In societies with a tradition of partisan news media, whether news organizations have a political bias in their reporting is less of a concern. In other environments where mainstream news media purport to be fair and objective, and journalists are expected to be neutral gatekeepers instead of partisan advocates, whether or not the news media have a bias would receive close scrutiny from politicians, scholars, the general public, and journalists themselves. It is common for observers to perceive a political bias, which reduces their trust in the news media, and triggers their criticism of both media organizations and journalists.
Definitions And Dimensions Of Bias
A bias can be understood as a preference or inclination. A media bias, the opposite of objectivity, can be defined as differential treatment of (e.g., favoring) a particular side of an issue, which can be measured quantitatively or qualitatively. If one side receives proportionally less news coverage, or apparently more negative, inaccurate, or unbalanced coverage, a bias is shown (see Simon et al. 1989). Some may argue that an absolute objectivity is impossible to achieve, and therefore the term “bias” – the antonym of “objectivity” – should be replaced by a term such as “favoritism.” McQuail (1992) identifies four types of bias on the basis of a typology of open versus hidden, and intended versus unintended. A partisan bias is open and intended, such as an editorial endorsement. Propaganda is intentional yet hidden, such as the result of a firm’s or a government’s public relations efforts. An unwitting bias is open and unintended, such as the fact that certain news topics are covered while others are not. Finally, ideology is unintended and hidden, and therefore is difficult to define or detect as it is “embedded in text” (1992, 194). Interestingly, the accusation that the news media have a liberal – which is ideological – bias is common in the US. Critics do not seem to have a problem finding evidence to support this claim.
The manifestation, as well as criticism, of a media bias generally consists of three aspects: the ideologies and party affiliations of journalists, actual media content, and the structure of media organizations. Using the United States as an example, its news media are constantly accused of having a liberal bias. Lichter et al. (1986) report that most reporters in large media outlets identify themselves as liberal and supporters of the Democratic party, which is perceived as a type of bias. Donsbach and Patterson (2004), who have investigated whether reporting is affected by journalists’ own attitudes and ideologies, conclude that journalists’ partisanship, especially in the US, has little effect on their news decisions. Echoing Gans (1979), Donsbach and Patterson also argue that journalists tend to hold somewhat “progressive” but “safe” views on social issues (2004, 260). Consequently, even though anecdotal examples of liberal or pro-Democratic coverage can be found occasionally, most systematic analyses of media content (e.g., Niven 2002) have found little or no political or partisan bias in mainstream news media.
Another group of media critics (e.g., Altschull 1995) believes that mainstream media, especially those in the US, have a conservative bias, partially due to the media’s corporate ownership, as evidenced by their support for a capitalist and two-party-system status quo. Some observers (e.g., McLeod & Detenber 1999) argue that alternative political views are often considered un-newsworthy and therefore are ignored by mainstream media, or receive unfairly negative coverage. In addition to partisan or political biases, the media have been accused of having racial, gender, religious, and class biases.
Possible Reasons Behind A Perceived Bias
Media critic Michael Parenti (1996) offers several explanations for a general belief that the media have a political bias. First, due to the media’s corporate ownership, conservative voices are dominant and can repeat their complaints more often than liberal critics. Second, conservative politicians and commentators habitually attack the media to put them on the defensive. Third, the reporting of social realities in the news, such as wrongdoings in the government and large corporations, or poverty and pollution, can be considered liberal in nature. Similarly, a group of media scholars (Domke et al. 1999) argue that conservative and Republican elites’ strategic and frequent complaints have convinced both the media and the general public of the existence of a liberal and pro-Democratic bias.
Another line of research offers an alternative understanding of the perception of a media bias. “Hostile media” studies suggest that supporters of an issue or a group tend to believe the media favor their opponents. In other words, supporters of political or social groups or issues (e.g., Middle East conflicts, or liberals versus conservatives) tend to perceive the media as being unfair or even hostile to their own cause or side while favoring their opponents, and hence a media bias is perceived. Therefore, the perception of a media bias is likely caused by an observer’s own bias. However, this argument does not exempt journalists from taking responsibility for accurate and objective reporting.
