Media bias in the United States

Media bias in the United States occurs when the US media systematically skews reporting in a way that crosses standards of professional journalism. Claims of media bias in the United States include claims of liberal bias and conservative bias. Such claims have increased as the US political parties have become more polarized. There are also claims of corporate bias, bias in reporting to favor the corporate owners of the media, and mainstream bias, a tendency for the media to focus on certain "hot" stories and ignore news of more substance. A variety of watchdog groups attempt to combat bias by fact-checking both biased reporting and unfounded claims of bias. A variety of scholarly disciplines study media bias.[1] Many news outlets make no pretense of being unbiased and give their readers or listeners the news they want, leading to what has been called post-truth politics.[2][3][4][5][6][7][8]


Before the rise of professional journalism in the early 1900s and the conception of media ethics, newspapers reflected the opinions of the publisher. Frequently, an area would be served by competing newspapers taking differing and often radical views by modern standards.[9] In colonial Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was an early and forceful advocate for presenting all sides of an issue, writing, for instance, in his "An Apology For Printers" that "... when truth and error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."[10]

In 1798, the Federalist Party in control of Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts designed to weaken the opposition press. It prohibited the publication of "false, scandalous, or malicious writing" against the government and made it a crime to voice any public opposition to any law or presidential act. This part of the law act was in effect until 1801.[11]

President Thomas Jefferson, 1801–1809, was the target of many venomous attacks. He advised editors to divide their newspapers into four sections labeled "truth," "probabilities," "possibilities," and "lies," and observed that the first section would be the smallest and the last the largest. In retirement he grumbled, "Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper."[12]

In 1861, Federal officials identified newspapers that supported the Confederate cause and ordered many of them closed.[13]

In the 19th century, newspapers were party organs. One observer reported, "Almost all the daily newspapers are political newspapers. They are bitterly partisan."[14] Cities typically had multiple competing newspapers supporting various political factions in each party. To some extent this was mitigated by a separation between news and editorial. News reporting was expected to be relatively neutral or at least factual, whereas editorial sections openly relayed the opinion of the publisher. Editorials often were accompanied by editorial cartoons, which lampooned the publisher's opponents.[15]

Small ethnic newspapers serviced people of various ethnicities, such as Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, Poles, and Italians. Large cities had numerous foreign-language newspapers, magazines and publishers. They typically were boosters who supported their group's positions on public issues. They disappeared as their readership, increasingly, became assimilated. In the 20th century, newspapers in various Asian languages, and also in Spanish and Arabic, appeared and are still published, read by newer immigrants.[16]

Starting in the 1890s, a few very high-profile metropolitan newspapers engaged in yellow journalism to increase sales. They emphasized sports, sex, scandal, and sensationalism. The leaders of this style of journalism in New York City were William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.[17] Hearst falsified or exaggerated sensational stories about atrocities in Cuba and the sinking of the USS Maine to boost circulation. Hearst falsely claimed that he had started the war, but in fact the nation's decision makers paid little attention to his shrill demands—President McKinley, for example, did not read the yellow journals.[18]

The Progressive Era, from the 1890s to the 1920s, was reform oriented. From 1905 to 1915, the muckraker style exposed malefaction in city government and in industry. However, they tended "to exaggerate, misinterpret, and oversimplify events," and were the target of complaints by President Theodore Roosevelt.[19]

The Dearborn Independent, a weekly magazine owned by Henry Ford and distributed free through Ford dealerships, published conspiracy theories about international Jewry in the 1920s. A favorite trope of the anti-Semitism that raged in the 1930s was the allegation that Jews controlled Hollywood and the media. Charles Lindbergh in 1941 claimed American Jews, possessing outsized influence in Hollywood, the media, and the Roosevelt administration, were pushing the nation into war against its interests.[20] Lindbergh received a storm of criticism; the Gallup poll reported that support for his foreign policy views fell to 15%.[21] Hans Thomsen, the senior diplomat at the German Embassy in Washington, reported to Berlin that his efforts to place pro-isolationist articles in American newspapers had failed. "Influential journalists of high repute will not lend themselves, even for money, to publishing such material." Thompson set up a publishing house to produce anti-British books, but almost all of them went unsold.[22][23] In the years leading up to World War II, The pro-Nazi German-American Bund accused the media of being controlled by Jews. They claimed that reports of German mistreatment of Jews were biased and without foundation. They said that Hollywood was a hotbed of Jewish bias, and called for Charlie Chaplin's film The Great Dictator to be banned as an insult to a respected leader.[24]

During the American civil rights movement, conservative newspapers strongly slanted their news about Civil Rights, blaming the unrest among Southern Blacks on communists.[25] In some cases, Southern television stations refused to air programs such as I Spy and Star Trek because of their racially mixed casts.[26] Newspapers supporting Civil rights, labor unions, and aspects of liberal social reform were often accused by conservative newspapers of communist bias.[27]

In November 1969, Vice President Spiro Agnew made a landmark speech denouncing what he saw as media bias against the Vietnam War. He called those opposed to the war the "nattering nabobs of negativism."[28]

In 2010, President Obama said that he believed the viewpoints expressed by Fox News was "destructive for the long-term growth" of the United States.[29]

In 2014, Pew Research Center found that the audience of news was polarized along political alignments.[30]

Demographic polling

A 1956 American National Election Study found that 66% of Americans thought newspapers were fair, including 78% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats. A 1964 poll by the Roper Organization asked a similar question about network news, and 71% thought network news was fair. A 1972 poll found that 72% of Americans trusted CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite. According to Jonathan M. Ladd's Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters, "Once, institutional journalists were powerful guardians of the republic, maintaining high standards of political discourse."[31]

