How bias is your media? And if at all, can you determine to what degree and in what direction of the spectrum? That is the question that economists, political analysts and the American public have been trying to answer for years. The two articles that I analyzed are in response to studies, and a subsequent book, written by Tim Groseclose called Left Turn: How liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind.
Both articles review the findings of Groseclose’s book, but do so in very different ways. The first text I annotated is from a review symposium written by Brendan Nyhan, Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, simply titled “Does the US Media Have a Liberal Bias? ” Following my readings of Nyhan, I analyzed an article and podcast transcript titled “How Bias Is Your Media? ” from the writers of top selling book Freakonomics, economist Steve Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner.
There are many similarities and differences between these two pieces. Both articles are from a collection of contributors that came together to discuss a common issue we face day-to-day in politics: The difficulty of measuring media bias, and whether or not it is actually an issue we should be focusing on. What is most interesting about each article is the differences of political stance between the contributors of Nyhan’s symposium and the speakers of Freakonomics’ podcast.
Generally speaking, Nyhan and his peers are liberal professors while all the orators in Dubner’s article are (strongly) conservative political journalists and analysts. Additionally, Nyhan focuses more on the asymmetries and discrepancies of Groseclose’s outcomes, whereas Dubner and peers review his results and debate in depth how big of a problem we face in political media partiality. So, did Tim Groseclose really answer all the questions to media bias? Or is this a case of never truly finding a solution?
Before proceeding, a bit of background on Tim Groseclose’s book is needed. Groseclose, with partner Jeff Milyo (hereafter GM), published a study that created two quotients to help us understand which news outlets have a liberal slant, which have a conservative slant, and how those favoritisms compare to their respective Politicians slant. They began with what was easy to compute: the political leanings of Politicians based on roll call votes in Congress. They created a linear scale from 0 to 100 to quantify how far a person or group deviates from center. being far right (conservative) and 100 being far left (liberal). Knowing they are strong conservatives, to keep their research as unbiased as possible they even let the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a liberal interest group, pick the votes for them. They assigned each Politician a number, based on what they call the Political Quotient (PQ). The next step of their study was to cite more than 150 think tanks and interest groups and assign them a PQ.
Having 20 of the nation’s top media outlets under close scrutiny, they could start to measure media bias. They did so by simply counting how many times the names of these think tanks and groups were cited throughout the news. So, the more a newspaper or corporation mentioned a particular group, based on the groups PQ, it would hike up the score of what they called the Slant Quotient (SQ). Their findings were that 18 of the 20 media outlets were left leaning, stating a “strong liberal bias”.
With that said, Groseclose says “media, in some ways are more centrist than lots of people have been saying” in his dialogue during the Freakonomics discussion. There are many more findings that their research concluded, but the question at hand is whether these “quotients” can really have any weight or validity of media bias. Nyhan’s work is very different from that of Dubner and group. The formality and political correctness provide a tone of knowledge that makes you trust the author.
Through the demeanor and semantics of his text, it is easy to tell that he is being as impartial as possible. He notes several times during the course of his article where GM is correct in their statements and outcomes, and he simply dissects their research looking for any irregularities and incongruities that could skew GM’s conclusions of liberal leaning bias. Nyhan’s thesis of Groseclose’s study is that GM “rely heavily on questionable assumptions about the processes generating citations of think tanks and interest groups by reporters and members of Congress, respectively. He never once claims that GM is wrong or bias in their findings, but instead shows three possible digressions from their theories to explain alternative reasons for GM’s liberal bias discoveries. The three deviations are divided into the “Asymmetries of Technocratic or Subject-Matter Expertise”, “Asymmetries in Public Relations and Marketing Skill” and “Asymmetries in Citation Over Time”. His exigency to review and contend Groseclose’s book is to allow the public to create own opinions and “not believe everything you hear”.
Throughout the article Nyhan’s language gives off a sense of knowledge and wisdom within politics that surpasses that of Groseclose. He shows a lot of emphasis on journalistic and political norms that are impossible for quantitative research to account for. His unpretentious approach to pointing out some “obvious” discrepancies provides author credibility to the audience. He also gains integrity by referring to legitimate groups and politicians used in GM’s study. In the first section regarding subject matter, Nyhan clarifies that depending on the issue at hand, the Liberal party may have more technocratic experts than their counterpart.
