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Perceptions of media bias in presidential race coverage

The Pew Center, which has paid special to perception-of-the-media issues for many years, is out with a new survey of public perception of the presidential campaign coverage. Here's the first paragraph of Pew chief Andy Kohut's summary:

"There is no public consensus when it comes to how the presidential candidates are being covered by the news media. Nearly half (46%) say the coverage of Romney has been fair, while among those who see a bias as many say the press has been too easy on the GOP nominee (20%) as too tough on him (21%). The same percentage (46%) says coverage of Obama has also been fair. However, nearly twice as many say press coverage of the president has been too easy (28%) than too tough (15%)."

The full report is here.

Kohut's summary says that "45% of Republicans think the press has been too tough on Mitt Romney. By comparison, 26% of Democrats think the press is too tough on Obama. What stands out to Republicans even more is what they see as unfair treatment of Obama. Six-in-ten (60%) Republicans say the news coverage is too easy on Obama. Most Democrats say news organizations have been fair in their coverage of Mitt Romney, with only 29% saying they have been too easy on him."

The partisan perceptions of the coverage, and also the partisan perception of the Pew findings, are fairly easy to predict. Republicans will say of course the media is too tough on Romney, because in general the media (with the exception of the fair and balanced conservative outlets) is biased on the liberal side. Democrats will say that Republicans have relied on the media bias trope for decades now to reject inconvenient truths and explain away why Republicans don't win every argument or every election.

After 35 years of doing my scribbling within the confines of the "objective journalism" paradigm, including objective journalism about perceptions of journalistic bias, I've about had it. Journalists' worries about being brought up on bias charges do more to get in the way of good reporting and analysis than any benefit it delivers.

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Comments (10)

Unfair, or just focused on mistakes

News is, by definition, a focus on the unusual. The old "man bites dog" saying comes to mind. No one does a story about all of the planes that land safely, because we expect them to. So when one crashes, the media covers it.

The appearance that the media is too easy on Obama may simply be that Obama has said less stupid stuff than Romney has. The president is the leader of the free world. How can the media ignore stuff like Romney not worrying about the 47 percent, or that plane windows should open, or that the poor should seek medical coverage at the emergency room. Romney could put out a 365 Gaffes calendar. By comparison, Obama's "you didn't build this" comment - which is essentially true; the government built it - pales by comparison.

So, naturally, the press is going to cover the gaffe du jour. Two rules I know in politics: don't wear funny hats (think Dukakis in the tank helmet) and don't say stupid stuff.

Media bias

There's no such thing as "objective" journalism, and there never has been. Human beings are always products of their culture and historical period. We can't help but be influenced by assumptions and views of the world that, because of the culture and historical period, we take for granted as being manifestly true, when perfectly intelligent people a century before or after might well reach completely different conclusions about those same assumptions and worldviews. In the days of "classic" newspaper and television reporting, a certain level of fairness was expected, and generally delivered, but reporters, whatever their medium, seemed less afraid to call a spade a spade – or a preposterous position preposterous – than is now the case.

What I hope for, sometimes in vain, is a fairly loosely-defined fairness. If the Democratic argument has holes in it you could drive a truck through, those holes ought to be pointed out, even if the reporter's sympathies lie with whatever group or individual is pushing that argument. The same ought to hold true for Republican or libertarian arguments, which often have holes of similar size.

Instead, there has in recent years been a kind of fetish about "presenting both sides," which seems fine in theory, but in practice has arguments presented from one side or the other that simply are false, or based on assumptions that aren't accurate. It's a problem because the recent fetish of "presenting both sides" often does so as if the false argument or statement should carry equal weight with the opposing argument or statement when it's presented to the public.

Just because a lefty blogger thinks all of capitalism is evil incarnate doesn't make it so, nor does the right-wing assertion that Obama is a socialist. Zealots are often not living in a fact-based universe, and the prejudices of people on either side of a political question can, and frequently do, override what ought to be reasonable conclusions.

From the playground, "The

From the playground, "The truth hurts,don't it".

Obama's record is there for all to see (and criticize). The Romney/Ryan kabuki "yes/no/maybe, I'll let you know later" may work with true believers but is open to easy criticism by any thinking person (or journalist).

Just because you can write it on white board or show it on a power-point slide, doesn't make it a real plan. That's the Romney/Ryan problem--they're selling a pig in a poke-sack and it is becoming more obvious every day that there is a reason why the pig remains in the sack.