That has changed. Gallup Polls since 1997 have shown that most Americans do not have confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly". According to Gallup, the American public's trust in the media has generally declined in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Again according to Ladd, "In the 2008, the portion of Americans expressing 'hardly any' confidence in the press had risen to 45%. A 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education poll found that only 10% of Americans had 'a great deal' of confidence in the 'national news media,'"[31] In 2011, only 44% of those surveyed had "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust and confidence in the mass media.[32] In 2013, a 59% majority reported a perception of media bias, with 46% saying mass media was too liberal and 13% saying it was too conservative. The perception of bias was highest among conservatives. According to the poll, 78% of conservatives think the mass media is biased, as compared with 44% of liberals and 50% of moderates. Only about 36% view mass media reporting as "just about right".[33][34]

A 2014 Gallup poll found that a plurality of Americans believe the media is biased to favor liberal politics. According to the poll, 44% of Americans feel that news media are "too liberal" (70% of self-identified conservatives, 35% of self-identified moderates, and 15% of self-identified liberals), 19% believe them to be "too conservative" (12% of self-identified conservatives, 18% of self-identified moderates, and 33% of self-identified liberals), and 34% find it "just about right" (49% of self-identified liberals, 44% of self-identified moderates, and 16% of self-identified conservatives).[35]

In 2016 the trust in media by both Democrats and Republicans changed once again. According to Gallup news, "Democrats' trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news "fully, accurately and fairly" has jumped from 51% in 2016 to 72% this year—fueling a rise in Americans' overall confidence to 41%. Independents' trust has risen modestly to 37%, while Republicans' trust is unchanged at 14%".[36]

In 2017, a Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans view the news media favoring a particular political party; 64% believed it favored the Democratic Party, compared to 22% who believed it favored the Republican Party.[37]

News values

According to Jonathan M. Ladd, Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters, "The existence of an independent, powerful, widely respected news media establishment is a historical anomaly. Prior to the twentieth century, such an institution had never existed in American history." However, he looks back to the period between 1950 and 1979 as a period where "institutional journalists were powerful guardians of the republic, maintaining high standards of political discourse."

A number of writers have tried to explain the decline in journalistic standards. One explanation is the 24-hour news cycle, which faces the necessity of generating news even when no news-worthy events occur. Another is the simple fact that bad news sells more newspapers than good news. A third possible factor is the market for "news" that reinforces the prejudices of a target audience. "In a 2010 paper, Mr. Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, a frequent collaborator and fellow professor at Chicago Booth, found that ideological slants in newspaper coverage typically resulted from what the audience wanted to read in the media they sought out, rather than from the newspaper owners' biases."[38]

Framing and filter bubbles

An important aspect of media bias is framing. A frame is the arrangement of a news story, with the goal of influencing audience to favor one side or the other.[39] The ways in which stories are framed can greatly undermine the standards of reporting such as fairness and balance. Many media outlets are known for their outright bias.[40] Some outlets, such as MSNBC[41] and the Huffington Post are known for their liberal views, while others, such as Breitbart and Fox News Channel,[42][43] are known for their conservative views.[44] How biased media frame stories can change audience reactions.[44] Filter bubbles are an extension of framing. Filter bubbles are what companies such as Facebook and Google use to filter out the content that user might not agree with or find disturbing.[45]

Bias in entertainment media

Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV, a 2011 book by Ben Shapiro, argues that producers, executives and writers in the entertainment industry are using television to promote a liberal political agenda. The claims include both blatant and subtle liberal agendas in entertainment shows, discrimination against conservatives in the industry, and misleading advertisers regarding the value of liberal-leaning market segments. As one part of the evidence, he presents statements from taped interviews made by celebrities and T.V. show creators from Hollywood whom he interviewed for the book.[46]

Comic strips are divided into "right" and "left" on the popular web page GoComics. [47] The Doonesbury comic strip has a liberal point of view. In 2004 a conservative letter writing campaign was successful in convincing Continental Features, a company that prints many Sunday comics sections, to refuse to print the strip, causing Doonesbury to disappear from the Sunday comics in 38 newspapers. Of the 38, only one editor, Troy Turner, executive editor of the Anniston Star in Alabama, continued to run the Sunday Doonesbury, albeit necessarily in black and white.[48] Mallard Fillmore by Bruce Tinsley and Prickly City by Scott Stantis are both conservative in their views. In older strips, Li'l Abner by Al Capp routinely parodied Southern Democrats through the character of Senator Jack S. Phogbound, but later adopted a strongly conservative stance. Pogo by Walt Kelly caricaturized a wide range of political figures including Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace, Robert F. Kennedy, and Eugene McCarthy. Little Orphan Annie espoused a strong anti-union pro-business stance in the story "Eonite" from 1935, where union agitators destroy a business that would have benefited the entire human race.[49]

Corporate bias and power bias

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988),[50] proposed a propaganda model hypothesis to explain systematic biases of United States media as a consequence of the pressure to create a profitable business.

