Two University of Chicago researchers have come out with a new study that connects the media bias of a newspaper to the political leanings of the people who buy it. It’s behind a subscription wall, but the New York Times, CBS Public Eye and Slate’s Jack Shafer all have interesting takes. Let’s look at two beneficial findings of this study:
1. Reporters have to make political judgments when choosing their words. In order to study bias, the researchers made lists of common phrases used by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. (Think “death tax” vs. “tax cuts for the wealthy” — Shafer made a handy list.) The researchers then charted which newspapers used which phrases. The exercise illustrates just how difficult it is to be truly objective. Reporters can claim to have represented both sides of a story, but that isn’t worth much if the language of the story clearly puts one side in a better light.
2. A newspaper’s bias appears to be partly a function of its readers’ politics. Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor (not involved in the study) who wrote about its results for the New York Times, put it this way:
A comparison of circulation data (per capita) to the ratio of Republican to Democratic campaign contributions by ZIP code showed that circulation was strongly related to whether the newspaper matched the readers’ own ideology.
Their measure indicates that The Los Angeles Times, for example, is a liberal paper. Its circulation suffers in Southern California ZIP codes where donations to Republicans are especially high.
The authors calculated the ideal partisan slant for each paper, if all it cared about was getting readers, and they found that it looked almost precisely like the one for the actual newspaper. As Dr. Shapiro put it in an interview, “The data suggest that newspapers are targeting their political slant to their customers’ demand and choosing the amount of slant that will maximize their sales.”
Message: Blame biased readers, not biased journalists.
That’s fine when it comes to newspapers that serve local constituencies. But what about TV networks that provide news to the entire nation? Let’s take cable news as an example.
I disagree with those who argue that the Fox News Channel just regurgitates talking points from the White House or the Republican Party, but I don’t dispute the argument that it is more sympathetic to conservative ideas than any other network. And by treating conservatives fairly, Fox News was able to achieve dominant ratings success as America’s center shifted to the right.
Along the same lines, I don’t think any fair-minded person could dispute the fact that MSNBC’s programming has gotten much more opinionated and liberal over the course of the last year as the Republican party lost popularity. MSNBC saw an opportunity to become a “liberal Fox New Channel” and took it. As a result, MSNBC is overtaking CNN as the second-place cable news network.
In this example, instead of newspapers mirroring the politics of their regions, we have national networks establishing themselves as ideological brands, to be consumed wherever their constituencies live. Or at least that’s my theory. Someone should do a study and see if it checks out.