Communication Media Bias
by
Robert Lichter, Justin Rolfe-Redding
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0111

Introduction

Are the news media biased? This has long been a heated question in the public sphere, particularly in the American political setting. The question has drawn extensive attention from scholars as well as politicians and political partisans. The contentious nature of what constitutes biased and unbiased coverage—both conceptually and methodologically—has been a central concern for this literature. Indeed, a lack of commonly agreed-upon standards has limited the development of a coherent research tradition. This article focuses on media bias within the United States, which has seen the most robust debate and scholarly examination of the topic. It focuses principally on claims of ideological bias, along with the structural and negativity biases that are often presented as alternative explanations, rather than attempting to catalogue the panoply of issue-specific biases of which the media stand accused. While the fields of communication and political science have traditionally hosted investigations of media bias, economics has become a relatively recent addition to the scholarly conversation, generating work on new measures of bias and the role that audience preferences may play in producing slanted news. While arbitrating the existence and extent of bias has been a focus of research, other works have investigated what leads individuals to perceive bias (even in neutral reporting) and what effects biased coverage may have.

Journals

No specialized journals exist with a focus on providing a forum for research on media bias. Instead, scholarship on this topic is spread across a wide range of periodicals in the fields of communication and political science, such as Political Communication and the International Journal of Press/Politics. With the rise of econometric approaches to the study of media bias, economics journals such as the Review of Economic Studies have begun to play host to an increasing body of published work on the topic. Within communication, bias research is often found in journals dedicated to the study of journalism, such as the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, and mass communication more broadly, such as Mass Communication and Society, but also in the top publications in the field, such as Journal of Communication and Communication Research.

History and Theory

While bias is today widely regarded as a sin of journalism, the rise of impartiality and objectivity as media ideals and routines emerged only in the latter part of the 19th century in the United States. While the standard narrative of this history credits the mass circulation marketing dynamics of the penny press (Kaplan 2002), broader trends toward professionalization may also have been at play (Schudson 2001). From the beginning, debates about the definition of objectivity (and thus bias) and the possibility of its realization have plagued these concepts. While many scholars have accepted the idealistic notion of bias-free reporting, some have maintained it only as an aspirational ideal (Starkey 2007) and others criticized the traditional obsession with bias as distracting from true threats to journalistic quality, above all political partisanship (Hackett 1984). In either case, McQuail 1992 proposes a practical typology of biases. The diversity of perspectives on the meaning of bias is also reflected in the discussion of types of bias noted below, particularly structural biases.

  • Hackett, R. A. 1984. Decline of a paradigm? Bias and objectivity in news media studies. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 1.3: 229–259.

    DOI: 10.1080/15295038409360036Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hackett argues that the entire search for media [“objectivity”?] is fundamentally flawed. He questions whether objectivity can and ought to be an aspirational standard for journalism and criterion for bias and whether the prejudices of journalists are truly the principal obstacle to such objectivity. He also questions the sufficiency of content analytic methods to detect bias.

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  • Kaplan, R. L. 2002. Politics and the American press: The rise of objectivity, 1865–1920. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A historical content analysis of the press in Detroit over a fifty-five-year period. Charts the emergence of the objectivity standard via the penny press, in contradistinction to norms of the partisan press of the 19th century. Kaplan also critiques the supposed objectivity of the outlets that followed, arguing that they continued to remain closely aligned with powerful interests.

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  • McQuail, D. 1992. Media performance: Mass communication and the public interest. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

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    McQuail postulates two dimensions of bias: hidden versus open and intentional versus unintentional. Four types of bias emerge: partisan bias (open and intended), such as editorials; propaganda (hidden and intentional); unwitting selectivity (open and unintended), such as story selections that unwittingly reflect the assumptions of journalists; and ideology (unintended and hidden) that is coded into the text of news stories.

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  • Schudson, M. 2001. The objectivity norm in American journalism. Journalism 2.2: 149–170.

    DOI: 10.1177/146488490100200201Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A recount of the emergence of the modern journalistic ideal of objectivity and its practices and production patterns. Schudson contextualizes the rise of objectivity as a component of the professionalization of journalism in line with a broader social movement in this direction. The article pushes back against the explanation of objectivity as a move motivated purely by marketing pressures.

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  • Starkey, G. 2007. Balance and bias in journalism: Representation, regulation and democracy. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    While accepting that impartiality is inherently impossible in journalistic practice, Starkey defends it as an ideal worth striving for, given the crucial role of the media in a democratic society. Employing a variety of case studies, this book puts forward a theory of objectivity and balance together with consideration of the role of media ownership.

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Types of Bias

The classic debate on media bias is between contentions of conservative versus liberal ideological bias. While charges of conservative bias could arguably be traced to the 19th century and seminal critical theorists such as Karl Marx, claims of liberal media bias emerged in the 1950s among conservative activists and came to prominence in US public life a decade later. Whereas arguments for media liberalism tend to be based on the political persuasions of journalists themselves, contentions of media conservatism focus more on the ownership structure of media companies and the pressures of commercialism. McChesney 2008 argues that there is a continued conservative media behavior despite a shift from an “open conservatism, to a new, ostensibly nonpartisan or ‘objective’ professionalism” (p. 384). Others have argued that while the media may not display a distinctly ideological bias to the right or left, their coverage does contain a structural bias due to the constraints of media formats and journalism’s place as an establishment institution. In a notable counterpoint to the varied accusations of bias, a body of evidence also indicates that the media suffer from no consistent ideological bias in either direction.