So he explains the slant quotient is based on the number of times a group is cited, but if one side has more citations to refer to, then it is automatically unbalanced. He uses liberal organizations from GM’s sample to prove his point. He refers to Paul Waldman’s quote, “the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which receives the third most media citations of the groups considered by GM, may be quoted in stories of racism without a quote from an opposing group. There are discrepancies in this case because “balance” is not expected or even appropriate. In the next section of his article Nyhan describes differences in PR and marketing skills towards Congress and media from each party. He uses the cause and consequence theory when explaining the possibility that conservatives “devote more effort[…] are more effective at promoting their work to Congress than the press, which could skew the results. Lastly, Nyhan refers to asymmetries in citations over time, which becomes a factor for two reasons. Nyhan explains differences in media is “sensitive to the time period” citing “changes in the issue agenda and configuration of power in Washington” are not stable over time. He supports his argument by enlightening the reader that most of GM’s coverage took place directly after September 11, 2011; a time when news was dominated by the scrutiny of the Bush administration in response to the attacks.
Furthermore, Nyhan refers to the testimony of Wall Street Journal spokesperson who pointed out that “the researchers’ study of the content of the WSJ covers exactly FOUR MONTHS in 2002, while other outlets were coded for much longer. ” Nyhan claims that the inconsistency of time spent studying each media outlet provides a major flaw in GM’s “assumptions. ” Nyhan used the word assumption various times throughout his article because he believes that the findings of Groseclose can be termed as little more than a theory.
He concludes his article by quoting famous comedian and economist Stephen Colbert, “Democracy works best when the press is independent, not narrowly centrist. ” Opposite to Nyhan’s article, Dubner and colleagues supply the reader with a much more casual and discussion-based text. There are nine “authors” throughout the article that give incite on media bias and what role it plays in political election. Among those is Groseclose himself, who calculates his PQ to be a 13, strongly conservative. The political backgrounds of these debaters portray two things to the audience.
One, they are all highly educated in the world of politics, economics, and journalism which provides credibility to their discussion. However, they are all conservative leaning people, except Andrew Rosenthal, which gives the audience a sense of bias throughout the discussion. Writer Steve Levitt starts the transcript by clarifying that “Measuring media bias is a really difficult endeavor because unlike what economists usually study, which are numbers and quantities, media bias is all expressed in words. Although the meat of this article is informal, the author provides the audience with some quantitative tables and lists in the introduction to promote the logical appeal of their argument. To simplify the argument they all agree on a common goal of media outlets that can best be summed up by Mathew Gentzkow, “what the people making the decisions at the newspapers are doing is trying to sell newspapers. ” The fact that they all can concur that the biggest thing driving political slant is the consumer makes the audience feel as though it is fact, and common knowledge.
The discussion of who ultimately controls how a given newspaper feeds the news to their reader is an ongoing one throughout. Juan Williams, analyst for FOX News who was fired by NPR (liberal) for comments made on The O’Reilley Factor says that the culture and political leanings within the newsroom have no affect because there are all sorts of people that work together, although he continues to say that the “NPR newsroom tends to be much more like a liberal, college fraternity type environment. The loose comparison from NPR to a college fraternity is an attempt to appeal to the emotions of the audience. The debate between FOX news and The New York Times is a major part of this article with two conflicting sides: Conservative Ann Coulter and New York Times editor Andrew Rosenthal. Coulter argues that if the New York Times wants to render the news more down the middle than they should “Hire ten conservatives” which “breaks the cocoon effect. This is a very straightforward remark that only gives her less credibility in the article. Rosenthal quickly answers that statement by saying that is “completely ridiculous. ” He states, and as a credible source for The New York Times, they invite people all the time who do not work there to write their opinions, which appear both online and in the paper. To be continued….
They don’t lobby for positions and I don’t lobby for coverage” “Certainly you do not have a situation where people are either twisting facts or leaving facts out to make something appear different than it really is in order to suit the ideology” Dubner: Times website “The editorial department of the newspaper is completely separate from the news operation” (p 11) Dubner to Rosenthal: “Fox News is to the right what The New York Times is to the left. ” Ros: That is “well it begins in bull and end in it. “Fox News presents the news in ways that is deliberately skewed to promote political causes, the New York Time simply does not. ” Kahneman, Nobel-winning psychologist calls it “being blind to our blindness” “we tend to be over confident in whatever we believe that’s generally true. And we find it much easier to find the errors in other people. ” Dubner: “bend our beliefs to fit our political, social or family circles. ” “we still thrive on tribalism, love to divide ourselves into us and them- left and right, liberal and conservative. ” Advice: “If you want an enemy to root against, watch more sports. ”