hume" and TheWashington Times scored right of the average U.S. voter.

Themost centrist outlet proved to be the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." CNN's "NewsNightWith Aaron Brown" and ABC's "Good Morning America" werea close second and third.

"Ourestimates for these outlets, we feel, give particular credibility to ourefforts, as three of the four moderators for the 2004 presidential andvice-presidential debates came from these three news outlets — Jim Lehrer, CharlieGibson and Gwen Ifill," Groseclosesaid. "If these newscasters weren't centrist, staffers for one of the campaignteams would have objected and insisted on other moderators."

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

"Ifviewers 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 nearlyperfectly balanced version of the news," said Milyo, an associate professor of economics and public affairs atthe University of Missouri at Columbia.

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

Anadditional feature of the study shows how each outlet compares in politicalorientation with actual lawmakers. The news pages of The Wall Street Journalscored a little to the left of the average American Democrat, as determined bythe average ADAscore 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. JoeLieberman, D-Conn., who has an ADA score of 74.

Mostof the outlets were less liberal than Lieberman but more liberal than formerSen. 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," Timemagazine, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, NPR's "Morning Edition," CBS'"Early Show" and The Washington Post.

SinceGroseclose and Milyo were more concerned with bias in news reporting thanopinion pieces, which are designed to stake a political position, they omittededitorials and Op‑Eds from their tallies. Thisis one reason their study finds The Wall Street Journal more liberal thanconventional wisdom asserts.

Anotherfinding that contradicted conventional wisdom was that the Drudge Report wasslightly left of center.

"Onething people should keep in mind is that our data for the Drudge Report wasbased almost entirely on the articles that the Drudge Report lists on other Websites," said Groseclose. "Very little was based on the stories thatMatt Drudge himself wrote. The fact that the Drudge Report appears left ofcenter is merely a reflection of the overall bias of the media."

Yetanother finding that contradicted conventional wisdom relates to NationalPublic Radio, often cited by conservatives as an egregious example of a liberalnews outlet. But according to the UCLA-University of Missouri study, it ranked eighth mostliberal of the 20 that the study examined.

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

Theresearchers took numerous steps to safeguard against bias — or the appearanceof same — in the work, which took close to three years to complete. They wentto great lengths to ensure that as many research assistants supportedDemocratic candidate Al Gore in the 2000 election as supported President GeorgeBush. They also sought no outside funding, a rarity in scholarly research.

"Nomatter the results, we feared our findings would've been suspect if we'dreceived support from any group that could be perceived as right- orleft-leaning, so we consciously decided to fund this project only with our ownsalaries and research funds that our own universities provided," Groseclose said.

Theresults break new ground.

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



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