Conservative Bias

Critiques of conservative bias in media coverage have a long history. Marxist and critical intellectuals have long contended that the media serve the interests of capitalist powers by serving as ideological conduits of false consciousness. Gramsci 1992 provides a classic articulation of this view with an analysis of the media as one of the cultural institutions responsible for the “hegemony” of capitalism. McChesney 1997, McChesney 2004, and McChesney 2008 are written by the doyen of the contemporary political economic critique of the media from the left, although the author positions his argument on the more concrete level of the causes and consequences of telecommunications policy for media ownership and performance. Bagdikian 2004 stakes out similar territory, assailing the consolidation of corporate media ownership. Herman and Chomsky 2002 paints with a somewhat broader brush, arguing for a systematic relationship between the interests of media corporations and the capitalist power elite. Concentrated corporate media ownership, overreliance on official sources, and advertiser influence are the origins of bias identified across these authors. These claims of conservative bias have been called into question by several other scholars. While not seeking to establish or debunk any side of the debate, Compaine and Gomery 2000 observe in the encyclopedic compilation of media ownership data they have compiled a greater degree of ownership diversity than do critics of consolidation. Demers 1996 articulates a direct refutation of the ills of corporate newspaper ownership, arguing that corporate professionalism can, in fact, increase journalistic quality.

  • Bagdikian, B. H. 2004. The new media monopoly. Boston: Beacon.

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    Argues that media ownership has become increasingly concentrated, with five major corporations owning a host of properties across the media spectrum that had been owned by the fifty most dominant companies in the early 1980s. Bagdikian states in this revised edition that this concentration benefits the rich and powerful in society, while marginalizing dissenting voices.

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  • Compaine, B. M., and D. Gomery. 2000. Who owns the media? Competition and concentration in the mass media industry. 3d ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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    A classic reference that provides a comprehensive catalogue of ownership across media, including newspapers, books, magazines, television, radio, music, film, and online. Although the 2000 edition is outdated due to recent changes in ownership across traditional and new media, it argues that the US media may not be as concentrated as Bagdikian and others contend.

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  • Demers, D. P. 1996. The menace of the corporate newspaper: Fact or fiction? Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press.

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    Demers offers a strong rejoinder to the view that corporate ownership of newspapers has a deleterious effect on quality and bias in journalism. Through fieldwork and statistical analysis, he argues that corporate ownership results in more professional management than local ownership of newspapers. Thus, it actually increases journalistic quality and editorial independence and diversity, while decreasing the emphasis on profits.

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  • Gramsci, A. 1992. Prison notebooks. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    A classic work of 20th-century Marxism, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, written between 1929 and 1935, argue that institutions, including the mass media, maintain capitalist power without the need for overt violence by convincing the working class that existing power structures are legitimate. Gramsci’s critique thus forms the basis for many contemporary leftist arguments about conservative bias in the media.

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  • Herman, E. S., and N. Chomsky. 2002. Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon.

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    Well known for its articulation of a “propaganda model” of corporate media control. The authors propose that the commercial advertising relationships and ideological sympathies of media owners lead them to support the interests of capitalist elites. The media “manufacture consent” of the broader populace necessary in a nominal democracy so that elites do not need to rule via open coercion.

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  • McChesney, R. W. 1997. Corporate media and the threat to democracy. New York: Seven Stories.

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    A short, popular press booklet that lays out McChesney’s critique of media ownership consolidation and corporate control.

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  • McChesney, R. W. 2004. The problem of the media: U.S. communication politics in the twenty-first century. New York: Monthly Review.

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    McChesney’s fullest and most focused presentation of his argument, a wide-ranging critique of the contemporary US media system, including its reliance on a profit-driven structure that breeds poor journalism, consolidated corporate ownership, and “hypercommercialism.” This situation is the result of government policy and constitutes a threat to democratic deliberation. The book also includes a critique of the “liberal bias” argument.

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  • McChesney, R. W. 2008. The political economy of media: Enduring issues, emerging dilemmas. New York: Monthly Review.

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    Provides a diverse look at McChesney’s research on political economy across many years. Covers the state of journalism, critical political economic analysis of the media, and chapters on media reform and politics.

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Liberal Bias

The argument for a liberal bias in the media has classically rested as an anecdotal charge raised by conservative activists (Major 2012) or via reference to the liberal dispositions of individual journalists (Weaver, et al. 2007). This has laid the charge open to criticism that the personal politics of reporters do not necessarily translate into slant in coverage (Alterman 2004; see also, Gans 1979, cited under Structural Bias). Content analytic work in the political science and economics fields has buttressed the liberal bias claim with evidence of actual skews in coverage (Groseclose and Milyo 2005; Lichter, et al. 1986; Lichter and Rothman 1999; Puglisi 2011; see also, Gentzkow and Shapiro 2010, cited under Economic Approaches). Kuypers 2002 offers an alternative approach, using close reading interpretive analysis of selected media flashpoints.