Pro-power and pro-government bias

Part of the propaganda model is self-censorship through the corporate system (see corporate censorship); reporters and especially editors share or acquire values that agree with corporate elites to further their careers. Those who do not are marginalized or fired. Such examples have been dramatized in fact-based movie dramas such as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Insider and demonstrated in the documentary The Corporation.[51][52] George Orwell originally wrote a preface for his 1945 novel Animal Farm, which pointed up the self-censorship during wartime when the USSR was an ally. The preface was first published in 1972. It read in part:

The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. ... Things are] kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact ... At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet regime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet Government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable." He added, "In our country—it is not the same in all countries: it was not so in Republican France, and it is not so in the United States today—it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect: it is to draw attention to that fact I have written this preface."[53]

In the propaganda model, advertising revenue is essential for funding most media sources and thus linked with media coverage. For example, according to Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (, 'When Al Gore proposed launching a progressive TV network, a Fox News executive told Advertising Age (October 13, 2003): "The problem with being associated as liberal is that they wouldn't be going in a direction that advertisers are really interested in ... If you go out and say that you are a liberal network, you are cutting your potential audience, and certainly your potential advertising pool, right off the bat."[54] An internal memo from ABC Radio affiliates in 2006 revealed that powerful sponsors had a "standing order that their commercials never be placed on syndicated Air America programming" that aired on ABC affiliates.[55] The list totaled 90 advertisers and included major corporations such as Wal-Mart, GE, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Bank of America, FedEx, Visa, Allstate, McDonald's, Sony, and Johnson & Johnson, as well as government entities such as the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Navy.

According to Chomsky, U.S. commercial media encourage controversy only within a narrow range of opinion, in order to give the impression of open debate, and do not report on news that falls outside that range.[56]

Herman and Chomsky argue that comparing the journalistic media product to the voting record of journalists is as flawed a logic as implying auto-factory workers design the cars they help produce. They concede that media owners and newmakers have an agenda but that the agenda is subordinated to corporate interests leaning to the right.[50] It has been argued by some critics, including historian Howard Zinn and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, that the corporate media routinely ignore the plight of the impoverished while painting a picture of a prosperous America.[57][58]

In 2008 George W. Bush's press secretary Scott McClellan published a book in which he confessed to regularly and routinely, but unknowingly, passing on misinformation to the media, following the instructions of his superiors. Politicians have willingly misled the press to further their agenda.[40] Scott McClellan characterized the press as, by and large, honest, and intent on telling the truth, but reported that "the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House", especially on the subject of the war in Iraq.[59]

FAIR reported that between January and August 2014 no representatives for organized labor made an appearance on any of the high-profile Sunday morning talkshows (NBC's Meet the Press, ABC's This Week, Fox News Sunday and CBS's Face the Nation), including episodes that covered topics such as labor rights and jobs, while current or former corporate CEOs made 12 appearances over that same period.[60]

Operation Mockingbird

In a 1977 Rolling Stone magazine article, "The CIA and the Media," reporter Carl Bernstein wrote that by 1953, CIA Director Allen Dulles oversaw the media network, which had major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies.[61] Its usual modus operandi was to place reports, developed from CIA-provided intelligence, with cooperating or unwitting reporters. Those reports would be repeated or cited by the recipient reporters and would then, in turn, be cited throughout the media wire services. These networks were run by people with well-known liberal but pro-American-big-business and anti-Soviet views, such as William S. Paley (CBS), Henry Luce (Time and Life), Arthur Hays Sulzberger (The New York Times), Alfred Friendly (managing editor of The Washington Post), Jerry O'Leary (The Washington Star), Hal Hendrix (Miami News), Barry Bingham, Sr. (Louisville Courier-Journal), James S. Copley (Copley News Services) and Joseph Harrison (The Christian Science Monitor).[61]

Corporate control

Six corporate conglomerates (Disney, CBS Corporation, 21st Century Fox, Viacom, AT&T, and Comcast) own the majority of mass media outlets in the United States.[62][63] Such a uniformity of ownership means that stories which are critical of these corporations may often be underplayed in the media.[64][65] The Telecommunications Act of 1996 enabled this handful of corporations to expand their power, and according to Howard Zinn, such mergers "enabled tighter control of information."[66] Chris Hedges argues that corporate media control "of nearly everything we read, watch or hear" is an aspect of what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism.[67]

In the United States most media are operated for profit, and are usually funded by advertising. Stories critical of advertisers or their interests may be underplayed, while stories favorable to advertisers may be given more coverage.

Since the media is owned by the wealthy and by groups of people with a strong influence, these owners use the media as a safety tool. "The guard dog metaphor suggests that media perform as a sentry not for the community as a whole, but for groups having sufficient power and influence to create and control their own security systems." The Guard Dog Theory states that, "the view of media as part of a power oligarchy".[68]


Academics such as McKay, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and Hudson (see below) have described private U.S. media outlets as profit-driven. For the private media, profits are dependent on viewing figures, regardless of whether the viewers found the programs adequate or outstanding. The strong profit-making incentive of the American media leads them to seek a simplified format and uncontroversial position which will be adequate for the largest possible audience. The market mechanism only rewards media outlets based on the number of viewers who watch those outlets, not by how informed the viewers are, how good the analysis is, or how impressed the viewers are by that analysis.

According to some, the profit-driven quest for high numbers of viewers, rather than high quality for viewers, has resulted in a slide from serious news and analysis to entertainment, sometimes called infotainment:

"Imitating the rhythm of sports reports, exciting live coverage of major political crises and foreign wars was now available for viewers in the safety of their own homes. By the late 1980s, this combination of information and entertainment in news programmes was known as infotainment." [Barbrook, Media Freedom, (London, Pluto Press, 1995) part 14]


Kathleen Hall Jamieson claimed in her book The Interplay of Influence: News, Advertising, Politics, and the Internet that most television news stories are made to fit into one of five categories:[69]

  • Appearance versus reality
  • Little guys versus big guys
  • Good versus evil
  • Efficiency versus inefficiency
  • Unique and bizarre events versus ordinary events.

Reducing news to these five categories, and tending towards an unrealistic black/white mentality, simplifies the world into easily understood opposites. According to Jamieson, the media provides an oversimplified skeleton of information that is more easily commercialized.

