How Biased Is the Media? Bring Your Questions for the Author of Left Turn

Tim Groseclose is a political-science professor at UCLA (and an occasional co-author with Steve Levitt) who has spent years trying to systematically and empirically study media bias. He has a new book out called Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. Here’s what Levitt had to say about it recently:

As the title suggests, it has a definite conservative slant. It is not, however, a right-wing rant by any means. Rather, it is a carefully researched and amusingly written book by a highly regarded academic.

Groseclose’s core argument is that the U.S. media overall has a strong liberal bias, and that this bias strongly influences how Americans vote and how they think about the issues of the day. He reached this conclusion by constructing a “political quotient” (PQ), which is meant to measure political views in a “precise, objective, and quantitative way.” The average American voter, he argues, has a PQ of 50. Liberal Democrats Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi both have a PQ of approximately 100; conservative Republicans Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint have a PQ of approximately 0. If we could “magically eliminate liberal media bias,” Groseclose writes, the average American would have a PQ closer to 25, and would be more in line with people like Ben Stein, Dennis Miller and Bill O’Reilly.

Groseclose also concludes that media bias helps Democratic candidates by about 8 to 10 percentage points in a typical election — and that if media bias didn’t exist, John McCain would have defeated Barack Obama in the 2008 election by 56%-42%, rather than losing 53%-46%.

Groseclose has agreed to field questions from Freakonomics readers, so please post them in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post his answers in short course. BTW: we may also make a Freakonomics Radio program on the topic of media bias, so please write some questions that are good enough for me to steal when I interview Groseclose and others.

To prime the pump, here’s the table of contents from Left Turn. Ask away! Which you did. And here are the answers to some of your questions.

Part I: Political Quotients and the Science of Politics
1. What Are PQs and How Do They Reveal Media Bias?
2. Caught in a Trap: Problems in Judging Media Bias
3. But I’ve Been to Oklahoma
4. Ps and Qs of PQs
5. Defining the “Center”

Part II: A Distortion Theory of Media Bias
6. Lies, Damned Lies, and Omitted Statistics: A Case Study in Distortion Theory
7. Hidden Under a Bushel
8. An “Alien” Conservative Injected into a Liberal Newsroom and the Topics She Might Cover

Part III: Evidence of Liberal Media Bias
9. Political Views in the Newsroom: Viva Homogeneity
10. The Second-Order Problem of an Unbalanced Newsroom
11. The Anti-Newsroom: Washington County, Utah
12. Walk a Mile in the Shoes of a Centrist
13. “Wise Men from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Say…”
14. The Language of Journalists and the Special Case of Partial-Birth Abortion
15. The Language of Journalists and Gentzkow-Shapiro Measure of Media Bias
16. Facts About the Bush Tax Cuts: Another Way to Measure Media Bias Objectively and Quantitatively
17. The Media Mu

Part IV: Effects of Media Bias
18. Measuring the Influence of the Media I: Many Methods False and Spent, and One That’s Not
19. Measuring the Influence of the Media II: Two More Groundbreaking Experiments
20. The Media Lambda
21. Rendezvous with Clarity
22. Walk a Mile in the Shoes of a Centrist… Whose Mind Has Not Been Distorted by Media Bias
Epilogue: Small Steps Toward a Better Media



View All Comments »
  1. Sam says:

    I’m surprised at the statement that the typical american PQ is 25. How does PQ vary by age and education? If more education is correlated with higher PQ, does that explain media bias since most journalists are required to have a college education?

    How do the various outlets stack up via PQ? NPR, MSNBC, Fox, etc.

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    • J1 says:

      More education is not correlated with higher “PQ”. Based on GSS data, compared to someone whose education level is high school or less, a college graduate is 1.36 times as likely to identify as Republican, and .83 times as likely to identify as a Democrat.

      My question for Groseclose: Is unbiased reporting even possible, or should media outlets simply acknowledge their bias and let the consumer sort things out?

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  2. Adam says:

    Right…. Like Fox isn’t the most viewed network on TV. They love posted that statistic. If it is in fact true (many polls, facts, comments, etc. are actually false), then the media would certainly be skewed to the right, not the left. It’s all relative to what channels/outlet people watch or read. Obama still wins in 2008, even though it turns our he’s doing good work for the Republicans as we speak.

    I’m an independent, and when you have to claim the media has Liberal bias (or Conservative), then more often than not, you are defending something that you know to be false.

