Sunday, December 18, 2005

UCLA PolySci Prof finds media bias very real

A study done by Tim Groseclose of the political science department at UCLA has found that the media has an objectively observable leftward bias. Reported by UCLA's own newsroom, the professor has co-authored a paper on the subject that has been accepted by the Quarterly Journal of Economics and is to be published there in an upcoming edition.

::::::::While the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is conservative, the newspaper's news pages are liberal, even more liberal than The New York Times. The Drudge Report may have a right-wing reputation, but it leans left. Coverage by public television and radio is conservative compared to the rest of the mainstream media. Meanwhile, almost all major media outlets tilt to the left.

These are just a few of the surprising findings from a UCLA-led study, which is believed to be the first successful attempt at objectively quantifying bias in a range of media outlets and ranking them accordingly.

"I suspected that many media outlets would tilt to the left because surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democrat than Republican," said Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist and the study's lead author. "But I was surprised at just how pronounced the distinctions are."

"Overall, the major media outlets are quite moderate compared to members of Congress, but even so, there is a quantifiable and significant bias in that nearly all of them lean to the left," said co-author Jeffrey Milyo, University of Missouri economist and public policy scholar.

This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been paying attention to the media's language and their inclusiveness/exclusiveness of certain topics. This study has the benefit of being objective and using a methodology that is already in use to determine the political leanings of politicians.

::::::::Groseclose and Milyo based their research on a standard gauge of a lawmaker's support for liberal causes. Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) tracks the percentage of times that each lawmaker votes on the liberal side of an issue. Based on these votes, the ADA assigns a numerical score to each lawmaker, where "100" is the most liberal and "0" is the most conservative. After adjustments to compensate for disproportionate representation that the Senate gives to low-population states and the lack of representation for the District of Columbia, the average ADA score in Congress (50.1) was assumed to represent the political position of the average U.S. voter.

Groseclose and Milyo then directed 21 research assistants — most of them college students — to scour U.S. media coverage of the past 10 years. They tallied the number of times each media outlet referred to think tanks and policy groups, such as the left-leaning NAACP or the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Next, they did the same exercise with speeches of U.S. lawmakers. If a media outlet displayed a citation pattern similar to that of a lawmaker, then Groseclose and Milyo's method assigned both a similar ADA score.

The result of using this kind of method is obvious. If the result is dismissed as meaningless then the results of the ADA's other numerical indicators must be equally meaningless. If the ADA's numbers are to be considered objective, then this study's results are also objective.

One of the first questions out of my mouth on studies like this is to ask who paid for the study. Professors Groseclose and Milyo must have seen me coming:

::::::::The researchers took numerous steps to safeguard against bias — or the appearance of same — in the work, which took close to three years to complete. They went to great lengths to ensure that as many research assistants supported Democratic candidate Al Gore in the 2000 election as supported President George Bush. They also sought no outside funding, a rarity in scholarly research.

"No matter the results, we feared our findings would've been suspect if we'd received support from any group that could be perceived as right- or left-leaning, so we consciously decided to fund this project only with our own salaries and research funds that our own universities provided," Groseclose said.

Good call, Prof, and an ironclad answer. It's hard to accuse UCLA professors of having a right-wing bias in the first place and that's especially true when they accepted no money from either political groups or media. The paper itself (PDF format) is a fascinating read with tables at the end showing the various scores of the media outlets mentioned, etc. The math in the methodology section will stretch anyone not familiar with statistics and the like but it the analysis is a breeze to read and there are lots of highlit examples in the text.

One note I'd like to make about an item that was given prominent play in the report: Is the Drudge Report really left-leaning? I can hear the scoffs already from both sides of the 'sphere but it's really an obvious finding if you don't lose sight of what the Drudge report actually is. It is not, as has been mentioned before, a blog. It's an aggregation of news items that either slip through the media cracks or don't get the air time they might otherwise. Because of this fact - that Drudge is essentially highlighting news reported by "regular" news agencies - it stands to reason that it's going to show up left-leaning when any analysis is done. If the stories being aggregated there are left-leaning, then the aggregator is going to come up left leaning. No real surprise.

Anyway, good work from this UCLA-led team. And congrats for getting published.