Media imperialism

Media imperialism is a critical theory regarding the perceived effects of globalization on the world's media which is often seen as dominated by American media and culture. It is closely tied to the similar theory of cultural imperialism.[70]

"As multinational media conglomerates grow larger and more powerful many believe that it will become increasingly difficult for small, local media outlets to survive. A new type of imperialism will thus occur, making many nations subsidiary to the media products of some of the most powerful countries or companies."[71]

Significant writers and thinkers in this area include Ben Bagdikian, Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman and Robert McChesney.

Racial bias

Political activist and one-time presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson said in 1985 that the news media portray black people as "less intelligent than we are."[72] The IQ Controversy, the Media and Public Policy, a book published by Stanley Rothman and Mark Snyderman, claimed to document bias in media coverage of scientific findings regarding race and intelligence. Snyderman and Rothman stated that media reports often either erroneously reported that most experts believe that the genetic contribution to IQ is absolute or that most experts believe that genetics plays no role at all.

According to Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow, in 1986, many stories of the crack crisis broke out in the media. In these stories, African Americans were featured as "crack whores." The deaths of NBA player Len Bias and NFL player Don Rogers due to cocaine overdose only added to the media frenzy. Alexander claims in her book: "Between October 1988 and October 1989, The Washington Post alone ran 1,565 stories about the 'drug scourge.'"[73]

One example of this double standard is the comparison of the deaths of Michael Brown and Dillon Taylor. On August 9, 2014, news broke out that Brown, a young, unarmed African American man, was shot and killed by a white policeman. This story spread throughout news media, explaining that the incident had to do with race. Only two days later, Taylor, another young, unarmed man, was shot and killed by a policeman. This story, however, did not get as highly publicized as Brown's. However, unlike Brown's case, Taylor was white and Hispanic, while the police officer is black.[74]

Research has shown that African Americans are over-represented in news reports on crime and that within those stories they are more likely to be shown as the perpetrators of the crime than as the persons reacting to or suffering from it.[75]

One of the most striking examples of racial bias was the portrayal of African Americans in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. The media presented the riots as being an African American problem, deeming African Americans solely responsible for the riots. However, according to reports, only 36% of those arrested during the riots were African American. Some 60% of the rioters and looters were Hispanics and whites, facts that were not reported by the media.[76]

Conversely, multiple commentators and newspaper articles have cited examples of the national media under-reporting interracial hate crimes when they involve white victims as compared to when they involve African-American victims.[77][78][79] Jon Ham, a vice president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, wrote that "local officials and editors often claim that mentioning the black-on-white nature of the event might inflame passion, but they never have those same qualms when it's white-on-black."[80]

According to David Niven, of Ohio State University, research shows that American media show bias on only two issues: race and gender equality.[81]

Political bias

Numerous books and studies have addressed the question of political bias in the American media. In general, print media is seen as having a slight liberal bias, with various broadcast and online outlets exhibiting both liberal and conservative bias. News organizations and proprietors are more likely to be conservative-leaning - for example, Rupert Murdoch self-identifies as a "right-libertarian". Murdoch has exerted a strong influence over the media he owns, including Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and The Sun.[82][83][84]

Commentary, editorial and opinion is more biased than factual news reporting in the mainstream media, and concerns have been raised as the lines between commentary and journalism are increasingly blurred.[85][86][87] In reaction to this, there has been a growth of independent fact-checking and algorithms to assess bias.[88]

Liberal bias in journalism

According to a study by Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver, professors of journalism at Indiana University, conducted via online interviews with 1,080 reporters between August and December 2013, 28.1% of journalists in the United States identify as Democrats and 7.1% as Republicans, whereas 50.2% identify as independents.[89][90][91]

The conservative media ecosystem

Perceived liberal bias was cited by Roger Ailes as a reason for setting up Fox News.[92] From the late 20th Century, a right wing media ecosystem grew up in parallel to mainstream journalism, leading to an asymmetric polarization in conservative media.[93] While The Wall Street Journal always leaned conservative, it is nonetheless part of the journalistic mainstream, committed primarily to factual reporting.[94] New right-leaning media outlets including Breitbart News, NewsMax, and WorldNetDaily instead have a core mission to promote a conservative or right-wing agenda.[94][95][96][97][98][99]

Cable news

Kenneth Tomlinson, while chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, commissioned a $10,000 government study into Bill Moyers' PBS program, NOW.[100] The results of the study indicated that there was no particular bias on PBS. Tomlinson chose to reject the results of the study, subsequently reducing time and funding for NOW with Bill Moyers, which many including Tomlinson regarded as a "left-wing" program, and then expanded a show hosted by Fox News correspondent Tucker Carlson. Some board members stated that his actions were politically motivated.[101] Himself a frequent target of claims of bias (in this case, conservative bias), Tomlinson resigned from the CPB board on November 4, 2005. Regarding the claims of a left-wing bias, Moyers asserted in a Broadcasting & Cable interview that "If reporting on what's happening to ordinary people thrown overboard by circumstances beyond their control and betrayed by Washington officials is liberalism, I stand convicted."[102]

According to former Fox News producer Charlie Reina, unlike the AP, CBS, or ABC, Fox News's editorial policy is set from the top down in the form of a daily memo: "[F]requently, Reina says, it also contains hints, suggestions and directives on how to slant the day's news—invariably, he said in 2003, in a way that was consistent with the politics and desires of the Bush administration."[103] Fox News responded by denouncing Reina as a "disgruntled employee" with "an ax to grind."[103] Andrew Sullivan wrote of Fox that "[o]ne alleged news network fed its audience a diet of lies, while contributing financially to the party that benefited from those lies."[104] The same is true of Sinclair Broadcast Group,[105] which notably instructed all its local news anchors to run a conservative message in the main news segment.[106] Its rapid growth through station group acquisitions—especially during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections—had provided an increasingly large platform promoting conservative views.[107][108][109][110]