  • Alterman, E. 2004. What liberal media? The truth about bias and the news. New York: Basic Books.

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    Offers a rebuttal to claims of liberal bias across media, providing numerous anecdotal examples from recent political history. Alterman also offers an alternative position in his final chapter, making the case for conservative bias (see Conservative Bias), and could thus be classified as a thinker in that camp.

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  • Groseclose, T., and J. Milyo. 2005. A Measure of Media Bias. Quarterly Journal of Economics 120.4: 1191–1237.

    DOI: 10.1162/003355305775097542Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A much-discussed (and critiqued) analysis that presented a novel measure of media bias and concluded that almost all the major news outlets examined were to the left of center. The authors examined the frequency with which news outlets referenced various policy groups and compared this with the policy groups cited in statements of members of the US Congress.

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  • Kuypers, J. A. 2002. Press bias and politics: How the media frame controversial issues. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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    Applies a mostly rhetorical analysis to six case studies of speeches/interviews on race and gay rights, finding that the media consistently distorted the original statements to support a liberal bias.

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  • Lichter, S. R., and S. Rothman. 1999. Environmental cancer: A political disease? New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    One of a series of studies in which the authors use surveys of scientific experts as an “objective” referent against which to measure bias in media coverage of science-related issues. Content analysis showed that the media coverage diverged from the views of scientists but resembled the views of environmentalists, which were more similar to the views of journalists.

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  • Lichter, S. R., S. Rothman, and L. S. Lichter. 1986. The media elite. Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler.

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    This work is best known for its survey data indicating that elite journalists hold views on social issues that are to the left of the American public and religious beliefs that are more secular. The book pairs this finding with media content analysis to argue that this personal slant among reporters introduces unconscious bias into their coverage.

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  • Major, M. 2012. Objective but not impartial: Human events, Barry Goldwater, and the development of the “liberal media” in the conservative counter-sphere. New Political Science 34.4: 455–468.

    DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2012.729737Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A historical content analysis of the conservative Human Events magazine, this study notes the emergence of the liberal media argument in political discourse among movement conservatives around the time of Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid in 1964.

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  • Puglisi, R. 2011. Being the New York Times: The political behaviour of a newspaper. B. E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy 11.1.

    DOI: 10.2202/1935-1682.2025Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Puglisi examines New York Times coverage from 1946 to 1997, finding that coverage during presidential campaigns emphasized areas of traditional Democratic “issue ownership” (e.g., health care and labor issues) when the incumbent was a Republican. The fact that the slant occurred only under Republican incumbents implies a watchdog or anti-incumbent bias that is selectively applied against the GOP.

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  • Weaver, D. H., R. A. Beam, B. J. Brownlee, P. S. Voakes, and G. C. Wilhoit. 2007. The American journalist in the 21st century: U.S. news people at the dawn of a new millennium. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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    A basic reference providing survey results on the demographics, attitudes, and professional values of US journalists across print, broadcast, and online media. Provides data over the 1971–2002 period indicating that the political views of journalists were more liberal than those of the American public.

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Structural Bias

Many scholars contend that the news media, more than reflecting a partisan liberal or conservative bias, are characterized by institutional norms and organizational constraints that serve to slant coverage in a nonobjective or less than ideal direction. This structural bias is often described as pro-establishment, with the news media seen as a product of the social structures they report on. The news focuses on elite activities and maintenance of the existing order as the easiest means of news production, via ready access to official sources, conformity to existing journalistic frames and models of news, and accordance with deeper ideology that is more (Gitlin 1980) or less (Gans 1979) overt. Structural bias may function above and beyond any partisan bias that also influences coverage (Schiffer 2006). The works included here see structural bias originating from various sources: resource limitations; newsworthiness norms, such as conflict and personality (Schiffer 2006); established practices, such as the beat system (Tuchman 1978); production processes and ownership (Altheide and Snow 1979); the nature of the medium (Iyengar 1991); reliance on official sources (Bennett 2012, Hallin 1989); and broader ideology (Gans 1979). The precise contours of some of these structural biases remain a topic of scholarly debate. Entman 2003 offers a theory intended to expand upon and serve as a counterpoint to Bennett’s argument for media indexing and Hallin’s spheres of elite consensus or debate. Whereas indexing theory emphasizes the range of elite debate, Entman sees levels of influence from the White House down, each with less ability to introduce independent frames into circulation. Finally, the literature has been short on analysis providing routes to reduce structural bias in the media. Entman does theorize as to how lower-level counterframes can feed back up the sourcing hierarchy, either when there is elite disagreement or when media portrayals of popular opinion provide the opportunity for players to contest dominant frames as out of step with the majority.

  • Altheide, D. L., and R. P. Snow. 1979. Media logic. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    Introduces the concept “media logic” to refer to the processes that produce the lens through which modern media institutions interpret the world according to the dictates of various conceptual formats. They see the ownership, commercial, and industrial dimensions of media as pressures on the standardized production of newsgathering to conform to practical and cultural criteria.

