Think political news is biased? Depends who you ask

April 16, 2003

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Are the news media politically biased against people with "your" beliefs? If you're a Republican, your answer depends on who you talk to, and how often.

That's the finding of a new Ohio State University study: Republicans who frequently talk politics with other Republicans are more likely to believe that the so-called "liberal media" are biased against them than are Republicans who talk with like-minded people less often.

William P. Eveland
The same didn't hold true for Democrats in the study, whose feelings about media bias didn't differ based on who they talked to. Engaging in frequent political debates with people who hold opposing beliefs didn't have an effect on either Democrats or Republicans.

"When we judge whether news coverage is biased, we must have some kind of baseline in mind -- a perception of what is fair and balanced coverage. This study shows that our conversational contacts influence our baseline," said William P. Eveland, co-author of the study and assistant professor of journalism and communication at Ohio State. The results appear in the March issue of the journal Political Psychology.

The study asked some 3,000 participants whether they identify with a political party, and how often they talk about politics generally and specifically with very conservative or very liberal people.

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People who are highly committed, regardless of their specific views -- such as those who are strong partisans on either side or those actively involved in politics -- will perceive a generally balanced news story to be biased in favor of their opponents.

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"People who talk with a set of contacts biased in their favor develop an unrealistic notion of what is fair and balanced," he said.

Eveland and his coauthor, Dhavan V. Shah of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suspect that Republicans' current perception of media bias stems in part from actual media reporting of claims of a bias against conservatives. George H. W. Bush's 1992 campaign slogan "Annoy the media -- re-elect Bush" is just one instance of these claims, and news coverage of them. Claims of media bias against Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign and leading up to his impeachment demonstrate that Democrats often claim media bias, too, Eveland said.

Politicians may be using perceptions of media bias to their advantage. "The individuals charging bias may have an agenda that leads them to make such claims in order to coerce more favorable coverage from a press that prides itself on objectivity," Eveland said.

"Research has shown that the news media aren't consistently biased against any political party, yet the perception persists," he added.

He and Shah surveyed participants in June 2000, when political news coverage of candidates for the 2000 presidential election was fresh in Americans' minds.

People were asked to rate their agreement with the statement "Most news media are biased against my views," on a scale of 1 (definitely disagree) to 6 (definitely agree). Democrats' responses averaged 3.2, or essentially only weak disagreement with the statement. Republicans averaged from 3.6 to 4.2, with those who engaged in frequent conversations with other Republicans tending to agree even more.

The study also supports the existence of what researchers call the "hostile media phenomenon," Eveland said. People who are highly committed, regardless of their specific views -- such as those who are strong partisans on either side or those actively involved in politics -- will perceive a generally balanced news story to be biased in favor of their opponents.

As to why Democrats' conversations didn't change their perceptions, he suspects that the notion of media bias is stronger among Republicans because of more frequent bias claims among Republican elites, and so the concept is simply reinforced more in personal conversations.

While he and Shah have no immediate plans to expand this study in the future, Eveland said the same ideas probably apply to Americans' attitude about news coverage of the war in Iraq. "People who are staunchly pro-war would think that most coverage is anti-war," and vice versa, he said.
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Funding for the study came from several sources, including the Digital Media Forum, a media policy consortium established by the Ford Foundation.

Written by Pam Frost Gorder, (614) 292-9475; Gorder.1@osu.edu

Ohio State University

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