Asymmetric polarization

In Network Propaganda, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts of Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society use network analysis to analyze American media and explore why there "often no overlap, no resemblance whatsoever between the news events reported in mainstream print and broadcast coverage [...] and the topics that get broadcast as news on the Fox network and its fellows on the right".[111] By tracking citations and social media shares across various news outlets and correlating with editorial political leaning, they found that right-wing media sources had effectively segregated themselves[112] into in an increasingly isolated silo, creating a propaganda feedback loop[113][114] continually becoming more extreme and more partisan.[115][116] They note that the right wing media "punish actors – be they media outlets or politicians and pundits – who insist on speaking truths that are inconsistent with partisan frames and narratives dominant within the ecosystem", and contrast this with a "reality check dynamic" that prevails in the mainstream media. [114][113] They also note that liberal readers consume a much broader range of sources, whereas right wing media consumers rarely stray outside of the narrow right wing bubble.[113]

Progressive media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has argued that accusations of liberal media bias are part of a conservative strategy, noting an article in the August 20, 1992 Washington Post, in which Republican party chair Rich Bond compared journalists to referees in a sporting match. "If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time."[117] A 1998 study from FAIR found that journalists are "mostly centrist in their political orientation";[118] 30% considered themselves to the left on social issues compared with 9% on the right, while 11% considered themselves to the left on economic issues compared with 19% on the right. The report argued that since journalists considered themselves to be centrists, "perhaps this is why an earlier survey found that they tended to vote for Bill Clinton in large numbers." FAIR uses this study to support the claim that media bias is propagated down from the management and that individual journalists are relatively neutral in their work.

In What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003)[64], Eric Alterman also disputes the belief in liberal media bias, and suggests that over-correcting for this belief resulted in the opposite.[119]

Claims of censorship of conservative content

Tech companies and social media sites have been accused of censorship by some conservative groups, although there is little or no evidence to support these claims.[120][121]

At least one conservative theme - climate change denialism - is over-represented in the media,[122] and some scientists have argued that media outlets haven't done enough to combat false information. In November 2013, Nathan Allen, a Ph.D. chemist and moderator on Reddit's science forum published an op-ed that argued that newspaper editors should refrain from publishing articles from people who deny the scientific consensus on climate change.[123]

Shadow banning

Claims of shadow banning of conservative social media accounts (manipulating algorithms to minimise the exposure and spread of specific content) were brought to the fore in 2016 when conservative news sites lashed out after a report from an unnamed Facebook employee on May 7 alleged that contractors for the social media giant were told to minimize links to their sites in its "trending news" column.[124] Alex Breitbart, former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News, claimed that "Facebook trending news artificially mutes conservatives and amplifies progressives."[125] Facebook's response included a statement that they "do not permit the suppression of political perspectives" and that its trending news articles are selected by algorithms to prevent human bias from violating its policy of neutrality.[125]

Fact checking and "fake news"

Conservative outlets criticize fact checking of conservative content, as a perceived liberal attempt to control discourse.[126] Fake news sharing is less common than perceived, and actual consumption of fake news is limited,[127] but older, more conservative people are more likely to share fake news.[128][129] Analysis shows that deliberate use of fake news is primarily associated with the hard right.[130] and the conservative media bubble is more vulnerable to the spread of fake stories.[94][131]

The term "fake news" has been weaponized with the goal of undermining public trust in news media.[127] President Donald Trump has seized on the term "fake news"[132][133] as a way of denigrating any story or outlet critical of him, even appearing to claim to have invented the term[134] and handing out so-called "Fake News Awards" in 2017.[135] Trump, followed by supporters such as Sean Hannity,[136] uses "fake" as a synonym for "negative", as a way of rationalising the overwhelmingly negative tone of coverage of his presidency.[137] "In 2018 he described what he called the "fake news" of the American press as "The Enemy of the American people",[138][139] a phrase used by Stalin[140] and other totalitarian leaders[141] and echoing Richard Nixon's inclusion of journalists on his "enemies list".[142] In response, the United States Senate unanimously adopted a resolution which "Reaffirm[ed] the vital and indispensable role the free press serves," and was seen as a symbolic rebuke to Trump.[143][144]

Coverage of electoral politics

In the 19th century, many American newspapers made no pretense to lack of bias, openly advocating one or another political party. Big cities would often have competing newspapers supporting various political parties. To some extent this was mitigated by a separation between news and editorial. News reporting was expected to be relatively neutral or at least factual, whereas editorial was openly the opinion of the publisher. Editorials might also be accompanied by an editorial cartoon, which would frequently lampoon the publisher's opponents.[15]

In an editorial for The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan wrote that reporting by "the liberal media establishment" on the Watergate scandal "played a central role in bringing down a president." Richard Nixon later complained, "I gave them a sword and they ran it right through me."[146] Nixon's Vice-President Spiro Agnew attacked the media in a series of speeches—two of the most famous having been written by White House aides William Safire and Buchanan himself—as "elitist" and "liberal."[146] However, the media had also strongly criticized his Democratic predecessor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, for his handling of the Vietnam War, which culminated in him not seeking a second term.[147]

In 2004, Steve Ansolabehere, Rebecca Lessem and Jim Snyder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed the political orientation of endorsements by U.S. newspapers. They found an upward trend in the average propensity to endorse a candidate, and in particular an incumbent one. There were also some changes in the average ideological slant of endorsements: while in the 1940s and in the 1950s there was a clear advantage to Republican candidates, this advantage continuously eroded in subsequent decades, to the extent that in the 1990s the authors found a slight Democratic lead in the average endorsement choice.[148]

Riccardo Puglisi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looks at the editorial choices of The New York Times from 1946 to 1997.[149] He finds that the Times displays Democratic partisanship, with some watchdog aspects. This is the case, because during presidential campaigns the Times systematically gives more coverage to Democratic topics of civil rights, health care, labor and social welfare, but only when the incumbent president is a Republican. These topics are classified as Democratic ones, because Gallup polls show that on average U.S. citizens think that Democratic candidates would be better at handling problems related to them. According to Puglisi, in the post-1960 period the Times displays a more symmetric type of watchdog behavior, just because during presidential campaigns it also gives more coverage to the typically Republican issue of Defense when the incumbent President is a Democrat, and less so when the incumbent is a Republican.

