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Monday, July 26, 2004

Media Bias

I've written previously about the media making errors and making stuff up, but generally I've stayed away from the topic of media bias. That's because the question I immediately have is "biased compared to whom"? Who is the center point?

However, a recent study has come up with a measurement methodology that limits the amount of subjective analysis required (though choosing the methodology itself is inherently subjective). The journalists don't have to rate themselves, nor does anybody else have to rate them. The only rating that occurs is that of the liberal lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action which regularly grades politicians from 0 to 100 based on their votes on selected issues, with the most liberal members of Congress earning 100 (a perfect score).

The paper describes the next step as:
The web site, lists 200 of the most prominent think tanks in the U.S. Using the official web site of Congress,, we and our research assistants searched the Congressional Record for instances where a member of Congress cited one of these think tanks. We looked for instances where the legislator cited a view or a fact stated by a member of the think tank. We then counted the sentences in the citation. We also recorded the average adjusted ADA score of the member who cited the think tank.
From this they "computed the average adjusted ADA score of the legislators who cited" each of the think tanks and then "split the think tanks into a liberal group and a conservative group, based upon whether the average score of legislators citing the think tank was above or below 42.2, the midpoint of the House and Senate averages."

A similar analysis was done for media outlets (Fox News' Special Report, Drudge Report, ABC World News Tonight, Los Angeles Times, NBC Nightly News, USA Today, CBS Evening News, and the New York Times):
Specifically, for each media outlet we list the percentage of sentences that it cited from the liberal group of think tanks. From this percentage, we can compute a back-of-theenvelope estimate of the media outlet s adjusted ADA score.
Note that only "news" reporting was considered, not opinion pages or letters to the editor or things like that.

The results are that every media outlet studied, except for Fox News, was more liberal than the median of the House of Representatives. Since the median Representative should roughly reflect the views of the median citizen, this implies that most of the major media is more liberal than the median citizen. Or as the authors conclude:
Although we expected to find that most media lean left, we were astounded by the degree. A norm among journalists is to present both sides of the issue. Consequently, while we expected members of Congress to cite primarily think tanks that are on the same side of the ideological spectrum as they are, we expected journalists to practice a much more balanced citation practice, even if the journalist s own ideology opposed the think tanks that he or she is sometimes citing. This was not always the case. Most of the mainstream media outlets that we examined (ie all those besides Drudge Report and Fox News Special Report) were closer to the average Democrat in Congress than they were to the median member of the House.
The authors make no attempt to explain their findings. In addition, it's far from clear to me that citations counts are a good measure of liberalism/conservatism. Nonetheless, I found their approach novel and creative and their results interesting.

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