How Biased is the Media? Tim Groseclose, Author of Left Turn, Answers Your Questions

Last week we solicited your questions for Tim Groseclose, a political science professor at UCLA and author of the new book, Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. The response was fast and furious. A total of 149 questions (and counting) have been posted in the comments section. We selected 14 of them for Groseclose to answer, and he obliged us quite promptly. As always, thanks to all for participating.

 

Q. Why does liberal media bias exist in the first place? What would you suggest as a way that a) journalists could be more aware of their own bias and limit it in their reporting; or b) the profession of journalism could attract a more unbiased (or merely more representative) cohort? – Jack

A. The main reason why bias exists, I believe, is simply that newsrooms are filled overwhelmingly with liberals. Here’s the most important fact to know, if you want to understand media bias: If you poll Washington correspondents and ask “Who’d you vote for last election?”, about 93% will say the Democrat.

Why are newsrooms so liberal? I don’t know, except that I suspect that it’s mainly self-selection. I believe that there is something in the DNA of liberals that makes them want to pursue careers like journalism, academia, and the arts.

A manager or owner of a media outlet could try to counteract this by trying to hire more conservatives, but he will have a hard time trying to find conservatives who want to be journalists. He’ll either have to pay conservative journalists more or be willing to hire conservative journalists who are not as good at reporting as liberal journalists. It’s a hard problem for a news-outlet manager to solve. I basically believe we’re in an equilibrium  – that liberal bias is basically here to stay.

How can journalists be aware of their own biases?  One way is to read Chapter 11 of my book, “The Anti-Newsroom, Washington, County, Utah.”  In the chapter I search for a place that votes the opposite of a newsroom – 93-7 for the Republican. It’s basically impossible to find such a county, but one that comes close is Washington County. I interview lots of people in the county to give the reader a sense of what political views in the anti-newsroom are like.  If journalists think about how conservative, and maybe even strange, views are in the anti-newsroom, they may begin to realize how liberal, and maybe even strange, views are in actual newsrooms.

And if a journalist is really serious about understanding his or her own biases, he or she could visit Washington County, Utah.  One of its residents, Tom Seegmiller, has agreed to host such journalists.  Seegmiller is the owner of Dixie Gun and Fish and the Locker Room, an athletic supply store. If such journalists are interested, they should contact Seegmiller at one of his two businesses. Seegmiller is even willing to take such journalists to church with him. And if they desire, Seegmiller is willing to take such journalists hunting with him.

Q. How do you account for the filter bubble effect — that liberals and conservatives alike listen to media that doesn’t challenge their views? – Rachel

A. All my results about where people get their news involved surveys about where independents get their news.  I ignored the results involving Republicans and Democrats.

Although Republicans and Democrats probably do get their news from vastly different sources, in one sense it hardly matters.  To win a nationwide election, you need to win over the independents. Republicans and Democrats basically cancel each other out. To change policy, the key is to persuade independents/moderates.

Q. My question is this: is self-selection at work in media companies (both the liberal and conservative medias)? And, what other occupations have strong political self-selection? Are bankers more likely to be conservative? Are artists and actors more likely to be liberal?  - Caleb b

A. Yes, I think self-selection is the key. But it feeds on itself. That is, once the newsroom becomes overwhelmingly liberal, it becomes less pleasant for conservatives. Consequently, conservatives become even more reluctant to become journalists.

As a conservative professor, I can speak from experience, that when people from one political group begin to dominate an organization, they can sometimes become a little sanctimonious and tedious.  See, for example, page 4 of my book, where I describe an email that my co-author received from one of his fellow University of Missouri professors.  (I think Amazon allows you to read the page for free.)

I think probably the most conservative profession is military officer.  So I hear, military officers vote about the opposite way that journalists vote.

Q. What role does religion play in these biases? Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint are both Christian ideologues, and while there are certainly “anti-religion” ideologues on the left, neither Barney Frank nor Nancy Pelosi would qualify. – Lawrence

A. I think you are probably right; there are no strong anti-religion ideologues in Congress. But I think the vast majority of Americans are fairly pro-religion.  If America were divided 50-50 on religion vs. anti-religion, I believe you’d see more anti-religious ideologues in Congress.

But just because there are two sides to an issue, that does not mean that a reporter should give each side equal treatment.  That is, “unbiased” does not always mean giving equal treatment to two sides of an issue.

For instance, lots of people (and I am one of them) believe that the evidence suggesting (i), that the earth is warming, is greater than (ii), that the earth is not warming.  Thus, to be unbiased, I believe that a reporter should give more favorable treatment to (i) than (ii).