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  • Bennett, W. L. 2012. News: The politics of illusion. New York: Longman.

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    Bennett discusses the phenomena of indexing as an expression of news illusion-making: He argues that media restrict (index) their coverage of various public policy perspectives to the range of debate expressed by leading government figures, failing to give voice to views outside this range or cover issues that are not a subject of disagreement among these figures.

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  • Entman, R. M. 2003. Cascading activation: Contesting the White House’s frame after 9/11. Political Communication 20.4: 415–432.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600390244176Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Entman posits a hierarchy in the amount of influence exercised by players in public debates on foreign policy. Message frames promulgated by the White House possess the most potency and attention from media, while other elites, such as congressional figures, experts, and advocates, must generally choose to acquiesce or contest the presidential narrative.

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  • Gans, H. J. 1979. Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon.

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    Gans engaged in direct participant observation and interviews at major news organizations between 1965 and 1978, which he supplemented with a qualitative content analysis. He noted a bias toward powerful individuals and institutions and a larger “para-ideology” that resembles the values of the Progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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  • Gitlin, T. 1980. The whole world is watching: Mass media in the making and unmaking of the new left. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Charts the role of the news media in the growth and decline of the college anti-war social protest movement of the 1960s. Gitlin provides a participant’s perspective as a past president of Students for a Democratic Society, a leading protest group. He argues that the media at first ignored the movements, then minimized their importance. Reporters would simultaneously focus on the fringe elements of the protests while emphasizing the views of official authorities over those of the protesters.

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  • Hallin, D. C. 1989. The “uncensored war”: The media and Vietnam. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Hallin provides a detailed historical account, coupled with a content analysis of television and newspaper coverage of the war. He concludes that the press privileged the accounts of political officials. As the composition of views within political elites about the war changed, so did news coverage, leading to greater anti-war sentiment.

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  • Iyengar, S. 1991. Is anyone responsible? How television frames political issues. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388533.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that news media shape perceptions of responsibility for social issues by the frames embedded in biased reporting routines. Journalists tend to report on issues in terms of personal narratives and discrete events (episodic framing) but fail to offer comprehensive accounts that provide context and comprehensive accounts of complex issues (thematic framing).

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  • Schiffer, A. J. 2006. Assessing partisan bias in political news: The case(s) of local senate election coverage. Political Communication 23.1: 23–39.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600500476981Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this study of local news media coverage, Schiffer differentiates between partisan bias and preferential news coverage due to journalistic judgments of newsworthiness (what he terms structural bias). He finds that structural bias accounts for the majority of slant in the volume and tone of newspaper coverage of candidates, while the remaining slant indicates a modest pro-Democratic bias.

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  • Tuchman, G. 1978. Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.

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    An ethnographic study of the newsroom that discusses how the organizational constraints, practices, and culture of journalism produce content. Tuchman found a news beat system that led reporters to form ongoing relationships with reliable and accessible officials, who then became frequent sources in news accounts. Events occurring in established venues (e.g., Congress) received disproportionate coverage because they fit within this beat system.

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Media Negativity

In place of bias toward one party or political ideology, some scholars have found a more general tendency toward critical, cynical, or scandal-focused coverage, a bias referred to as media negativism. The first systematic articulation of this critique emerged with Robinson 1976, an indictment of the “videomalaise” induced by political coverage on television. More scholarship emerged in 1990s, spearheaded by a substantial body of work by Cappella and Jamieson (e.g., Cappella and Jamieson 1997) identifying strategy- and conflict-oriented frames in political coverage (what Patterson 1993 termed “game schema”) as a principal cause of increasing political cynicism, alienation, and disengagement among the US body politic. This goes hand in hand with scholarship documenting an increase in the negative tone of journalism since the 1970s (Patterson 1993) and a growing appetite to cover personal scandals (Sabato, et al. 2000). On the other hand, Norris 2000 finds that media use can form a “virtuous circle” and increase trust and engagement among those already politically savvy.

  • Cappella, J. N., and K. H. Jamieson. 1997. Spiral of cynicism: The press and the public good. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    One of a number of studies by the leading critics of media negativism and their colleagues on the topic. They identify a corrosive cynicism in framing of political coverage that focuses on conflict and political strategy and analyzes political actors in terms of their efforts to gain or maintain power, leading audiences to also adopt a more cynical view of politics.

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  • Norris, P. 2000. A virtuous circle: Political communications in postindustrial societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511609343Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Norris offers a counterpoint to the media negativism hypothesis. Political trust and engagement among members of the public moderate the negative influence of media exposure. In fact, Norris found, exposure actually increases these attributes in individuals, which, in turn, leads to greater media consumption, thus producing a “virtuous circle” of exposure and engagement.

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  • Patterson, T. E. 1993. Out of order. New York: Knopf.

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    In this seminal work, Patterson charts a long-term shift in political journalism to a more active, confrontational style of presidential election coverage. Following the turbulent events and political scandals of the 1960s and 1970s, journalists came to see themselves as critics of candidate mendacity and critics of both parties, driving a wedge between candidates and the electorate and turning voters into cynics.