The frame is false and destructive

Media bias has nothing to do with Republican vs Democrat. It has to do with protecting the conventional wisdom against insurgent ideas or realities. And since the conventional wisdom is established by certain interests who have the ability (by means of wealth and political power) to decide and propagate the conventional wisdom, the establishment media bias is to protect the interests of the haves against the interests of the broader community. The distractions of salacious subjects, celebrities and sports, the peculiar concept of "objectivity," the "both sides do it" principle, what subjects are covered, who are selected as experts and sources, the emphasis on civility vs truth, and even the very premise of this article - framing of bias as a question of Republican vs Democrat - (which also diverts real civic engagement to a spectator sport of "rooting for your team" ) all are features of this media bias. The outcome of this profound and exclusive bias of the establishment media is to ensure the Republican base remains unable to recognize who is really responsible for its economic distress, distracted by cultural issues and focused on false enemies, and to ensure that the Democratic base is mired in a redistributionist outlook that does not come close to questioning the underlying structures of power that make redistribution necessary.

You Hit the Nail on the Head

Editors worrying about removing all media bias have edited out the quality of the journalism.

If Romney says something stupid and you read an article about it, invariably, somewhere in the lower paragraphs will appear a reference to how Obama once said something stupid ten years ago even if the reference is totally irrelevant to what is being reported. The paragraph was just inserted so the media outlet won't be accused of "media bias." It ends up being a he said, she said boiler plate they could program into a computer.

[CANDIDATE A] said forcefully in [LOCATION] yesterday that [INSERT TOPIC] was [INSERT OPINION]. [CANDIDATE B] replied that [INSERT OPINION]. This is the [FIRST, SECOND, THIRD] time [CANDIDATE A] has repeated the same thing. [STATE WHY THIS IS DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHER TIME]. In response, [CANDIDATE B] said [POSITION]. [JUSTIFY WHY A READER SHOULD CARE ABOUT THIS CRUD AND END THE ARTICLE].

What's wrong witih bias?

In most of the world with a free media, it's understood that there is bias. British readers know which newspapers are Tory, which are Labour-oriented, etc. It's just the natural order of things and no one seems to make a big deal about it. In fact, for much of the history of journalism in the US, bias was taken as a given. Check old Minnesota Legislative Manuals: the newspapers of the state are listed by the cities of their publication, along with their partisan affiliation. The bias was not an occasion for whining, it just merited a "duly noted."

To anticipate the inevitable question: yes, the same reasoning applies to Fox News. I exercise my right not to watch it on a daily basis, and their bias (as with anyone else's) should be considered when they are the source for information, but let them have at it and be the conservative news outlet. Just drop the "Fair and Balanced" nonsense.

Mr. Black,Your last sentence

Mr. Black,
Your last sentence hit the bulls-eye.

…and to Mr. Holbrook

…a hearty "Amen." As a certified old person, this discussion makes me wistful, thinking about those "good ol' days" when cities had multiple newspapers, and if one of them was conservative, you could count on the other one being liberal, and vice-versa. As Holbrook says, you just made a mental note to your self to keep in mind the bias of the source.

I feel much the same way he does about Fox News. I don't watch it, for the most part, because it has a bias I don't share – I agree they should not delude themselves or the public with the "Fair and Balanced" business – but there's nothing wrong with Fox News being the reactionary voice in the community. So far, however, I've not found a TV station with a complementary liberal point of view. Unfortunately, TV news in general, since it's driven by ratings and advertising revenue, plays to the lowest (meaning least knowledgeable) denominator, so evening newscasts often contain no more than a minute or two of something worth paying attention to. The rest is yanking at heartstrings with the latest melodrama, or sports, or weather. The latter gets my attention, the others do not.

There's bias

and there's bias.
Journalism is a human activity, with all of its imperfections.
Responsible journalism is aware of this and tries to install checks on this inevitable bias.
Irresponsible media (I'd hesitate to call it journalism) abdicates this responsibility and simply becomes a flack for a particular viewpoint.

A partial explanation

It doesn't surprise me that Republicans think the press is too easy on Obama, becasue many of them harbor a visceral dislike approaching hate for Obama, and can't understand why the press isn't as critical of Obama as they are. But fewer Democrats find the press is too easy on Romney; though they won't vote for him, they don't dislike him to the degree that Republicans hate Obama. In other words, even if coverage of the two candidates were equally biased, the Republicans would still be more unhappy because it's not going to satisfy their need to bash the candidate they hate..