How Biased Is Your Media?: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Jon S)

When it comes to politics and media, the left argues that the right is more biased than the left while the right argues that the left is more biased than the right. Who’s right?

That’s what we try to answer in our latest podcast, “How Biased Is Your Media?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.) In a way, this episode is a follow-up to a podcast we put out a few months ago called “The Truth Is Out There, Isn’t It?,” which examined how we choose to believe what we believe about a variety of important issues. In this episode, we apply that same idea in a small-bore fashion, going after media bias.

You’ll hear from a variety of media practitioners and academic scholars who’ve been brave (foolhardy?) enough to wade into the media-bias debate. Among the practitioners: Glenn Beck (who’s been on Freakonomics Radio before), Ann Coulter, Juan Williams, and Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor at The New York Times.

Everyone of course has his opinion about media bias, but we were trying to get beyond opinion. As Steve Levitt points out, this is no simple matter:

LEVITT: Measuring media bias is a really difficult endeavor because unlike what economists usually study, which are numbers and quantities, media bias is all expressed in words.

So we look at some of the recent empirical work on media bias, in which research scholars use words as data to better understand whether a) media bias exists; b) if so, to what degree, and in what directions; and c) what purpose/s it serves. In a 2004 paperTim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo took a stab at media bias; that paper became the launching point of Groseclose’s book Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. You’ll hear from Gloseclose about his methodologies and findings, and you can read an earlier Q&A with him hereHere’s how Levitt has described the Groseclose-Milyo analysis:

LEVITT: Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo estimate how left-wing or right-wing media outlets are based on what research by think tanks they mention in their stories. They then compare that to the think-tank research that elected officials cite when they talk on the House or Senate floor, to calibrate where the media fits relative to the Congress. They find some interesting answers: most of the media does have a liberal bias (throwing out the editorial page, the Wall Street Journal is the most liberal of all, even beating the New York Times!). Fox News is one of the few outlets that is right of center.

Here’s how 20 major media outlets rank on Groseclose and Milyo’s slant scale, with 100 representing the most liberal and zero the most conservative:

ABC Good Morning America 56.1
ABC World News Tonight 61.0
CBS Early Show 66.6
CBS Evening News 73.7
CNN NewsNight with Aaron Brown 56.0
Drudge Report 60.4
Fox News Spec. Rept. w/ Brit Hume 39.7
Los Angeles Times 70.0
NBC Nightly News 61.6
NBC Today Show 64.0
New York Times 73.7
Newshour with Jim Lehrer 55.8
Newsweek 66.3
NPR Morning Edition 66.3
Time Magazine 65.4
U.S. News and World Report 65.8
USA Today 63.4
Wall Street Journal 85.1
Washington Post 66.6
Washington Times 35.4

And here’s a chart of some well-known Congressmembers’ “Political Quotients,” based on their voting records. Again, 100 represents the most liberal, zero is the most conservative. (In the episode, you’ll hear where Levitt, Groseclose, and I rank on this “PQ” scale. You can take a quiz to find out your own PQ here.)

University of Chicago economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro have also done some interesting research on media bias. In a 2010 study, they used text as data to look at common Democratic and Republic phrases in Congress to help determine which way newspapers lean — and, most important, why. Here are some common Democratic phrases:

And some of the phrases favored by Congressional Republicans:

In this episode, you’ll also hear from Danny Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, on why bias is hard for each of us to see.


Joshua Gans

You know there is no evidence of bias for the Murdoch papers in Australia. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1521231

Shane L

I can't believe that yet again I'm seeing people buy into a liberal-conservative dichotomy.

The usual idea, that liberal social values coincide with left-wing economics while conservative social values coincide with right-wing economics seems entirely arbitrary, perhaps a product of an electoral system that produces a two-state race.

Where are the paleoconservatives, greens, libertarians, communists, Christian democrats, etc. meant to go in all of this?

I'm really interested in media bias too, but I don't buy the idea of there being a true left-right dichotomy that we can compare news stories to.

Brian

Groseclose's assertion that people are "naturally" aligned to have very conservative scores and only the media realigns their views may disprove the need for more conservative reporters as he suggests. I align to the left of the Democratic party* and may be able to make an equally compelling argument that people naturally align with highly liberal scores. Both positions are misleading. Applying his reasoning to Physics instead of politics, it is reasonable to assume a person is naturally inclined to believe the world is flat and at the center of the universe. Humanity believed this as fact for the majority of our recorded history. Once we were able to develop tools and sophisticated enough mathematics to gather more data this natural assumption was proved wrong. Reporting on the news gathers enough data to show some naturally intuited conclusions are not accurate even if our natural origin is on the right or left according to Groseclose's scale.

