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

 


Jim

Without giving away the whole book, how about a short explanation of how a PQ is computed?

Mike B

There is no point is engaging a propagandist in any sort of reasoned discourse. Questions will be instantly deflected to their talking points and anyone who disagrees will be singled out for hostile or uninformed.

Of course his point about the average American being more conservative if all media resembled Fox News is almost a tautology. A population will tend to reflect the ideas of media they are exposed to. Look how much the North Koreans continue to love Kim Jong Il.

Jeremiah Stanghini

While I'm not familiar with the years that Groseclose used to conduct his study, I think it would be important to have just as many years where Republicans were in power as those where Democrats were in power. Meaning, if he used 2000-2008 in his study, it would be important to use 1992-2000, as well, as the media slant in the different decades may be different. Beyond that, and this may be a bit too difficult, it would be interesting to see the particular slants when Congress is Republican-controlled vs. Democrat-controlled (and even if the President is R/D). I wonder if we would see differences in the media bias in the different iterations.

It'd also be interesting to see how Groseclose explains a book like The Spirit Level, which, to my recollection purports that as countries strive for equality on all levels, the health and well-being of the country increases. [I am aware of the counter-arguments in The Spirit Delusion.] The research from The Spirit Level, if I may extrapolate, may suggest that the planet, on the whole, is moving towards a more socialistic ideology. As such, wouldn't it be fair to assume that the range of the media bias would also move slightly to a more socialistic (and liberal) viewpoint?

With Love and Gratitude,

Jeremiah

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Jack

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?

robu

Is it true that certain media organizations assigned interns to monitor certain political figures and watch for gaffs and missteps? Was this practice limited to a particular party?

Carl Natale

I'm a recovering journalist so I'm not a believer in the left-wing media conspiracy. But the 2008 presidential election made me wonder.

During the GOP primaries, Sen. John McCain was constantly asked to defend his conservative credentials. There was even a GOP debate that seemed dedicated to finding out who was the most conservative. ("If Ronald Reagan were alive today, would he think you were conservative enough?")

At one point in the campaign, McCain had to declare himself more conservative than George W. Bush. Since not yet President Obama ran against Bush, it was a gift from heaven.

I know McCain had more problems than that. But I feel like the Republicans were set up. How crazy is that?

KevinH

it seems to me that most of that pressure came from the conservative side of the spectrum. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liTRZa6NcC8

Rachel

How can you seriously argue that without the "liberal media", the average American would closely resemble the conservative media giants? Wouldn't your argument basically boil down to that if the "liberal media" went away, then people would form their opinions based entirely on the "conservative media"?

Furthermore, how do you account for the filter bubble effect -- that liberals and conservatives alike listen to media that doesn't challenge their views?

KevinH

I think this is a good question, but I think that the answer would that the manipulation in the study is to look at relative levels of all media engagement. If you take away all media and people tend to be more conservative, then that would be evidence for there being more liberal media than conservative media.

Enter your name

Not necessarily: Taking away all media means taking away (nearly) all information about what's going on. This could mean only that the more ignorant you are of current events, the more conservative you are.

This is not an unreasonable outcome: if you don't know about the horrible situation in the next town, then your default is to think, "Everything is currently okay for me and mine: therefore, no changes are needed."

When you hear that the hard working young woman who moved away (as I once did fifteen years ago) was unexpectedly abandoned by her husband in the middle of a difficult second pregnancy, lost her job because she kept fainting and vomiting, and learned (after the birth) that the "pregnancy difficulties" were actually caused by brain cancer rather than the pregnancy, you start wondering about the strength of the safety net.

When you later hear that the State of Colorado's response on receiving her welfare application for temporary help with food, housing, and hospital bills until she was out of treatment and could go back to work, was to say "Why did you (note: a married woman who believed she was healthy) have a baby anyway? You could have had surgery to prevent it" -- you start thinking that some serious change, in the direction of those liberal values of compassion and respect for individual choices, would be a very good idea indeed.

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Caleb b

Without reading the book, it would seem to me that self-selection would push people with a high interest in social issues into the media workforce. Just like all, and I do mean all, the staff at my local Big Brothers/Big Sisters office are self identified democrats.

Self-selection isn't bad for society, in fact, it's part of being rational maximizers.

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

Also, what about a person whose occupation conflicts with their political party? Like a republican abortion doctor, or a democrat prison executioner.

Steevn

Self-selection is fine, but what's concerning is a professional not being able to put that aside and deliver unbiased results, which is what the news profession claims to do.

Sully

The "Media" - a large group of well-educated and highly-informed people. Well-educated and highly-informed people are liberal? Shocker.

J1

You need to be specific about what you mean by well educated and highly informed. My experience has been that journalists have an almost comical ignorance of scientific and mathematical areas I have expertise in; I have to assume that ignorance extends to areas I'm ignorant of myself. Personally, I would not consider someone with a journalism degree to be "well educated". Likewise, even when journalists are well educated (and informed, whatever that means), that doesn't mean whatever expertise they have is applicable to the issues they report on. Is somebody with a law degree any more qualified than your cat to analyze scientific or economic issues?

Joshua Northey

Journalists are pretty ignorant yes, but have you ever interacted with the general public? They are downright morons and make the journalists all look like Rhodes scholars.

