New Study Finds Reporters Liberal, But Not Biased Against Governers

December 31, 1996

CHAPEL HILL -- Are reporters who cover state politics liberal" Are they biased in their reporting, as conservatives have charged" Well...yes and no, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill political expert who has studied those questions.

Using data from surveys of state political leaders and prominent members of the media who cover state politics, Dr. Thad Beyle and colleagues found state-level media across the nation much more likely to affiliate with the Democratic party, especially in the South. Far more liberals than conservatives can be found among reporters.

"We did not find that this bias affects media coverage of governors," said Beyle, Pearsall professor of political science at UNC-CH. "In fact, Republican governors tend to have slightly better media relations than Democratic governors."

A report on the study appears in the current issue of SPECTRUM: The Journal of State Government. Besides Beyle, authors are Drs. Donald Ostdiek of Rice University and G. Patrick Lynch of Georgetown University.

"Conservatives have long argued that there is a noticeable liberal bias in press coverage of politics," Beyle said. "Conversely, liberals argue that news coverage now favors corporate interests as a small number of large companies have begun to dominate the media industry.

"A somewhat more interesting question for political scientists is whether or not these potential biases have an impact on the relations between members of the news media and politicians. In this paper, we address this question as it relates to state politics."

Researchers mailed surveys in 1992 to 231 print, television, radio and wire service reporters identified by politicians and political scientists in all 50 states as important figures. Slightly more than half responded.

Questionnaires asked about political party affiliations and requested reporters to rank themselves and other journalists on a seven-point scale with "1" indicating liberal and "7" conservative.

Sixty-eight percent of Southern respondents linked themselves to their state's Democratic party, and 58 percent to the national Democratic party. Only 5 percent said they were Republican in-state, and 14 percent called themselves Republican nationally. Slightly more than a quarter said they were independent. Among non-Southern respondents, 36 percent called themselves Democrats, 3 percent Republicans and 51 percent independents at the state level. Forty-six percent, 22 percent and 33 percent, respectively, said the same nationally. On average, journalists surveyed viewed the media at home as being more liberal than they were, especially outside the South. About three-quarters considered themselves moderates. Few accepted the conservative label, and none viewed their state media as conservative. More than 90 percent of respondents felt they had a significant impact on state policy agendas.

A second survey, conducted in 1994, generated 291 respondents, including both reporters and political scientists. It asked them to rate their governor's relations with the media and, after analysis, showed that most incumbents worked well with reporters. In general, Republicans enjoyed better press relations than Democrats.

"The study found that partisan bias does not appear to have an impact on coverage of governors by the state media," Beyle said. "Most of the positive media relationships are due to a governor's own personal skill in working with the media, which includes creating a support system for media relations. ...Most of the negative relationships are due to a governor's own lack of skill or inability to work with media of all types."

Note: Beyle can be reached at (919) 962-0404 (w) or 942-1281 (h).

Contact: David Williamson
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University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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