Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Liberal Media Myth Revisited: An Examination of Factors Influencing Perceptions of Media Bias

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Liberal Media Myth Revisited: An Examination of Factors Influencing Perceptions of Media Bias

Article excerpt

Whether the news media have a liberal bias has interested politicians, journalists, scholars, and the public. Many seem to believe that a political bias exists. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2002), 47% of those who answered a question on media bias believed news organizations in general are politically biased in their reporting. In comparison, 35% of respondents disagreed.

Conservative critics believe that most journalists are liberal and Democrats and that news coverage reflects reporters' political leanings (Corry, 1996; Goldberg, 2001 ; R. Lichter, Rothman, & Lichter, 1986; Limbaugh, 1993; Maddoux, 1990; Maitre, 1994; Olasky, 1988; Rusher, 1988; Sowell, 1992). According to these observers, the news media and reporters are pro abortion, racial quotas, and gay rights, and they are anti business, capitalism, the military, Christianity, and the Republican party.

A different group of critics argues the opposite. In their eyes, conservative voices dominate the mainstream media, and news organizations--most of which they see as controlled by the government and large corporations are "agents of power" that promote and maintain the conservative status quo (Alterman, 2003; Altschull, 1995, 1996; Bagdikian, 1997; Cohen, 1990; Cohen & Solomon, 1993; Croteau & Hoynes, 1994; Croteau, Hoynes, & Carragee, 1996; Gitlin, 1980; Hanson, 1992; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; M. A. Lee & Solomon, 1990; McChesney, 1997; Murdock, 1982; Parenti, 1988, 1993, 1995, 1996).

To investigate whether the media have an ideological (liberal-conservative or left-right) or partisan (Democratic Republican) bias, media scholars have tried several approaches. First, surveys show that journalists tend to vote for Democrats and to take liberal stands on political issues (Dennis, 1996, 1997; T. Lee, 2001; R. Lichter et al., 1986; S. R. Lichter & Rothman, 1981; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996). Probably due to such factors as journalistic objectivity and management pressure, however, a link between reporters' political beliefs and news coverage has never been convincingly established (Black, Steele, & Barney, 1999; Dennis, 1996, 1997; Dreier, 1983; Epstein, 1973; Fishman, 1980; Gans, 1979, 1985, 2003; Goodwin & Smith, 1994; Knowlton & Parsons, 1994; T. Lee, 2001; Merrill, 1997; "Public Television Study Disproves Liberal Bias Theory," 1993; Schudson, 1978, 1997; Tuchman, 1978). Second, researchers have examined news content and found no significant or consistent partisan or issue favoritism (Dalton, Beck, & Huckfeldt, 1998; Dennis, 1996, 1997; Domke, Watts, Shah, & Fan, 1999; Fedler, Meeske, & Hall, 1979; Fico, Ku, & Soffin, 1994; Graber, 1971 ; Hofstetter, 1976, 1978; Merrill, 1965; Niven, 2002; Patterson, 1994; Severin & Tankard, 1992; Stempel, 1961, 1969; Stempel & Windhauser, 1984).

If social-scientific evidence does not support the claim that the U.S. media have a liberal bias, why are such accusations made? Media critic Michael Parenti (1996) offers several explanations for conservatives' consistent accusations. First, most U.S. media are owned and controlled by large corporations, and consequently conservative voices are dominant and can repeat their complaints with greater frequency than liberal critics. Second, conservative politicians and commentators habitually attack the media to put them on the defensive. As a result, liberal opinions often are self-censored by journalists because "anything short of unanimous support for a rightist agenda is treated as evidence of liberal bias" (Parenti, 1996, p. 103). Third, social realities reported in the news, such as wrongdoings in the government and large corporations, or poverty and pollution, appear liberal or even radical to conservatives.

Parenti's (1996) reasons are echoed by other media observers (e.g., Alterman, 2003) and complemented by the findings of media researchers. …

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