An interesting study from the 80s, highlighted by Psyblog:
The participants were asked if the news reports from ABC, CBS, and NBC were biased. The results:
Robert P. Vallone and colleagues from Stanford University invited 144 Stanford undergrads who held a variety of views on the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict to watch some of the news coverage of the Beirut massacre (Vallone et al., 1985). The Beirut massacre was the killing of between 328 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians by Lebanese militia forces in September 1982.
At the time the story received huge media coverage around the world with much speculation about whether Israeli forces had allowed it to happen (a subsequent commission held the Israeli government indirectly responsible).Some of the participants recruited for the study were moderate in their initial views, others were specifically recruited from both the pro-Arab and pro-Israeli student associations.
Here are the average ratings for the news coverage from each group:
- Pro-Israeli: 2.9 (perceived a marked pro-Arab bias)
- Neutral: 3.8 (perceived a slight pro-Arab bias)
- Pro-Arab: 6.7 (perceived a marked pro-Israeli bias)
As you can see the pro-Israeli participants thought the news reports were biased against Israel while the pro-Arab participants thought the news reports were biased against Arabs. This is impressive because everyone was watching exactly the same news reports. Even more surprising was that each thought that when someone neutral saw the coverage, it would persuade them to side with the opposite position.
This is interesting but I think it is not the whole story. One reason everybody think news reports are biased is that they are brief, and so they naturally omit bits of the background that partisans on both sides think is critical. In the case of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the pro-Israel participants probably think every story should begin with the story of the Arab war against Jewish settlers going back to 1947 or earlier, the refusal of Arab governments to recognize Israel or condemn terrorist attacks against it, the relentless terrorism against Israel, etc., in short, the whole story of Israel as a small nation beleaguered by enemies. The pro-Palestinians think the necessary background is the Israel occupation of Arab lands and the eviction of Palestinians from their homes, going back to 1947 and continuing. So of course each thinks a story about contemporary events that focuses on those events is biased, since they see each event as part of an ongoing story.
When it comes to American domestic politics, the spectrum of possible views is so broad that any approach is offensive to somebody. Conservatives all think that the mainstream media has a "liberal bias," but on the other hand my Progressive friends all think it has a conservative, corporate bias. You can model how this happens by imagining a long line representing the spectrum of political opinion, extending from socialist eco-fanatics to strip-mining fascists. I would say that back when I watched the network news, 20 years ago, they were slightly left of center. But that still left them far to the right of real leftists. And my reading of America is that most politically engaged people are not clustered in the center, but spread out toward the fringes; so of course very few people with strong political opinions thought the news was unbiased.
During the Bush years, as I drifted toward the left through opposition to Bush's wars, the torture of detainees, corporate malfeasance, Wall Street shenanigans, and the lack of any national health care policy, the media seemed to me to have fallen completely under the control of Republicans. Where were the prominent media voices opposing either the invasion of Iraq or the abuse of detainees, or calling attention to the obvious looming problems on Wall Street? Over the past two years I have detected a recentering, so perhaps the Bush years were just an outburst of militant patriotism inspired by 9-11. The NY Times, in particular, seems to have recovered its voice, along with many smaller papers, and of course now everybody is angry about Wall Street. (The Washington Post remains a neocon disaster.)
Now the main problem I see with our big media outlets is a silly striving toward balance that leaves them unable to take strong stands on anything. Coverage of the health care debate is particularly silly, because this is an area where the status quo sucks and nothing modest will even start to fix the problems. One can imagine a conservative solution (make people pay for their own health care, with insurance only for catastrophic costs), but most Americans won't go for that, so that leaves only different kinds of statist solutions as possibilities. But many reporters still seem to be looking for a middle ground that does not exist, talking up meaningless bipartisanship and asking why we can't have a more modest approach.
The east coast elite consensus that dominated the news business from the 1940s to the 1980s has dissolved, so we will not see again that sort of "mainstream" news again any time soon. The future belongs to niche marketed news, and, I hope, to the fact checking blogs that will try to keep the distortions in line.