Partisan and Structural Balance in Newspaper Coverage of U.S. Senate Races in 2004 with Female Nominees

Article excerpt

Nine newspapers covering U.S. Senate races in 2004 were mostly even-handed in the space and prominence given candidates. Reporter gender, newsroom diversity, and newspaper size were associated with partisan imbalance giving more favorable treatment to Democrats. The partisanship of a story's lead predicted the story's structural imbalance, regardless of the party the imbalance favored. However, story partisan and structural imbalances were negligibly related, suggesting that news processing conventions rather than journalistic partisanship produced the imbalance.

Media bias is seldom defined in a manner that permits it to be reliably observed in a variety of contexts. More seldom still is such bias related to journalist or news organization characteristics that make it predictable.

The first goal of this research, therefore, is to define news bias. Two types of bias that are distinct in their origin are explored. The first is a structural bias in individual stories that favors one side in a conflict. Structural bias may result from news reporting conventions and limitations or from the attention-commanding activities of the sides in conflict.

The second is a partisan bias in which aggregate news coverage systematically favors the liberal or conservative side in a political conflict. Partisan bias results from journalists' political orientations affecting coverage despite conventions that mandate impartiality.

The second goal of this research, then, is to illuminate factors causally related to these structural and partisan biases. Certainly if bias exists in news reporting, journalists need to know what it is and how they might minimize it. For their part, citizens need to know the degree of caution and confidence they should have in the political information they get from media. Both the news media and the public will be better served by knowledge of such biases than by assumptions of either partisanship or purity.

Theoretical Framework

Shoemaker and Reese define five levels of influences on news media content, with higher levels constraining the influence of those below.1 Four of these influences include non-media institutions, specific media organizational characteristics, work routines within media organizations, and the characteristics of individual journalists.

This study explores election coverage bias potentially influenced from these four levels. At the societal level, the political process will command media attention and shape coverage. At the organization level, a news organization's audience reach determines the resources available for news work. Organization goals and resources will in turn shape goal-attainment routines, the kind of personnel hired, and the rewards and punishments that reinforce desired behaviors. But the backgrounds, beliefs, and expertise of such individual workers will also, to some extent, help shape the work they do.

Some research has employed this model's conceptual ordering to explore influences on bias in news content. Most research, however, has focused solely on ways of defining and describing aspects of media content. For example, a review of content analysis studies published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly since 1998 showed that barely a third of them attempted to predict any characteristic of media content.2

This study attempts such a predictive effort with a hierarchical model employing variables found to be directly and indirectly related to conflict coverage bias. Research is therefore reviewed that deals with election coverage fairness and balance and with influences on such coverage balance.

Bias and Election Reporting Fairness and Balance. Science becomes biased when atypical observations produce misleading inferences about a phenomenon. Journalists base stories on observations that are indirectly relayed by sources. Bias occurs if source selection produces atypical or incomplete perspectives or information about news topics. …