A hero of the left, Edward R. Murrow, may have made this point best. Interestingly, he used a religious example to make the point:  To insist upon such an artificially equal treatment of two sides of an issue “is like balancing the views of Jesus Christ with Judas Iscariot.”

 

Q. Agreed; I think the strongest counterpoint to Mr. Groseclose’s premise is, what would the presidential split have been if all the influential media outlets weren’t owned by conservatives (re: Disney, Murdoch/Newscorp, GE, etc.) – cackalacka

A. I’m not sure I agree with the premise. If GE shareholders and executives are so conservative and have such power over their journalists, wouldn’t that cause Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz to have a conservative bias? For much of the time that John Stossel was at ABC, the chairman of the Disney Board was George Mitchell – the former senator who’s PQ is about 80.  If corporate executives are so powerful, wouldn’t we have seen a liberal bias from Stossel?

The New York Times is a corporation with two classes of shareholders. The class that has control over running the company contains a relatively small number of shareholders. The same is true with the Washington Post. I’m sure that with each company the shareholders are very liberal.

Meanwhile, the Washington Times is not a corporation (it is owned by the Unification Church), yet its slant is fairly conservative. So I’m not sure that it’s true that corporation-owned media companies tend to be more conservative than non-corporation-owned media companies.

To answer your question about the presidential election, suppose that for some reason all the media moved left – say all media began adopting a Slant Quotient of 74, like the New York Times. This would mean that the overall Slant Quotient of the media would move from 58 to 74, a change of 16 points. This would give Democrats an extra advantage of about 8 percentage points. Assuming everything else constant (e.g. Obama and McCain are still the candidates and they adopt the same policy positions as they did in the actual election), then, according to my results, Obama would have won by approximately 61-38, instead of the actual result, 53-46.

Q. And as a follow-up… if there exist institutions that provide a conservative bias, how do their ratings compare to one with a liberal bias?  - Matthias

A. Well, I suppose that one of the most conservative groups in America is officers in the military. I’m not sure what it would mean to calculate a slant quotient for them.

 

Q. Given that the politics of the USA are significantly more conservative than most other developed nations, how applicable are your findings to an analysis of the mass media in other countries?  - Brennan Young

A. Yeah, my book is completely silent on that question. I agree that other nations are generally more liberal than us. If I’m right, that there’s something in the DNA of liberals that makes them go into journalism, then I’d at least speculate that in other countries journalists similarly adopt a Slant Quotient to the left of the country’s average Political Quotient. But that’s just speculation, not evidence.

Q. Aren’t there other – perhaps more important – ideological axes than liberal/conservative? (e.g. statist vs. grassroots) – Brennan Young

A. Yes, there are definitely other axes.  E.g. you could imagine a libertarian/anti-libertarian axis. But I’m not sure they are more important.  Please see, for instance, my discussion on pages 40-44 of political scientist Keith Poole and the Nominate scores he created.  Nominate estimates a numerical score for politicians on the “dimension of maximal conflict” within Congress.  According to Nominate, politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank are at one end, and politicians like Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint are at the other. That is, the “dimension of maximal conflict” puts far-right conservatives at one end and far-left liberals at the other. It does not put libertarians like Ron Paul at one end and anti-libertarians at the other.  Accordingly, Nominate suggests that the liberal/conservative dimension is indeed the most important dimension, at least in Congress.  (This is not to say that in future years, things might change.)

Q. 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? – Sam

A. It turns out that the people with the least education (non high school graduates) and those with the most education have the most liberal views. The voters with the most conservative views are those with intermediate amounts of education – those with only “some college” and those who completed a bachelor’s degree but did not attend grad school.

Q. How do you reconcile your conclusions with the fact that Americans appear to choose media you label as liberally biased when they have more conservative options? Why doesn’t the media reflect the supposedly conservative viewpoint of its consumers? Does the media really drive consumer thought in an open media market, or is the opposite true? – Ricky C

A. I think a lot of it is simply that it’s hard for a media organization to hire conservative reporters.  I know that if academia suddenly decided “we need a balance of conservative and liberal professors,” then the next question that deans and department chairs would ask is “Okay, where do we find the conservative professors to hire?”  I suspect something similar occurs with the media. Conservatives just don’t tend to want to enter into journalism, at least not at the same rate as liberals.

As a consequence, news outlets can hire liberal reporters at a lower wage rate than they would have to pay if they insisted on hiring conservatives. They can probably also get higher quality reporters if they’re willing to hire more liberals, simply because the pool of liberal reporters is larger than the pool of conservative reporters.

As I understand, a similar issue arises in baseball. Teams want a balance of right- and left- handed pitchers. But the pool of right-handed pitchers is much higher than that of left-handed pitchers (since there are much more right-handed people in the population than left-handed people).  As a result, on lots of objective measures – e.g. throwing speed – right-hand pitchers tend to be better than left-hand pitchers. I think something similar might be occurring with liberal and conservative reporters.

