Monday, February 25, 2008

Dispatches from ESS: What liberal media?

NEW YORK – I presented at the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual conference this weekend. Dr. Timothy Madigan at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and I conducted some research into media bias during the run up to the war with Iraq. Specifically, we looked at pro-war and anti-war biases in a daily newspaper in rural Pennsylvania during February, 2003. That month, some significant events took place.

Do you honestly believe in a liberal bias in the mainstream media? I don’t anymore. Dr. Madigan and I went to the trouble of counting every war and terrorism-related paragraph. We classified each paragraph as pro-war, anti-war, neutral, or hysteria. Hysteria paragraphs/stories included things like North Korea’s nukes, Iran’s saber rattling, and the government’s advice to stock up on duct tape in case of an attack. Our rationale was that the hysteria fed war fever.

Here were the results:

Hysteria: 42%
Pro-war paragraphs: 33%
Anti-war paragraphs: 16%
Neutral paragraphs: 9%

To put that in perspective, for every anti-war sentiment expressed there were two pro-war sentiments and three hysteria paragraphs. Moreover, the scant anti-war statements were often tempered by a strong pro-war refutation. Conversely, most pro-war statements ran unchallenged. What this means is that we were feed a steady diet of pro-war coverage while under constant fear of another attack on our own homeland or that of our allies. How's that for framing an issue and priming the audience?

My part of the presentation primarily focused on why we had these findings in the alleged liberal media. I identified four possible explanations for our findings.

First, war sells newspapers. This goes back to the Pulitzer/Hearst circulation war that basically caused the Spanish-American War 110 years ago. The logic (as well as the reality in the newsroom) goes like this: people consume news at greater rates during times of war, leading to increased circulation. Circulation=advertising revenue=profit=growth of your media outlet=greater voice in the mass media=increased circulation=advertising revenue…

You get the idea.

The second point is that this particular newspaper serves a region that voted approximately two to one in favor of W. This brings up this little observation: Is it ethical for a newspaper to slant its coverage to correspond to the prevailing views of its target market?

The obvious answer is “of course not.” You are supposed to be the unbiased media. That is not the reality, though (see the first point then image a headline reading “Newspaper Folds.”)

Third, the sources used in the stories slanted the coverage in obvious ways. For practical reasons, there were not too many journalists on the ground in Iraq working to verify or refute the claims of Iraq’s WMD stockpile and the country’s links to Al-Qaeda. Therefore, the reporters had to rely on “expert” claims. Most of these “experts” were W and his chickenhawks because there is a traditional and rational deference to the executive branch regarding foreign policy. As a country, you want a single voice speaking for you on the world stage rather than a chorus of 535 congressmen who are often out of tune.

Moreover, there was a definite and deliberate vilification of some of America’s allies by the Republican Party in 2002 and 2003. Friday afternoon, I had a big plate of french fries. In 2003, I would have been eating some concoction called “freedom fries.”

Finally, the vast majority of stories that we analyzed were from the Associated Press and not from the staff writers. That means the overt bias was emanating not from the local newsroom, but from the AP. The practical upshot is that we could have come up with approximately the same results by analyzing newspapers in Birmingham, Sacramento, Austin, or Bismark since newspapers in those towns probably use AP material as well.

The subtle difference is in the presentation of the material. We often encountered examples of the big pro-war story as the lead story on the front page. The anti-war protests and distention from Europe might, just might, land on page 4-D behind the religion section of the Saturday paper. We also encountered many examples of stories about Iraq running very close to unrelated hysteria stories. Technically, North Korea and Iraq were separate issues, but to the reader both issues were about WMD.

As someone who has done this, I can assure you that there is not an overworked, underpaid copy editor sitting at a desk at midnight pondering how he can slant his newspaper further to the right.

Instead, this study highlights one symptom of a larger problem. The MSM decided that the evidence for war was irrefutable and the local outlets went along. Basically, the media collectively came down with a case of war fever. They are just now getting better.

I ended the presentation with this quote from Ben Bradlee, retired executive editor of the Washington Post. He said this in 1977 in reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (probably written months before the actual event; President Johnson just needed an actual “crisis” to justify expanding military operations in Southeast Asia): “Just think for a minute how history might have changed if Americans had known then that their leaders thought the [Vietnam] war was going to hell in a handbasket? In the next seven years, thousands of American lives and thousands more Asian lives would have been saved. The country might never have lost faith in its leaders.”



Anonymous said...


I'd be interested in seeing your study results. I'm not sure reviewing selected stories in rural Northcentral PA proves or disproves the existence of a biased media.

Honestly, does it matter? The concept of an unbiased media is a pipedream. The media should embrace their point of view, then run with it. There enough choices out there for people to find differing viewpoints.

Chris said...

You are absolutely correct. This single study does not prove or disprove a single thing. I am hoping that this is the beginning of a much more systematic study that will be more revealing.

You also have a good point about the myth of an unbiased media. Modern "unbiased" reporting is a relatively new phenomenon, only emerging in the early 20th century. I think the proliferation of alternative news sources is bringing us full circle to the days of media outlets controlled by political parties. We could debate all day whether that would be a change for the better or worse.

My biggest concern is that it is way too easy for lies and exaggerations to infiltrate messages with an agenda other than unbiased and critical news coverage.

I will get you some results. Send me an e-mail. It is listed under the "about me" section.