J1

You (and me) are part of the general public. Are you sure you don't want to narrow that down? If you were writing an article or producing a news show, would you do it in a fashion that you knew made you look like an idiot? Granted, some journalists go on the air and make themselves look dumber than a bag of rocks (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2011/07/20/msnbc_to_gop_congressman_do_you_have_a_degree_in_economics.html) , but it's usually inadvertent. She's got a degree in journalism, by the way.

frankenduf

do you know who owns and funds the mass media outlets?- are these owners/funders liberally biased?- if not, how do you explain the contradiction that corporations control the mass media yet produce a bias against their own interests?

Ben

The assumptions made here are:

a) Corporations are pro-Republican/conservative. This is not necessarily true. Look at the money that President Obama received from Wall St and corporations.

b) Big government is against corporate interests. This is patently false. Corporations have learned, because of their amoral nature, to manipulate the government through lobbying for their own advantage. A real-world, open competition imagined by Capitalists is much harder for a corporation to win than if they have friends in the monopoly that is the government.

Corporations are not necessarily conservative in nature.

rageon

Liberal...or socially liberal?

Socially I think it's pretty clear that the media leans that way, and I'm not sure too many people, even liberals themselves, would disagree too strongly about that.

But fiscally, I'm not convinced. The companies that control the media are some of the largest companies in the entire world. They would have no incentive to promote fiscially liberal policies. And corporation, like people, presumably respond to incentives (which if you're on this website, you already know).

Lawrence

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.

James

But the religion bias works both ways. I would like conservatism quite a bit more if it didn't expect me to share a tent with the religious right.

KevinH

I must admit, I haven't heard more than the barest outline of Mr. Groseclose's thesis, but I am intrigued. My question is the following:

"Do you believe that there are institutions within the country which provide a conservative bias? What are they and how does their impact compare with the media in your analysis?"

cackalacka

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.)

Ben

You assume Disney and GE are "conservative." GE is a massive recipient of government grants and tax breaks. Lobbying is required for this, especially with GE's "green" initiatives and income streams. Do you think GE is for or against a larger, more regulatory government that gives them tax breaks and grants for their research? GE is certainly not conservative, and I'd be interested to see how you'd claim Disney was as well?

I can't argue with Newscorp, though.

mary

The Koch Bros are very conservative, yet their companies receive massive grants and tax breaks, too. They take advantage of ethanol and oil subsidies, logging roads, bailouts, etc. Does that mean the Kochs own liberal companies, or does it just mean that they're conservatives not above taking advantage of programs they purport to hate?

TMoney

How in the world of shareholder owned media companies could a liberal newsroom exist ?

- Unless that was what the market demanded. Surely these companies would pander to either their shareholders (by slanting news for increased market share) or to the public (by slanting news for increased market share) or perhaps by marketing news to a specific - presumably profitable niche (Christian, gay, liberal, conservative, spanish-speaking etc). Indeed, Fox news clearly shows that there is only a finite market for news with a specific (conservative) bias - and you can make the same arguement about mother jones and the liberal media.

Matthias

Isn't the idea of unbiased news an oxymoron? In American history, I understood that news sources had a proclaimed bias that was as obvious as their name (e.g. The Arizona Republic or The Tallahassee Democrat). Do you know when the general media outlets began to proclaim "non bias", and has a true unbiased news source ever really existed?

Alex

Not true, considering that Anti-American movies continually are made and sell poorly (See Green Zone, GI Joe, Hurt Locker), while Pro-American movies dominate (See Iron Man, Captain America).

Going further, Fox dominates MSNBC. Often it beats its Broadcast rivals that reach millions of more homes and have a strong familiarity aspect. Drudge outperforms any site that is similar in nature. Wherever there is real choice, conservative views are drawing more eyes.

FDUK

How can the supposed liberal bias actually exist?

If you are a main stream media company and your market audience is near to a score of 25, what incentive is there to being more liberal than a score of 50? Surely if the book’s hypothesis were correct then the mass media would gravitate to a score nearer to 25, but it does not despite the main media companies (Disney, Newscorp etc) likely having a score that is close to 25?

Why would main stream media companies go against their obvious self interest in terms of the parent company’s outlook and the mass of their audience?

I also wonder what effect the fact that most mainstream media is based in cities has? Cities are generally more liberal than the countryside so you might well expect main stream media to be more liberal.

Shane

Give me a break.

Still Learning

Does the fact that most media outlets are owned by corporations limit how liberal or left leaning they can be? From my perspective, to question the the capitalist system on an extremely critical level would be bad for business and ultimately bad for left of center media corporations. With that in mind, it seems likely that right leaning media organizations are less controlled whereas those media outlets who lean to the left can only go so far. If right wing media can go farther right with less constraints, how might that impact the current media landscape?

Brennan Young

1) Any "highly regarded academic" would take care to bring in related works on this topic. How do you relate your research and findings to "Manufacturing Consent" by Herman and Chomsky, and "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies? Both of these works are thoroughly researched, rather definitive studies of the influence of PR on, and the mechanisms of propaganda in the free press. They illustrate that the more common scenario is conservative - or more correctly - 'corporatist' bias.

2) Given that the politics of the USA is significantly more conservative than most other developed nations, how applicable are your findings to an analysis of the mass media in other countries?

3) Aren't there other - perhaps more important - ideological axes than liberal/conservative? (e.g. statist vs. grassroots)

Nathan B

I particularly appreciate 1 and 3 of Brennan's questions. I'd also be curious to hear thoughts on the so-called echo chamber effect, where news is not shaped by newsroom ideology, but rather by the talking points presented by left and right-winged propagandists and if that has dramatically altered the degree and type of media bias beginning with the rise of conservative talk radio and later Fox News.

Sam

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.

J1

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?

Adam

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.

Joshua Northey

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

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.

scott

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.