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  • Robinson, M. J. 1976. Public affairs television and the growth of political malaise: The case of “The Selling of the Pentagon.” American Political Science Review 70.2: 409–432.

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    A pioneering study noting the deleterious effects of political coverage. Robinson put forth a theory of “videomalaise,” which holds that critical, conflict-focused journalism—specifically that conveyed via television—leads to cynicism, frustration, and disenchantment with social and political institutions. He made his case by combining results from a media exposure experiment and a national opinion poll.

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  • Sabato, L., M. Stencel, and S. R. Lichter. 2000. Peepshow: Media and politics in an age of scandal. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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    Argues that increased attention to personal scandals has transformed political journalism, through case studies of the journalistic decisions behind coverage of more than twenty scandals involving politicians’ personal conduct. Documents the declining standards to which mainstream media outlets are willing to stoop to cover putatively scandalous behavior, under pressure from the Internet and alternative newspapers.

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Lack of Bias

Parallel to arguments for the partisan bias of the media (either liberal or conservative), another body of research argues that that a consistent slant in favor of one side or the other does not exist. Some of these studies were initiated explicitly to evaluate prominent claims of bias (e.g., Niven 2002). This line of research has emphasized quantitative content analysis of newspapers and network television news, although the range of outlets examined by the studies included in D’Alessio and Allen 2000, an extensive meta-analysis, indicates the breadth of investigation. While broadly finding no partisan bias in coverage, this research indicates that there can be variability over time (Ansolabehere, et al. 2006) between outlets (Zeldes, et al. 2008), and that bias can exist beyond partisan categories (Niven 2002).

  • Ansolabehere, S., R. Lessem, and J. M. Snyder Jr. 2006. The orientation of newspaper endorsements in U.S. elections, 1940–2002. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1.4: 393–404.

    DOI: 10.1561/100.00000009Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Putting aside the question of bias in coverage, Ansolabehere and colleagues found that the explicit politics of papers’ editorial boards has not consistently tilted toward one party over time. In the 1940s and 1950s, editorials favored Republicans, but by the 21st century, Democrats were slightly more likely to receive endorsements. Endorsement of incumbents (now at 90 percent) has also increased over time.

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  • D’Alessio, D., and M. Allen. 2000. Media bias in presidential elections: A meta-analysis. Journal of Communication 50.4: 133–156.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2000.tb02866.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A widely cited work that has marshaled a large number of other studies on coverage of presidential elections from 1948 to 1996 in newspapers, radio, television, and magazines to conclude that there is no consistent party preference. The authors found this to be true across the amount of coverage for each party, the tone of the coverage, and story selection (and how it might advantage one candidate).

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  • Niven, D. 2002. Tilt? The search for media bias. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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    Niven examines the valence of media coverage of measurable positive or negative news (such as murder rates) when different parties were in power. Differences in valence given the same objective news under different parties would indicate bias. On the issues Niven examines, coverage is comparable under Democrats and Republicans, suggesting that there is no consistent partisan media bias.

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  • Zeldes, G. A., F. Fico, S. Carpenter, and A. Diddi. 2008. Partisan balance and bias in network coverage of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 52.4: 563–580.

    DOI: 10.1080/08838150802437354Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Zeldes and colleagues examined coverage of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections by the TV networks to see to what extent there was a deviation in balance in the amount and prominence of coverage accorded competing candidates. They found that most news outlets largely offered balanced coverage, with the exception of CBS, which was unbalanced in favor of Democrats.

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Perceptions of Media Bias

Research on audience members’ perceptions of media bias has largely proceeded under the assumption that such perceptions themselves are the result of perceptual or cognitive biases among audiences, rather than valid observations of media slant. Lee 2005 finds that general political cynicism accounts for the most variance in perceptions of bias, but also that conservatives and Republicans are most likely to believe that the media is biased. Watts, et al. 1999 finds that widespread perceptions of a liberal media bias during presidential campaigns can be traced to the arguments of conservative elites and media self-criticism. Other scholars have focused on the message/receiver interaction in what is known as the hostile media effect (see the discussion in Oxford Bibliography in Communication article Hostile Media Effect). This concept explains perceptions of media bias as the result of the biases of partisans on both sides. This effect was first identified in Vallone, et al. 1985 among pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian partisans. Recent meta-analysis indicates that this effect is robust across a range of issues and media (Hansen and Kim 2011). A similar tendency has been noted for those with religious, ethnic, labor, and political party affiliations (Gunther 1992). In an increasingly polarized media environment, exposure to media content may not even be necessary to trigger perceptions of bias. The ideological associations of cable news channel brands (CNN and Fox News) were sufficient to elicit claims of bias in otherwise identical content from ideological partisans (Baum and Gussin 2008). Notably absent from this literature is a concerted effort to identity the existence and attributes of accurate perceptions of bias. While work on media literacy has focused on the skills that might aid in identification of, and resistance to, biased media portrayals, work more broadly in this area would require an agreed-upon definition and operationalization of media bias to move forward.