John Lott and Kevin Hassett of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute studied the coverage of economic news by looking at a panel of 389 U.S. newspapers from 1991 to 2004, and at a subsample of the two ten newspapers and the Associated Press from 1985 to 2004.[150] For each release of official data about a set of economic indicators, the authors analyze how newspapers decide to report on them, as reflected by the tone of the related headlines. The idea is to check whether newspapers display partisan bias, by giving more positive or negative coverage to the same economic figure, as a function of the political affiliation of the incumbent President. Controlling for the economic data being released, the authors find that there are between 9.6 and 14.7% fewer positive stories when the incumbent President is a Republican.

According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal watchdog group, Democratic candidate John Edwards was falsely maligned and was not given coverage commensurate with his standing in presidential campaign coverage because his message questioned corporate power.[151][152]

A 2000 meta-analysis of research in 59 quantitative studies of media bias in American presidential campaigns from 1948 through 1996 found that media bias tends to cancel out, leaving little or no net bias. The authors conclude "It is clear that the major source of bias charges is the individual perceptions of media consumers and, in particular, media consumers of a particularly ideological bent."[153]

It has also been acknowledged that media outlets have often used horse-race journalism with the intent of making elections more competitive.[154] This form of political coverage involves diverting attention away from stronger candidates and hyping so-called dark horse contenders who seem more unlikely to win when the election cycle begins.[154] Benjamin Disraeli used the term " dark horse" to describe horse racing in 1831 in The Young Duke, writing, "a dark horse which had never been thought of and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph."[154] Political analyst Larry Sabato stated in his 2006 book Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections that Disraeli's description of dark horses "now fits in neatly with the media's trend towards horse-race journalism and penchant for using sports analogies to describe presidential politics."[154]

Often in contrast with national media, political science scholars seek to compile long-term data and research on the impact of political issues and voting in U.S. presidential elections, producing in-depth articles breaking down the issues

2000 Presidential election

During the course of the 2000 presidential election, some pundits accused the mainstream media of distorting facts in an effort to help Texas Governor George W. Bush win the 2000 Presidential Election after Bush and Al Gore officially launched their campaigns in 1999.[156] Peter Hart and Jim Naureckas, two commentators for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), called the media "serial exaggerators" and argued that several media outlets were constantly exaggerating criticism of Gore,[157] like falsely claiming that Gore lied when he claimed he spoke in an overcrowded science class in Sarasota, Florida,[157] and giving Bush a pass on certain issues, such as the fact that Bush wildly exaggerated how much money he signed into the annual Texas state budget to help the uninsured during his second debate with Gore in October 2000.[157] In the April 2000 issue of Washington Monthly, columnist Robert Parry also argued that several media outlets exaggerated Gore's supposed claim that he "discovered" the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York during a campaign speech in Concord, New Hampshire on November 30, 1999,[158] when he had only claimed he "found" it after it was already evacuated in 1978 because of chemical contamination.[158] Rolling Stone columnist Eric Boehlert also argued that media outlets exaggerated criticism of Gore as early as July 22, 1999,[159] when Gore, known for being an environmentalist, had a friend release 500 million gallons of water into a drought stricken river to help keep his boat afloat for a photo shot;[159] media outlets, however, exaggerated the actual number of gallons that were released and claimed it was four billion.[159]

2008 Presidential election

In the 2008 presidential election, media outlets were accused of discrediting Barack Obama's opponents in an effort to help him win the Democratic nomination and later the Presidential election. At the February debate, Tim Russert of NBC News was criticized for what some perceived as disproportionately tough questioning of Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton.[160] Among the questions, Russert had asked Clinton, but not Obama, to provide the name of the new Russian President (Dmitry Medvedev).[160] This was later parodied on Saturday Night Live. In October 2007, liberal commentators accused Russert of harassing Clinton over the issue of supporting drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants.[161]

On April 16, 2008 ABC News hosted a debate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were criticized by viewers, bloggers and media critics for the poor quality of their questions.[160][161] Many viewers said they considered some of the questions irrelevant when measured against the importance of the faltering economy or the Iraq War. Included in that category were continued questions about Obama's former pastor, Clinton's assertion that she had to duck sniper fire in Bosnia more than a decade ago, and Obama's not wearing an American flag pin.[160] The moderators focused on campaign gaffes and some believed they focused too much on Obama.[161] Stephanopoulos defended their performance, saying "Senator Obama was the front-runner" and the questions were "not inappropriate or irrelevant at all."[160][161]

In an op-ed published on April 27, 2008, in The New York Times, Elizabeth Edwards wrote that the media covered much more of "the rancor of the campaign" and "amount of money spent" than "the candidates' priorities, policies and principles."[162] Author Erica Jong commented that "our press has become a sea of triviality, meanness and irrelevant chatter."[163] A Gallup poll released on May 29, 2008 also estimated that more Americans felt the media was being harder on Clinton than they were on Obama.[164]

