Is media bias really rampant? Ask the man who studies it for a living
Earlier this month, Donald Trump attacked the media at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
"This crooked media. They are worse than she is. I’m letting you, they are so dishonest," he told the crowd, which responded by shouting an epithet towards CNN.
This tactic wasn’t new. Trump has spent much of his campaign attacking the press for its coverage of his campaign. As the New York Times reported in August, “The Trump campaign has made accusations of news media bias a pervasive theme, and has attacked publications and reporters with virulence."
It seems his base finds this rhetoric convincing. An October poll released by Quinnipiac University showed that nine in 10 Republicans say news organizations are biased against Trump.
In recent weeks, much has been written about whether journalists created Trump, mishandled Trump coverage, are biased against Trump, should be blamed for Trump coverage, shouldn’t be blamed for Trump coverage and/or helped cement Trump’s primary campaign (which was also the focus of a recent Shorenstein Center report).
Coverage of this particular election cycle will be analyzed for years to come. But is this election really that different from previous ones? And are journalists covering this campaign differently than they have in previous years?
In 2000, for example, George Bush’s campaign was twice as likely as Al Gore’s to get positive press coverage in the culminating weeks of the campaign, according to a study released that year.
In 2012, a study by Daniel Quackenbush at Elon University found that there was a “a considerable pro-conservative bias amidst the media’s collective coverage.” In the fall of 1988, press coverage of Michael Dukakis was deeply criticized. The final pre-election Gallup poll in 1948 predicted Dewey’s win over Truman, and we all know how that went.
As Dave D’Alessio, the associate professor of communications at the University of Connecticut, once put it: “There is probably not an American today who has not heard charges that 'the media' are 'biased.'"
D’Alessio studies media bias in presidential elections that have taken place since 1948, looking at questions like: Is there systematic partisan media bias in presidential campaigns?
If so, how much? Does bias vary from campaign to campaign or medium to medium? The conclusion of an analysis of studies of media bias in campaigns from 1948 through 1997: “Neither the overall analysis, nor any of the differences between proportions of coverage, statement, or gatekeeping bias favoring Democrats or Republicans, was statistically significant."
In other words: There was no evidence of monolithic liberal or conservative bias in the newspaper industry.
I reached out to D’Alessio, who has written several articles and books about media bias and presidential elections, for his take on this year’s election, and how it compares to previous ones. Below is a transcript of our discussion.
We’ve been hearing a lot about media bias this election season, and that the media are biased. A national poll released last week by Quinnipiac University said that 55 percent of people think the media are biased against Donald Trump. What do you think of those claims?
Broadly speaking, I don’t trust anybody that says the media are biased because the very nature of bias is that it’s a perception — it’s something that people see and they base it on what they see. There’s something called a hostile media effect. Basically whenever people are engaged in an issue — and there’s no one more engaged than a presidential candidate — they see coverage as biased against their position, no matter what is it.
You want to rally the troops. Both of the sides know that the way to get anything done is to get everyone on the same page, so anything they can do to create an opposition is good, because they can point at the media and say “The media are out to get me. The media are out to get us. So we can fight against this. And the way to do that is to vote for me.”
This isn’t the first election where people believe the media are biased against a candidate. How far back can we trace this phenomena?
I traced it back to Jim Farley, who was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign manager and then served as the Postmaster General. He complained constantly about the media. And by a lot of definitions, Roosevelt was the most popular president ever. No one else has been re-elected more than he was.
But you can see complaints about the media in Jefferson’s writing, for pete’s sake. Jefferson was the fellow that wanted everyone to have a free press and then when he became president, he wanted to shut down the newspapers.
Before social media, politicians had to work with the media to some degree because that’s how they got their positions out to the public. But now they can bypass the media and communicate directly with the public through Twitter and Facebook. Has that changed anything?
As soon as that becomes the case, it became easier to turn media into a whipping boy. One of the nature of any news media — newspaper, cable channels, radio — is that they have multiple personalities and one of those personalities is that they’re a political actor. They play an active role in the political process and serve as a conduit between the candidate and the public. When you don’t need this anymore, well it becomes different, and you can throw them under the bus all you want.