  • Baum, M. A., and P. Gussin. 2008. In the eye of the beholder: How information shortcuts shape individual perceptions of bias in the media. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 3.1: 1–31.

    DOI: 10.1561/100.00007010Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates that viewer brand associations serve as a heuristic for inferring bias in media coverage. The study examined how liberal and conservative viewers in an experimental context interpreted bias of cable news content from a purported CNN or Fox News source. Liberal viewers inferred bias when Fox News was the listed source, while conservative viewers inferred bias when CNN was the listed source.

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  • Gunther, A. C. 1992. Biased press or biased public? Attitudes toward media coverage of social groups. Public Opinion Quarterly 56.2: 147–167.

    DOI: 10.1086/269308Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that notions of issue partisanship studied in initial hostile media effect research can be expanded to include membership in religious, ethnic, labor, political, and social groups. Gunther found, for instance, that Democrats saw media coverage as more unfavorable than non-Democrats, with the same finding true of Republicans and non-Republicans.

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  • Hansen, G. J., and H. Kim. 2011. Is the media biased against me? A meta-analysis of the hostile media effect research. Communication Research Reports 28.2: 169–179.

    DOI: 10.1080/08824096.2011.565280Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In a confirmation of the hostile media effect across media. Hansen and Kim’s meta-analysis demonstrated a moderate effect size when aggregating the results of thirty-four studies of the phenomenon. Higher issue involvement increased the hostile media effect, but different media types did not influence its strength.

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  • Lee, T. -T. 2005. The liberal media myth revisited: An examination of factors influencing perceptions of media bias. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 49.1: 43–64.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15506878jobem4901_4Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    While the hostile media effect has generally been found to occur symmetrically around an issue, with partisans on both sides perceiving media bias against their position, this study showed that hostile media perceptions among political partisans are stronger for those on the political right, with conservative ideology and identification with the Republican Party linked to greater distrust of media.

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  • Vallone, R. P., L. Ross, and M. R. Lepper. 1985. The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of personality and social psychology 49.3: 577–585.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.49.3.577Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The seminal study that introduced the hostile media effect. It used US network news coverage of violence linked to Israeli and Palestinian conflict as the stimulus for undergraduate participants. Those with strong pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian attitudes and high issue involvement were likely to see coverage biased against their viewpoint, while neutral viewers perceived less bias.

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  • Watts, M. D., D. Domke, D. V. Shah, and D. P. Fan. 1999. Elite cues and media bias in presidential campaigns: Explaining public perceptions of a liberal press. Communication Research 26.2: 144–175.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365099026002003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that perceptions of a media bias in favor of liberals during presidential campaigns appear to be fueled by media coverage discussing such a bias and in particular by reporting of comments by conservative figures arguing that it exists. Employed longitudinal content analysis of media paired with survey data for the 1988, 1999, and 1996 presidential elections.

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Effects of Media Bias

The actual effects of biased media coverage on audiences remains understudied and more often assumed than demonstrated. Some inferences can be drawn from the broader media effects literature, such as controlled message exposure experiments that test the effects of differently biased news story frames (McLeod and Detenber 1999). An alternative is the field experiment which seeks to manipulate media exposure in more naturalistic conditions (Gerber, et al. 2009). Both approaches avoid methodological issues of control that plague correlational studies (e.g., Feldman, et al. 2012; Kull, et al. 2003), which treat media use as a between-subjects variable that explains differences in attitudes, knowledge, and/or behavior. Adequate statistical control becomes essential in such designs to neutralize the effect of potential confounders, such as political ideology, that could underlie apparent relationships between media use and outcome measures. Such methodological issues bear consideration when adjudicating between the conflicting findings of studies of media bias. While correlational and some experimental designs have found expected bias effects (Feldman, et al. 2012; Kull, et al. 2003; McLeod and Detenber 1999), other experimental (Gerber, et al. 2009) and longitudinal macro-level studies (Tan and Weaver 2010) indicate mixed results.

  • Feldman, L., E. W. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, and A. Leiserowitz. 2012. Climate on cable: The nature and impact of global warming coverage on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. International Journal of Press/Politics 17.1: 3–31.

    DOI: 10.1177/1940161211425410Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Combined content analysis of global warming coverage on cable news channels with polling data. Feldman and colleagues found that Fox News contained more denial of climate change than CNN and MSNBC and that viewing Fox News was associated with increased climate change skepticism. Viewing CNN and MSNBC was associated with increased levels of belief in climate change.

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  • Gerber, A. S., D. Karlan, and D. Bergan. 2009. Does the media matter? A field experiment measuring the effect of newspapers on voting behavior and political opinions. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1.2: 35–52.

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    Reports on the results of a field experiment of media exposure. The authors provided a free newspaper subscription to either the Washington Post (more centrist or liberal) or the Washington Times (more conservative) to nonsubscribing participants in Northern Virginia for ten weeks before a gubernatorial election. Results indicated no effects of subscription type on political knowledge, political attitudes, and turnout.

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  • Kull, S., C. Ramsay, and E. Lewis. 2003. Misperceptions, the media, and the Iraq War. Political Science Quarterly 118.4: 569–598.