Q. American public opinion is fickle on important issues. It is hard for me to consider the average American voter the “center” when that center appears to be a sporadically moving target. When talking about a “center”, you expect something a little more stable even as it shifts. Journalists, more ingrained with the issues and needing to maintain integrity over time, would have more stable opinions. Do you look at shifts over time? Do you have a PQ moving average? How does this compare to journalistic PQ?    – Ricky C

A. Well, events cause us to change our views.  I know my views have evolved over the years.  (E.g. I used to think that abortion was okay when the fetus is three months old.  But having a kid and seeing a sonogram changed that view.)

Nevertheless, I’d argue that, at least over the last half century or so, the American center has been pretty stable.  E.g. if you check page 50 of my book, you can see a graph of how the center (i.e. average PQ of American voters) has evolved.  Between 1960 and 2009, it’s remained within the 47-58 range, and usually it’s been very near 50.

Although I have a few surveys over how journalists vote in elections, I don’t have much data about their PQs.  Part of the problem is that journalists are so reluctant to reveal their political views.  If it were up to me, they’d be more transparent about such things.  (See, e.g., the epilogue of my book.)

Q. Of the actual voting public what’s the percentage of viewers that get their news exclusively from the liberal media? What’s the percentage that gets it from both liberal and conservative view points? What’s the percentage getting their news exclusively from conservative viewpoints? What prevents one set of viewers from changing their news consumption habits? Is selection of media source an indication of enlightenment?  - Deron

A. My answer to the first four questions is “I don’t know.”  As for the fifth question, yes, I believe that anyone who has a PQ under 20 (like me) yet chooses to subscribe to the New York Times (as do I) is enlightened. I’d say the same thing about anyone who has a PQ above 80 yet chooses to frequently read the Washington Times or frequently watch the O’Reilly Factor or frequently listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Q. Do you have PQ scores for economists? I’d like to cross-reference this with the economists’ track records over the last 10 years so I can decide whether your idea of PQ is poppycock.  - Ben

A. No, but on page 112 of my book I review the work of Dan Klein (at George Mason University) and Christopher Cardiff (at San Jose State University).  They have tracked the voting behavior of economists and other professors. They find, for instance, that in a typical presidential election economics professors vote about 2.8:1 for the Democrat.  (In sociology the ratio is 44:1; in political science 6.5:1; in electrical engineering 2.5:1, and in finance 0.5:1.)

As for economists having poor track records, I might agree with you, at least when it comes to macroeconomics.  I believe that in 200 years people will look upon the current state of macroeconomics the way we look upon blood-letting doctors of two or three centuries ago (i.e., that they had no idea what they were doing).


Q.
During the Depression, the overwhelming majority of newspapers opposed Franklin Roosevelt. Yet he won 3 re-elections easily. Does that mean that without the opposition of the newspapers, he would have won even more easily? – Paul

A. My results suggest yes – the media really do influence the way people think and vote.

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  1. Craig says:

    I find it hard to believe that Fox News is as conservative as Steven Levitt, the man who once theorized that higher rates of abortions correlate to lower crime rates.

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  2. Dan Downey says:

    As a reader of both books, Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, I am fascinated by your analysis and research.

    Given the growth of alternative media, e.g. Fox News, talk radio, right leaning blogs such as National Review, Weekly Standard, Townhall, etc., do you see the PQ scores shifting downward in the future?

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  3. James Briggs says:

    Tim Groseclose is like the Freudians or the Communists. PO is a classically unscientific meaningless term. He would have to do years are research before PO is thought of as something he just pulled out of his butt. The fact that he had to have thought of Bush as a successful President shows that he deserves no respect. I am convinced that he is getting a lot of money from some rich Republican to make up evidence of liberal bias. He’s on a par with the people who argued that legalizing abortion led to a drop in the crime rate.

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  4. James Briggs says:

    Tim Groseclose basic assumption that liberals are biased and therefore wrong. There are people who deny that the Nazis during World War Two killed Jews. According to Tim if a person which a certain bias score disagrees he does so because he is biased and therefore the Nazis didn’t kill any Jews. In the same way he assumes that because people with liberal bias think that the events under Bush were bad for the country such as 1. Tax cuts that led to a 33 % increase in the debt in his first term and a 40% increase in the second. 2. In 9/11 we had the greatest terrorists attack on US soil. 3. We invaded Afghanistan and didn’t win. 4. We invaded Iraq and didn’t win. 5. We had the dot com bubble that burst. 6. Financial regulations were removed and Ponzi gamers stole billions. 7. Regulators of mortgages stopped regulating and we had a mortgage crisis. 8. Lack of regulations led to giant bonuses allowing executives to loot companies making them worthless. 9. The stock market crashed because companies were worthless. According to Tim because people will a liberal bias thought those events were bad for the country they must have been good. As those events were Republican victories that meant that people should have voted Republican but didn’t because of liberal bias.