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  3. Joshua Northey says:

    As someone who has enjoyed this website regularly I am saddened this misguided book is getting further exposure. Will you at least ask some challenging questions? The research is pretty controversial, and frankly from what I can glean does not at all show what the author claims it shows.

    How about some hard questions about what the actual data is. Not narratives/interpretations about what the data means, but an actual description of it.

    From what I understand the centerpiece argument is akin to the following:
    If you eliminated the media and educational systems children would be much less likely to believe in evolution. Clearly our schools and media have a “pro evolution bias” that should be eliminated so our children can exhibit their “neutral” (read: parent dominated) belief system.

    The book is simply an exercise in losing touch with good epistemology (which is facilitating the approximation of truth) and instead pursuing some misguided witch-hunt for “bias”.

    A lot of the work being done is stipulating solid research as “partisan” and then claiming the media is “biased” when it uses that research to support its facts. Sure the media is biased towards the truth, I should hope so!

    Maybe on trivial issues the media has a “liberal bias” in the sense you mean (like abortion or gun control), but on the core issues (economic/military/foreign policy/political) it is center-right, just as it has been for the past 160 years. Have you studied European and Anglophone history since 1850 at all? Do you have any pattern recognition skills? The past 160 years are a testament to victory after victory after victory for what you would call “liberals”. There are sometimes setbacks, but the core of conservative belief at any point in that time period would be completely unacceptable to most citizens just 50 years later, and borderline offensive 100 years later.

    At least 75% of what conservatives decry as “liberal bias” is simply an attempt to relabel facts “liberal bias” and turn back the clock.

    Just to be clear that I am not some “liberal” in the political sense. I did not vote for Obama last election and think the Democrats are running the country into the ground 99% as quickly as the Republicans are. I think the US government deficit/debt is completely ridiculous and unacceptable. I think we should drastically scale back entitlements, and raise taxes/reduce benefits for the bottom quintiles. I am fine with leaving gun control laws and abortion up to the states to determine. I think a huge number of federal programs could be fruitfully eliminated (though I would replace many of them with different ones).

    That said I find a lot of the conservative political positions in this country heinous and don’t look to ally myself with a bunch of people who we will look at in 2075 the same way we look at Klansmen and segregationists today. Do you really want to shill for what will almost certainly in 75 years be looked at as the equivalent of Klansmen? Wouldn’t you rather write books for some other purpose?

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    • Ben says:

      First, big caveat, since I haven’t read the book yet. But the intro to it definitely makes me feel like I want to drop Levitt and Freakonomics down a couple of notches in my mind.

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  4. scott says:

    Did the author take a look a the business aspect of media and journalism? In the end, media sources are businesses, correct? If most people don’t agree with their programming, why would they continue to listen or tune in?

    It’s hard to believe owners of media outlets would allow the biases of their employees to harm their business.

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  5. Ezzie Goldish says:

    What are your own views/what is your own PQ?

    How difficult is it to have people take your findings seriously without them immediately dismissing you as having your own, conservative bias?

    How common is it for any claims of bias to be met with an assumption of reverse bias? (i.e. if someone accuses another of bias, how often are they immediately dismissed or projected as being biased in the reverse direction)

    Do you think the title and subtitle of the book make it more difficult for people on the left to take the findings seriously? (Is this important?)

    Can I get a free copy? 😀

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  6. jo says:

    It seems to me that the argument is not whether there is a bias but weather conservatism is superior to liberalism. If it was about bias then the PQ right now would be 75 and eliminating the bias would restore it to 50, in the middle. However since the claim is that it would drop without liberal interference to 25, I have to assume it is inferred that conservatism is a superior argument.

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  7. Greg says:

    In the table of contents alone: If the biblical references (“hidden under a bushel”, “walk a mile in the shoes”) weren’t a tip-off about the conservative bias in the mind of the author, the use of the propaganda term “partial-birth abortion” sure is.

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  8. person1 says:

    I don’t have enough time or space to post all my skepticism of this argument, but perhaps the greatest flaw of this analysis is that the wrong question is being asked, and the issue is framed incorrectly. If anything, most media have an INSTITUTIONAL bias that favors the status quo and supports the interests of existing institutions, whether corporate or governmental. This limits the collective imagination and presentation of truly alternative viewpoints, thereby constraining the scope of debate. Most people find it difficult to imagine a reality very different from the one already surrounding them, and the media are no different.

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