    DOI: 10.1002/j.1538-165X.2003.tb00406.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study links media use with erroneous beliefs related to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and support for the war among Americans. Those whose primary news source was Fox News possessed more misconceptions compared to NPR or PBS consumers, with CNN and the networks falling in between, even after controlling for other factors that might vary across viewers of different outlets.

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  • McLeod, D. M., and B. H. Detenber. 1999. Framing effects of television news coverage of social protest. Journal of Communication 49.3: 3–23.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1999.tb02802.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reports on a message exposure experiment to evaluate the effects of status quo support (known also as the protest paradigm) within coverage of a protest. McLeod and Detenber found that such framing caused audiences to negatively evaluate the protest and protesters across a range of variables and to view police actions more favorably.

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  • Tan, Y., and D. H. Weaver. 2010. Media bias, public opinion, and policy liberalism from 1956 to 2004: A second-level agenda-setting study. Mass Communication & Society 13.4: 412–434.

    DOI: 10.1080/15205430903308476Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tan and Weaver use a modified version of the measure of media bias employed in Groseclose and Milyo 2005 (cited under Liberal Bias), applied to the New York Times over a forty-nine-year period. They find that bias in the Times appears to influence congressional policymaking over the medium term, though over longer-term five-year intervals congressional policymaking moves in the opposite direction of the slant in the Times.

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Measures of Bias

There are no widely agreed-upon measures of bias in the media. That point is attested to by the array of means employed in the studies cited throughout this article. For example, bias has been operationalized as the amount of coverage afforded to various sides and efforts made to contact them, mere mentions of political figures (Lin, et al. 2011), selective framing (Hofstetter and Buss 1978), semantic association (Holtzman, et al. 2011), and differential coverage of issues (Puglisi 2011, cited under Liberal Bias) or positive and negative news under presidents of different parties (Niven 2002, cited under Lack of Bias). This section presents a small sample of pieces that deal with the methodological and conceptual issues involved in the measurement of bias. However, works included in other sections could equally well find a place here, notably Groseclose and Milyo 2005 (cited under Liberal Bias), which has been listed here as an exemplar of research indicating a liberal media bias, but which also introduced an innovative measure of bias that has been both much cited and much critiqued (Nyhan 2012). A rapidly developing tool in this field is sentiment analysis, or opinion mining. This approach uses natural language programming or textual analysis to identify the political cast of news stories. It is frequently applied to data sets so large as to effectively preclude content analysis by human coders.

  • Balahur, A., R. Steinberger, M. Kabadjov, et al. 2013. Sentiment analysis in the news. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation, 17–23 May 2010, Valletta, Malta. Edited by Nicoletta Calzolari, Khalid Choukri, Bente Maegaard, et al., 2216–2220. Valletta, Malta: European Language Resource Distribution Agency.

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    A good introduction to the uses and limitations of current sentiment analysis methods in identifying and quantifying bias. The authors test the efficacy of a variety of sentiment dictionaries and address the difficulties of distinguishing positive and negative opinion from good and bad news.

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  • Hofstetter, C. R., and T. F. Buss. 1978. Bias in television news coverage of political events: A methodological analysis. Journal of Broadcasting 22.4: 517–530.

    DOI: 10.1080/08838157809363907Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Observes that the ordinary use of the term bias refers either to such gross displays of preference as to be extremely uncommon or to unresolvable differences in fundamental values. Hofstetter instead proposes “bias as selectivity,” a tendency to choose certain aspects of phenomena for emphasis in a given news story that may or may not be inequitable.

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  • Holtzman, N. S., J. P. Schott, M. N. Jones, D. A. Balota, and T. Yarkoni. 2011. Exploring media bias with semantic analysis tools: Validation of the Contrast Analysis of Semantic Similarity (CASS). Behavior Research Methods 43.1: 193–200.

    DOI: 10.3758/s13428-010-0026-zSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Operationalized bias via a text analysis computer algorithm. Holtzman and colleagues sought to identify “semantic associations” in texts that connected objects (such as “Republican”) with words connoting a positive or negative valence. They validated their algorithm using cable news program transcripts, finding the predicted political biases in MSNBC (liberal bias), CNN (no bias), and Fox News (conservative bias).

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  • Lin, Y. -R., J. P. Bagrow, and D. Lazer. 2011. More voices than ever? Quantifying media bias in networks. In ICWSM: Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media: 17–21 July 2011, Barcelona, Spain. Edited by Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, 193–200. Menlo Park, CA: AAAI.

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    Offers measures of bias in social media (blogs) and traditional journalism, using as a criterion the log odds ratio of the number of times members of Congress from each party are mentioned to the baseline proportions of the parties in Congress. Lin and colleagues found that blogs and traditional news share similar biases, though blogs do exhibit a bias toward popularity.

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  • Nyhan, B. 2012. Left turn: Does the US media have a liberal bias? A discussion of Tim Groseclose’s Left Turn: How liberal media bias distorts the American mind. Perspectives on Politics 10.3: 767–771.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592712001405Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An exemplar of the complexities of measurement of media bias. Nyhan argues that Groseclose’s reliance on the think tank citation patterns of newspapers versus members of Congress must make two questionable assumptions: that pundits at liberal and conservative think tanks are equally newsworthy and that liberal and conservative think tanks make similar efforts to reach out to journalists and Congress.