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  5. James Briggs says:

    I objected to this test along. Now I have the answer. There was an obvious confounding variable as to why liberals speak like those in the News Media. One thing we know that is a job requirement for working in the News Media is you have to be well spoken and sound intelligent and Liberals are more intelligent then Conservatives.

    The Sunlight Foundation, a 6-year-old educational concern that attempts to make government more transparent. Sunlight’s report—which assigned grade levels to how members of Congress talk—revealed that the most right-wing of our representatives express themselves, on average, at the lowest grade level in Congress. According to the report,

    Democrats have a more sophisticated way of expressing themselves. Democrats evidently use multi-syllabic words—like “moreover”—and more complex sentence structure than their colleagues on the right. Replete with internal clauses—the ones that can throw off listeners and muddy a point—the rococo stylings of Democrats evidently go hand-in-hand with the promotion of their pet causes, like universal health care and of course their longstanding war on antidisestablishmentarianism.

    I can’t resist. Republicans speak they way they do because they are stupid.

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  6. Tom says:

    As to why reporters are liberal and biased, I would suggest it is because they come out of the great bastion of higher education — an oasis for liberals. The reason they are far more liberal than society in general, I would think, is that there is no performance measure. University staffers get higher salaries and greater benefits each and every year regardless of what they do. They can sit around the faculty lounge, be 100% wrong about an issue, and await their next raise.

    Try starting a business and being wrong. You either correct your assumptions and behavior or you fail. No so with academia. We all know the qualify of education has been on a steady decline, yet the pay and stature (especially relative to a declining middle class) continues to rise. Why would they self-correct their outlook on the world and their own capabilities when they continue to be economically and socially reinforced.

    And that’s they way I see it, from outside the nest of academia.

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    • James Briggs says:

      Tom it seems that you have never been a student. If tenured professors have it so easy why doesn’t everyone do it? Apparently you don’t know that students are measured by grades? To get into a graduate program you have to have excellent grades. Then a thesis has to be written that is evaluated by your competitors. I guess you never heard of the term publish or perish. But you have to publish a book and numerous papers before one is even considered for tenure. Moreover every paper and every book has to be something new.

      Top executives are chosen out of a pool of people with money and connections. All the work is done by middle management and the clerical staff. We can see how productive American executives are by the drops in the stock market and bankruptcies. As for being isolated from the market billions of dollars are paid to executives who drove their company out of business.

      Lets look at the work of a typical new millionaire. H e finds out that bad mortgages can be mixed with good mortgages and they can be sold them at a profit. He makes no decisions he does nothing new. He has the same thing done again and again and because he has inherited wealth he hires people to do all the work for him and he makes millions.

      Let’s get to Congress. Let do nothing but take bribes and go on trips and they keep their jobs as long as they want. Congressmen are paid to take money for the middle class and give it to the rich. They also make money changing the law so certain people have a license to steal. They stay in office by claiming that the world is coming because the evil liberals are turning American into a Communist dictatorship.

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  7. tom says:

    By the way, on the study of bias, I would suggest a more comprehensive study would be helpful. Of course it is obvious that what they choose to cover is probably just as important as how they cover it.

    Example: Romney put a dog on top of the car for a ride. No word that it was harmful or dangerous. THey simply hoped to hurt his reputation with animal lovers.

    Yet somehow it escaped their attention that Obama had eaten dog.

    I dare say animal lovers would probably prefer to know that Romney crated his dog on top of the station wagon than to hear the president takes his dog thru the window — at the drive thru!

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    • James Briggs says:

      Oh poor Romney. No one ever said a bad thing about Obama in the history of the world. How did you find out that he had eaten dog meat. According to you it was top secret. Then how did you know about it if no one ever said it. People called him a liar. People said things about his race. People said ever said he refused to salute the flag. People doubted that he was born in the US. He was accused of being a Muslim. People said he was on the side of the terrorists.

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  8. James Briggs says:

    Another media lie is about government waste. No one knows how much it is. There is a budget of 2.5 trillion and the US is the richest country in the world and the most powerful . We had plenty of money under Clinton. The idea here no one in the history of the world wasted anything. Do you ever lose a paper clip? Buy food and didn’t eat it.? Out of 2.5 trillion if the US wasted a billion in a year it would be the same as if a person who make 50 k a year wasted 20 dollars in a year. I bet everyone wastes far more then $20.

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