One more approach to understanding perceived biases in the media is the fact that audiences are likely to seek exposure to political information they tend to agree with, and process information in a way that matches their existing view. However, if they happen to see a viewpoint in the news that they disagree with, they likely perceive a bias. At the same time, consumers may categorically assume all information from a certain source is completely biased and therefore not worth their attention. If citizens in a society are not exposed to, or are not open-minded about, perspectives they do not necessarily agree with, there can be some negative consequences in a participatory democracy.
Structural Factors Behind Media Biases
Conceptually, biases are difficult to avoid because news content is a reality selectively constructed by journalists. Because of limited space and time in any medium (known as the “news hole”), decisions on topics and reporting angles must be made, and any selection itself can be seen as a form of bias. Certain forms of biases have been well studied, such as the overrepresentation of “official sources” and the lack of alternative viewpoints in the news. Possible explanations for such phenomena include the structure of a news organization, the ritual of news gathering, and the position of news organizations in a social structure.
Studies on the production of news, particularly on news gathering and gatekeeping (e.g., Tuchman 1978), suggest that journalists often operate under a news beat system, which makes news gathering easier given a news organization’s limited resources. This system is biased toward official sources because they are easy to access. Also, journalists are socialized to adopt certain criteria of newsworthiness, which also might favor the power status quo. For instance, a reporter would automatically contact the spokespersons of the local police or fire department when a fire or crime occurs, likely because such officials are most apt to have relevant information. In addition, journalists are trained to judge newsworthiness in a way that reflects the power structure in society. For instance, politicians and business leaders are considered more important than common citizens. Therefore, the former group’s voices are heard more frequently in the news. In other words, such figures often have the power to shape the agenda of news coverage.
Because the news media are part of the social structure, the variety of viewpoints reported in the news is related to the level of pluralism in a community, according to Tichenor et al. (1980). In a less pluralistic community structure, official voices tend to dominate news discourse, and groups or opinions critical of the local power structure tend to be absent in the news, which is also a form of media bias. Furthermore, because the news media are part of a society, it is expected that they would reflect the dominant ideologies of the society in which they operate (also see Shoemaker & Reese, 1996, on a hierarchical model of factors affecting news content). For instance, in a capitalist country, reporters as well as audiences are unlikely to question such a system, and opinions critical of this economic system tend to be marginalized in the news. This itself can be seen as a form of media bias.
- Altschull, J. H. (1995). Agents of power: The media and public policy. New York: Longman.
- Domke, D., Watts, M. D., Shah, D. V., & Fan, D. P. (1999). The politics of conservative elites and the “liberal media” argument. Journal of Communication, 49(4), 35 –59.
- Donsbach, W., & Patterson, T. E. (2004). Political news journalists: Partisanship, professionalism, and political roles in five countries. In F. Esser & B. Pfetsch (eds.), Comparing political communication: Theories, cases, and challenges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251–270.
- Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news. New York: Vintage Books.
- Lichter, R., Rothman, S., & Lichter, L. S. (1986). The media elite. Bethesda, MD: Adler and Adler.
- McLeod, D. M., & Detenber, B. H. (1999). Framing effects of television news coverage of social protest. Journal of Communication, 49(3), 3 –23.
- McQuail, D. (1992). Media performance. London: Sage.
- Niven, D. (2002). Tilt? The search for media bias. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Parenti, M. (1996). The dirty truths: Reflections on politics, media, ideology, conspiracy, ethnic life and class power. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
- Shoemaker, P. J., & Reese, S. D. (1996). Mediating the message: Theories of influences on mass media content. New York: Longman.
- Simon, T. F., Fico, F., & Lacy, S. (1989). Covering conflict and controversy: Measuring balance, fairness, defamation. Journalism Quarterly, 66, 427– 434.
- Tichenor, P. J., Donohue, G. A., & Olien, C. N. (1980). Community conflict and the press. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.