In a joint study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the authors found disparate treatment by the three major cable networks of Republican and Democratic candidates during the earliest five months of presidential primaries in 2007: "The CNN programming studied tended to cast a negative light on Republican candidates—by a margin of three-to-one. Four-in-ten stories (41%) were clearly negative while just 14% were positive and 46% were neutral. The network provided negative coverage of all three main candidates with McCain faring the worst (63% negative) and Romney faring a little better than the others only because a majority of his coverage was neutral. It's not that Democrats, other than Obama, fared well on CNN either. Nearly half of the Illinois Senator's stories were positive (46%), vs. just 8% that were negative. But both Clinton and Edwards ended up with more negative than positive coverage overall. So while coverage for Democrats overall was a bit more positive than negative, that was almost all due to extremely favorable coverage for Obama."[165]

A poll of likely 2008 United States presidential election voters released on March 14, 2007 by Zogby International reports that 83 percent of those surveyed believe that there is a bias in the media, with 64 percent of respondents of the opinion that this bias favors liberals and 28 percent of respondents believing that this bias is conservative.[166] In August 2008 The Washington Post ombudsman wrote that the Post had published almost three times as many page 1 stories about Obama than it had about John McCain since Obama won the Democratic party nomination that June.[167] In September 2008 a Rasmussen poll found that 68 percent of voters believed that "most reporters try to help the candidate they want to win." Forty-nine (49) percent of respondents stated that the reporters were helping Obama to get elected, while only 14 percent said the same regarding McCain. A further 51 percent said that the press was actively "trying to hurt" Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin with negative coverage.[168] In October 2008, Washington Post media correspondent Howard Kurtz reported that Palin was again on the cover of Newsweek, "but with the most biased campaign headline I've ever seen."[169]

After the election was over, The Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell reviewed the Post's coverage and concluded that it was slanted in favor of Obama.[170] "The Post provided a lot of good campaign coverage, but readers have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts." Over the course of the campaign, the Post printed 594 "issues stories" and 1,295 "horse-race stories." There were more positive opinion pieces on Obama than McCain (32 to 13) and more negative pieces about McCain than Obama (58 to 32). Overall, more news stories were dedicated to Obama than McCain. Howell said that the results of her survey were comparable to those reported by the Project for Excellence in Journalism for the national media. (That report, issued on October 22, 2008, found that "coverage of McCain has been heavily unfavorable," with 57% of the stories issued after the conventions being negative and only 14% being positive. For the same period, 36% of the stories on Obama were positive, 35% were neutral or mixed, and 29% were negative.[171][172]) While rating the Post's biographical stories as generally quite good, she concluded that "Obama deserved tougher scrutiny than he got, especially of his undergraduate years, his start in Chicago and his relationship with Antoin 'Tony' Rezko, who was convicted this year of influence-peddling in Chicago. The Post did nothing on Obama's acknowledged drug use as a teenager."[170]

Various critics, particularly Hudson, have shown concern over the link between the news media's reporting and what they see as the trivialised nature of American elections. Hudson[173] argued that America's news media elections coverage damages the democratic process. He argues that elections are centered on candidates, whose advancement depends on funds, personality and sound-bites, rather than serious political discussion or policies offered by parties. His argument is that it is on the media which Americans are dependent for information about politics (this is of course true almost by definition) and that they are therefore greatly influenced by the way the media report, which concentrates on short sound-bites, gaffes by candidates, and scandals. The reporting of elections avoids complex issues or issues which are time-consuming to explain. Of course, important political issues are generally both complex and time-consuming to explain, so are avoided.

Hudson blames this style of media coverage, at least partly, for trivialised elections:

"The bites of information voters receive from both print and electronic media are simply insufficient for constructive political discourse ... candidates for office have adjusted their style of campaigning in response to this tabloid style of media coverage ... modern campaigns are exercises in image manipulation ... Elections decided on sound bites, negative campaign commercials, and sensationalised exposure of personal character flaws provide no meaningful direction for government".[174]

Coverage of foreign issues

In addition to philosophical or economic biases, there are also subject biases, including criticism of media coverage about foreign policy issues as being overly centered in Washington, DC. Coverage is variously cited as being 'beltway centrism', framed in terms of domestic politics and established policy positions,[175] following only Washington's 'Official Agendas',[176] and mirroring only a 'Washington Consensus'.[177] Regardless of the criticism, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, "No news subject generates more complaints about media objectivity than the Middle East in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular."[178]

Coverage of the Vietnam War

Coverage of the Arab–Israeli conflict

Pro-Israel media

Stephen Zunes wrote that "mainstream and conservative Jewish organizations have mobilized considerable lobbying resources, financial contributions from the Jewish community, and citizen pressure on the news media and other forums of public discourse in support of the Israeli government."[179]

According to CUNY professor of journalism Eric Alterman, debate among Middle East pundits, "is dominated by people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel". In 2002, he listed 56 columnists and commentators who can be counted on to support Israel "reflexively and without qualification." Alterman only identified five pundits who consistently criticize Israeli behavior or endorse pro-Arab positions.[180] Journalists described as pro-Israel by Mearsheimer and Walt include The New York Times' William Safire, A.M. Rosenthal, David Brooks, and Thomas Friedman although they say that the last is sometimes critical of areas of Israel policy); The Washington Post's Jim Hoagland, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer and George Will;[181] and the Los Angeles Times' Max Boot, Jonah Goldberg, and Jonathan Chait.