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Economic Approaches

The use of economic theory and econometric methods is relatively new to the study of media bias, which is commonly referred to as “slant” in this literature. However, it represents one of the most active avenues of research in recent years. Economic approaches seek to understand the causes of bias in terms of audience preferences and optimal business practices. Economic theory suggests that demand (news consumers) and supply (media) are key forces driving slanted coverage decisions (Hamilton 2004, Gentzkow and Shapiro 2010). Supply factors, such as the degree of competition in a media market, can determine sensitivity to market pressures, with competition ameliorating the negative effects of bias caused by advertisers (Blasco and Sobbrio 2012) and the demand-side force of news consumers’ preference for coverage in accordance with their own biases (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2005). Such analyses are rarely successful at explaining all media bias as economically driven, and research indicates that media slant exists above and beyond that which consumer preferences would suggest (Puglisi and Snyder 2011). Moreover, it is important to distinguish those media economics studies that are theoretical and derive conclusions largely from the performance of hypothesized econometric models (e.g., Blasco and Sobbrio 2012, Gentzkow and Shapiro 2005) from those involving more extensive application of empirical data in model validation (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2010).

  • Blasco, A., and F. Sobbrio. 2012. Competition and commercial media bias. Telecommunications Policy 36.5: 434–447.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.telpol.2011.11.021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the influence of advertisers on media content (commercial bias). The article reviews cases of commercial bias discussed in the literature and proposes an econometric model of commercial bias. This model suggests that commercial bias may be most pronounced when there is a convergence of interests among advertisers, but an increase in competition among news outlets can counterbalance this influence.

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  • Gentzkow, M., and J. Shapiro. 2005. Media bias and reputation. Journal of Political Economy 114.2: 280–316.

    DOI: 10.1086/499414Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Constructs a model of media coverage that explains journalistic bias as a product of news consumers’ desires for stories that accord with their own (potentially biased) views of the world. This effect may be ameliorated by independent sources of information for consumers and/or increased media competition.

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  • Gentzkow, M., and J. M. Shapiro. 2010. What drives media slant? Evidence from U.S. daily newspapers. Econometrica 78.1: 35–71.

    DOI: 10.3982/ECTA7195Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Offers a novel measure of media bias, which indicates a liberal bias in newspaper coverage. Gentzkow and Shapiro extracted phrases from the Congressional Record most associated with partisan identity (such as “living in poverty” or “death tax”) and used newspapers’ use of these terms as an indication of slant. Reader preferences for slant matching their views partially explained observed media bias.

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  • Hamilton, J. T. 2004. All the news that’s fit to sell: How the market transforms information into news. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    A seminal work articulating an economic explanation for media bias as outlets (supply side) attempt to meet the ideological expectation of their consumers (demand side). Hamilton, an economist, includes both economic analysis and historical and contemporary media content data.

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  • Puglisi, R., and J. M. Snyder. 2011. Newspaper coverage of political scandals. Journal of Politics 73.3: 931–950.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381611000569Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzed ten years of newspaper coverage of political scandals from more than one hundred newspapers. Puglisi and Snyder identified disproportionate coverage of scandals from the party the papers did not endorse. They found that consumer demand is not an exclusive driver of partisan media bias and that other factors (such as media ownership) may also play a role.

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Research Centers

This topic is notable for the existence of independent research organizations that regularly publish data-based reports targeted toward both academic audiences and the general public. Some of these are nonpartisan, while others seek to persuade audiences of the existence of media bias in one ideological direction. Among the former, the Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts since 1996, is by far the most frequently cited source of empirical data bearing on the perception or reality of media bias. The center’s reports address a wide range of media issues, including questions of bias through surveys of journalists and the general public as well as periodic content analyses of major news stories. These data actually come from two separate entities under the Pew Center umbrella: The Pew Research Center studies attitudes toward the media as part of a broader portfolio of research on politics and public affairs, while the Pew Research Journalism Project (formerly the Project for Excellence in Journalism) conducts frequent media-related surveys and content analyses and works to improve the quality of journalism. The Journalism Project’s News Coverage Index and Campaign Coverage Index provide close to real-time content analyses of ongoing news coverage. It also produces a widely read annual report on the “State of the Media.” The academically based Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University also produces “rapid response” content analyses of contemporary political controversies and ongoing events such as national elections, which frequently bear on discussions of media slant. From 1987 to 2010 the results were published in Media Monitor, the center’s newsletter. In addition, reports bearing on media slant are frequently issued by traditional academic venues, such as the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to these academically oriented organizations, there are groups that make no pretense of nonpartisanship. Instead they seek to convince both mass and elite audiences of the media’s ideological bias. The most prominent of these organizations on the right side of the political spectrum is the Media Research Center, whose stated mission is to expose the news media as the propaganda arm of the left. Its counterpart on the political left is Media Matters for America, which defines its mission as correcting conservative misinformation in the US media.

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