This election cycle is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that people with minority opinions and extremist views have claimed that the big media conglomerates are biased against their views. In fact, according to Pew survey data in 2005, over one-half of voters perceive that the media is politically biased in its reporting, and these perceptions of media bias have increased over the last two decades.
One of these claims suggests media bias takes form by taking certain statements out of context and selectively ignoring real scandals and issues on the other side of the aisle. This view holds that the establishment media has crafted a narrative about the candidates that attempts to drive the public’s opinions about them.
The primary issue for many people is media companies endorsing a candidate. The belief is that even if a paper has a healthy dialogue in its commentary section and a relatively unbiased selection of stories to publish for its news pieces, an official position that it holds will lend automatic illegitimacy to any opinion contrary to the endorsement.
This would be a fairly compelling argument, if it were true.
One study called “Media Bias and Influence: Evidence from Newspaper Endorsements,” conducted by two professors from the Department of Economics at Brown University, concluded that the degree to which a media corporation’s endorsement influences voters “depends upon the credibility of the endorsement. In this way, endorsements for the Democratic candidate from left-leaning newspapers are less in influential than are endorsements from neutral or right-leaning newspapers and likewise for endorsements for the Republican candidate. These results suggest that voters are sophisticated and attempt to filter out any bias in media coverage of politics.”
Social media software analytics company Crimson Hexagon also found evidence to suggest that the large media corporations that have publicly endorsed Clinton also wrote more negative stories about her than any other candidate of in this election cycle from January 2015 to April 2016, when the data was published. They also wrote a smaller percentage of positive stories about her than any other candidate.
According to a report done by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, eight of America’s most influential news outlets wrote coverage “negative in tone” about Clinton 84 percent of the time, Trump 43 percent of the time, and Sanders 17 percent of the time.
Combined, this evidence suggests that regardless of who a media corporation endorses, journalists will do their best to maintain their journalistic integrity and readers will not necessarily align their vote based on what their favorite news source says.
However, that isn’t to say political bias in the media doesn’t exist.
Third party candidates, for example, have a legitimate claim to media bias. The media simply does not devote as much time to covering third party candidates as it does the candidates of major political parties.
Yet the cause of bias against third party candidates is the direct result of the objectivity and professionalism journalists are encouraged to maintain. Many third party candidates campaign on a small set of issues not being addressed by the major party candidates. In order to maintain objectivity journalists usually try to refrain from reporting on the specific issues a candidate talks about, which blocks most of a third party candidate’s platform from being discussed.
Another result of that objectivity is a desire to focus on the political strategies and poll results of candidates. However, because third party candidates only appeal to a small subset of people who are angry about a specific issue, and not to the larger electorate, they usually don’t poll high. If a candidate is barely a blip on the political radar then they don’t typically qualify as newsworthy contenders for office. As sociologist Michael Schudson put it, “professionalism is as likely to be the disease as the cure.”
In order to maintain detachment in politics — an issue about which everyone has an opinion — journalists focus on on political strategy and technique rather than discussing the issues. Complaints that political journalism tends to view elections as a spectator sport instead of a battle of ideas are absolutely founded, but are the direct result of journalists maintaining personal objectivity and credibility in their work.
To say that the media is intentionally biased against a certain candidate or certain ideological group lacks any ground in facts and is a blatantly naive interpretation of how the news media operates. If and when bias does exist, it is the result of an institutional desire to maintain credibility. To complain about the “liberal bias” of the media, is quite simply a non-issue.