The 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy argued that there is a media bias in favor of Israel. It stated that a former spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York said that: "Of course, a lot of self-censorship goes on. Journalists, editors, and politicians are going to think twice about criticizing Israel if they know they are going to get thousands of angry calls in a matter of hours. The Jewish lobby is good at orchestrating pressure."[182]

Journalist Michael Massing wrote in 2006 that "Jewish organizations are quick to detect bias in the coverage of the Middle East, and quick to complain about it. That's especially true of late. As The Forward observed in late April [2002], 'rooting out perceived anti-Israel bias in the media has become for many American Jews the most direct and emotional outlet for connecting with the conflict 6,000 miles away.'"[183]

The Forward related how one individual felt:

"'There's a great frustration that American Jews want to do something,' said Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. 'In 1947, some number would have enlisted in the Haganah,' he said, referring to the pre-state Jewish armed force. 'There was a special American brigade. Nowadays you can't do that. The battle here is the hasbarah war,' Youdovin said, using a Hebrew term for public relations. 'We're winning, but we're very much concerned about the bad stuff.'"[184]

A 2003 Boston Globe article on the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America media watchdog group by Mark Jurkowitz argued that: "To its supporters, CAMERA is figuratively—and perhaps literally—doing God's work, battling insidious anti-Israeli bias in the media. But its detractors see CAMERA as a myopic and vindictive special interest group trying to muscle its views into media coverage."[185]

Coverage of the Iraq War

In 2003, a study released by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting stated the network news disproportionately focused on pro-war sources and left out many anti-war sources. According to the study, 64% of total sources were in favor of the Iraq War, and total anti-war sources made up 10% of the media (only 3% of US sources were anti-war). The study stated that "viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1."[186]

In February 2004, a study was released by the liberal national media watchdog group FAIR. According to the study, which took place during October 2003, current or former government or military officials accounted for 76 percent of all 319 sources for news stories about Iraq which aired on network news channels.[187]

On March 23, 2006, the US designated the Hezbollah affiliated media, Al-Nour Radio and Al-Manar TV station, as "terrorist entities" through legislative language as well as support of a letter to President Bush signed by 51 senators.[188]

News sources

... "balanced" coverage that plagues American journalism and which leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge. The idea seems to be that journalists are allowed to go out to report, but when it comes time to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should ... attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. "Balanced" is not fair, it's just an easy way of avoiding real reporting ... and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

Ken Silverstein in Harper's Magazine, 2007.[189][190]

A widely-cited public opinion study[191] documented a correlation between news source and certain misconceptions about the Iraq War. Conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes in October 2003, the poll asked Americans whether they believed statements about the Iraq War that were known to be false. Respondents were also asked for their primary news source: Fox News, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, "Print sources," or NPR. By cross-referencing the respondents to their primary news source, the study showed that more Fox News watchers held the misconceptions about the Iraq War. Director of Program on International Policy (PIPA) Stephen Kull said, "While we cannot assert that these misconceptions created the support for going to war with Iraq, it does appear likely that support for the war would be substantially lower if fewer members of the public had these misperceptions."[191]

Coverage of China

In November 2018, Senator Chris Coons joined Senators Elizabeth Warren, Marco Rubio, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in sending a letter to the Trump administration raising concerns about China's undue influence over media outlets and academic institutions in the United States: "In American news outlets, Beijing has used financial ties to suppress negative information about the CCP. In the past four years, multiple media outlets with direct or indirect financial ties to China allegedly decided not to publish stories on wealth and corruption in the CCP. In one case, an editor resigned due to mounting self-censorship in the outlet's China coverage."[192]

Causes of perceptions of bias

Jonathan M. Ladd, who has conducted intensive studies of media trust and media bias, concluded that the primary cause of widespread popular belief in media bias is media telling their audience that other particular media are biased. People who are told that a medium is biased tend to believe that it is biased, and this belief is unrelated to whether that medium is actually biased or not. The only other factor with as strong an influence on belief that media is biased is extensive coverage of celebrities. A majority of people see such media as biased, while at the same time preferring media with extensive coverage of celebrities.[121]

Watchdog and bias ranking groups

Allsides ranks news sources from left to right wing from a US perspective using its own proprietary methods. It does not claim accuracy. Its rankings of left or right are decided by popular vote.

Ad Fontes Media publishes a regularly-updated chart ranking some of the larger American news sources by left or right wing bias and by accuracy

The Pew Research Center produced a guide to the political leanings of readers of several news outlets as part of a larger report on political polarization in the US.

Reporters Without Borders has said that the US media lost a great deal of freedom between the 2004 and 2006 indices, citing the Judith Miller case and similar cases and laws restricting the confidentiality of sources as the main factors.[193] They also cite the fact that reporters who question the American "war on terror" are sometimes regarded as suspicious.[194] They rank the US as 53rd out of 168 countries in freedom of the press, comparable to Japan and Uruguay, but below all but one European Union country (Poland) and below most OECD countries (those that accept democracy and free markets). In the 2008 ranking, the U.S. moved up to 36, between Taiwan and Macedonia, but still far below its ranking in the late 20th century as a world leader in having a free and unbiased press. The U.S. briefly recovered in 2009[195] and 2010,[196] rising to 20th place, but declined again and has maintained a position in the mid-40s from 2013 to 2018.[197][198][199][200][201][202]

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), is a self-described progressive media watch group.

Media Matters for America, another self-described progressive media watch group, dedicates itself to "monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media."[203]

Conservative organizations Accuracy In Media and Media Research Center argue that the media has a liberal bias and are dedicated to publicizing that opinion. The Media Research Center, for example, was founded with the specific intention to "not only prove—through sound scientific research—that liberal bias in the media does exist and undermines traditional American values, but also to neutralize its impact on the American political scene."[204][205]

Groups such as FactCheck argue that the media frequently get the facts wrong because they rely on biased sources of information.[206] That includes using information provided to them from both parties.

After the Press is a news blog that follows the press to stories of national interest across America and shows the side of the story that mainstream media does not air.[207]

See also

Organizations monitoring bias





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