*Enough holes have been poked in the methodology of his research. I will only had that he gives a very wide spectrum to the ideologies of two political parties in a binary manner. The highest I could get on the Political Quotient survey was a 93, yet, I am well to the left of Pelosi (who scored 100.7).

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Alan T

The methodology used by Groseclose and Milyo has been critiqued by political scientist Brendan Nyhan, statistician Andrew Gelman, political scientist John Sides, and political scientist John Gasper.

Gasper: "I present a reanalysis of the results found in Groseclose and Milyo (2005) and show that the original parameter estimates of the ideological positions of media outlets are not stable over time. Using the same data but analyzed over diff erent periods of time, I fi nd a diff erent conclusion."

Gelman: "For the reasons expressed by Brendan Nyhan, I am skeptical about the steps used to get the estimates, and for the reasons given above, I worry that the estimates are so indirect that if anything goes wrong in the model, there is no reason to believe them at all."

Using different methodology, Puglisi and Snyder find that "newspapers in the U.S. are located almost exactly at the median voter in their states. Newspapers also tend to be centrist relative to interest groups."

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Rob

I've been working at newspapers for decades and this is becoming a daily conversation on our sites, one we pay little attention to. We hardly ever get politicians/companies/unions who will challenge the facts, but the verbiage which they are presented.

We're more interested in truth and being fair to the story and your community. To be honest I could care less about bias accusations because the people that accuse you of bias generally won't concede that the facts are true because their highly politicized options won't allow them to, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

I have seen this pressure from the right actually work. I know we've had reporters get death threats when covering issues of stricter Gun Laws. And it starts to make some folks of lesser constitutions think twice before covering a story they know will generate hundreds of calls and emails from (mostly) conservative groups. Editors hate having to answer their phones.

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Kara Stahl

I believe there was an error of logic in Groseclose's analysis. He states that the majority of Americans, without the influence of the media, would rate as fairly conservative on his PQ scale. Yet, he states that most newspapers and media outlets lean to the liberal end of the scale, but that this comes from the economic incentive of giving the people what they want (i.e., to sell more papers or increase viewership), rather than from the personal biases of those producing the media. If that were the case, wouldn't more media outlets lean right, not left?

John

Contrary to what Steve Levitt says, media bias is NOT all expressed in words. In print journalism it can be expressed in over- or under-emphasizing the importance of a story, through photographs, and in decisions about what to print and what not to print. In broadcast journalism, it can be expressed by inflection or facial expression, or by selective use of audio and videotape.

tom

Not surprising since the overwhemling majority of journalists are liberal. Control the message control the people. Thats the best thing about freakonomics - it prefers data to groupthink. But why are so many commenters on this site so liberal? Reisdual of the NYT? Or the NY NPR station that broadcasts the show? Ive never understood why all the non liberal posts get thumbs down. I knew even before i read the comments that everyone was going to dog this study because of what is was so obviously going to show. Also the drudge report is liberal because its just an aggrregater. Its linking to all the other outlets. And it has just as many liberal pundits as conservative that it quick links too. But Matt Drudge is obviously conservative. This is so easy to sniff out if you arent stuck in a world surrounded by like minded people.

Robert walsh

I listened to the podcast today. I found it to be biased. How do you discuss the bias of the NY Times and only talk to someone from the Times. It would not have been too hard to find someone with a different point of view.

The lecture on bias at the end was also interesting. I know my views are biased. That is why I look for news that is not biased. It is impossible to find.

I would pay for straight news. No slant, just the facts. Why is it no one provides tha kind of news.

Marian

In listening to this, I shook my head more than once. When Gloseclose said that he based his study on how closely the opinion of people on the left (and right) in Congress, I sat up and said "left according to who?" And if most newspapers fall in the 40-50 range even in his self-described conservative view, then why the extravagant title "How the Left Distorts..."? Was this to sell more copies of his book? And where's the proof that Americans are supposedly natively conservative? In what communities? After all, conservative in New Orleans, La. differs from conservative in Shreveport, La--only 350 miles apart.

Loved your conclusion, by the way. You brought some nuance into what started out as a either/or discussion.

RGJ

At one point I decided to check on the political affiliations of various editors and columnists I dealt with on a regular basis uin my political campaign efforts. This was done simply using voting records. The more savvy and senior reporters and editors were unaffiliated. The rest were probably 90-10 Democrat to Republican in their declared party affiliation.

A proud conservative is damn rare in your average newsroom.

Barry Ritholtz

Quarter way through this, I thought this was going to be about corporate owned media not as Liberal as most people believe. Groseclose's own findings showed the press was more centrist

Half way through, I thought it was going to be about this guys cognitive dissonance -- how his own findings undercut the Liberal media meme -- so therefore, he went out and hunted down some confirming research that confirmed his own biases, and voided his own research.

Epic Fail