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Read and watch with a skeptical eye

One of the problems with all those people who try to measure bias in the news media is that they usually study what is published or broadcast and try to evaluate whether it is positive or negative toward a particular candidate, party, position or issue.

Now comes a study that attempts to scientifically discover bias in the media by looking at what the media did not report.

A story in the current edition of Scientific American gives a sneak peek at a study to be published in December. Tim Groeling, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, looked at presidential polls by Fox News, ABC, CBS and NBC from 1997 to early 2008.

He found CBS was 35 percent less likely to report a decline in approval for Bill Clinton and was 33 percent more likely to report a drop in approval for George W. Bush than an increase. In contrast, Groeling found Fox was 67 percent less likely to report an increase in approval for Clinton than a decrease. Fox was 36 percent more likely tell of an increase for Bush than a decrease.

The writer, Vivian B. Martin, notes, "Groeling’s work is one of the few studies to quantify partisan bias in the media, a subject notoriously difficult for social scientists to research and discuss. These scientists work with theories such as the so-called hostile media effect to predict that ardent supporters of a cause will view media as slanted for the other side, and they have conducted hundreds of studies that have revealed imbalances in the ways journalists frame news on topics ranging from AIDS to the war in Iraq. But there is not a cohesive literature on media bias."

As I’ve said before, it is difficult to judge someone else’s level of bias when we all have a certain level of bias — the prism through which we see the world.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism recently released a study of the media coverage of the campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain. In it, the media get two black eyes.

The study found stories on Obama were about equally neutral, positive or negative, but stories about McCain were 57 percent negative compared to 14 percent positive and the rest neutral.

The study found that coverage of Obama began in the negative but switched to positive as he climbed in the polls. Likewise McCain’s coverage started out on the positive side, but turned negative when he reacted to the financial markets’ meltdown.

The Pew researchers reached an interesting conclusion about whether these numbers and trends reveal a definite media bias or something a bit more subtle.

"One question likely to be posed is whether these findings provide evidence that the news media are pro-Obama," the researchers said. "Is there some element in these numbers that reflects a rooting by journalists for Obama and against McCain, unconscious or otherwise? The data do not provide conclusive answers. They do offer a strong suggestion that winning in politics begat winning coverage, thanks in part to the relentless tendency of the press to frame its coverage of national elections as running narratives about the relative position of the candidates in the polls and internal tactical maneuvering to alter those positions. Obama’s coverage was negative in tone when he was dropping in the polls, and became positive when he began to rise, and it was just so for McCain as well."

Perhaps it can be likened to sports coverage. Winners get glowing coverage. Losers get panned.

As I’ve always recommended: Read and watch with a skeptical eye and you can get the facts. Yes, evaluate the tone and spin and you will not be hoodwinked.

 

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes on the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at http://www.lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell/.

 

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