It becomes more and more of an opportunity to use the media strategically, not just by tailoring your message through the media, but by also being able to say ‘This institution is out to get me.’
As I said before, that helps rally the troops.
But social media can only go so far. It’s one thing to tweet a message and another thing entirely to have someone explain your tax policy on Twitter, because Twitter is not suited for explaining a complex policy decision. So you still need the Washington Post more than people suspect.
But in the last weeks of the campaign, when everything is coming down to soundbites and slogans...no one is going to break through on a brand new policy, and now it’s all sound bytes and quick quotes. At this stage at the campaign, you don’t need the news media outlets — except as a whipping boy. That’s the value they can have for your campaign at this point.
Look at the entire episode with The New York Times and Trump threatening to sue. This is a major presidential party candidate who is stomping his feet and saying, “I’m going to sue you for libel.” Why is he doing that? Not because he’s going to win a libel lawsuit. We can even leave aside the issue of truth.
He’s not going to win that in court or win in time for the election. Even if he sues, it won’t be adjudicated until January. He’s doing that to say ‘They’re out to get me. And because they're out to get me, we have to show that we’re not going to be gotten. And the way to fix that is to do what I want you to do which is to vote for me.’”
You teach college students. I’m wondering if the response on your campus is different this election than in previous cycles.
I see a lot less student activity around this election. There’s a couple of reasons for that. Connecticut is drop dead blue. The state goes Democratic everything, so neither party is spending much money here. There’s no controversy or rallying up the troops. The second reason is that during this election cycle, well frankly, people are pretty nasty and I suspect no one here wants to showcase their political gear around here these days. I don’t see Clinton stickers, I don’t see Trump stickers.
Mel note: I live in a swing state — North Carolina — and it’s totally different here. Stickers and signs everywhere.
Let’s go back to the question of media bias. Is this election substantially different than previous election cycles, and is the way the candidates treat the press substantially different?
It’s more vociferous, but accusations of media bias have existed for decades. I traced it back to Farley, but you can work forwards and backwards. There are quotations of various presidents throughout time that indicate that Jefferson hated the newspapers. Lincoln shut them down. Teddy Roosevelt wasn't really fond of the press. Woodrow Wilson shut down a couple of newspapers.
There’s a famous stories of Jack Kennedy not liking a story in the New York Herald Tribune and canceling his subscription. You can imagine what Nixon thought of the press. Carter was such a nice man but he wasn’t really thrilled about them either.
As I said before, the media bias in a sense a perception. If the media are not telling things the way they should be told, then they’re wrong. And when you’re the president, that’s how you feel about stuff. You want everyone on the same page and on your side, and it’s frustrating beyond all heck when that’s not the case.
I imagine there was also a fear that politicians would cut off access to the press, or the press would cut off access to the politician.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between the news and the politician.
This is true particularly at local levels — like people running for mayor or for the statehouse. For example, if you’re in the statehouse in Connecticut, you have to talk to the Hartford Courant because it’s the only paper in town. There’s a certain kind of relationship that goes on there where you need the Courant to do something for you, then they need you to do something for them. They need access. That’s part of their job — to inform.
So at the low level you sometimes see a strong incumbency effect — we all play nice together. That can result in concerns about perceived close relationship between the news and an incumbent politician where the news is perceived to favor the incumbent.
At higher levels, anti-incumbency bias because there are so many avenues that they can use to reach the media so there’s no need to necessarily work with any one outlet.
You’ve been studying various campaigns for decades. What do you think of Trump as candidate and his relationship with the media?
He’s clearly a showman. If we roll it back to the second debate, he’s not stalking Hillary, he’s upstaging her. If he’s on the screen, then he’s detracting from her screen time.
He was always the guy calling people names. He was always the person on Twitter starting fights. He was being active in the campaign. Instead of making long wonky speeches, he would say some bad things or whatever. And that got him attention, and at that time, what were people supposed to do? We understand when we have a two-person campaign that balanced coverage means you need to give balanced coverage to both sides, and sometimes that’s able to be done, sometimes not. What about among 13 people? What’s the fair share of coverage?
Well Trump elbowed his way to the top and said “I’ll do anything I can to get it.” So he acted the way he acted to gobble up all of the coverage he could. He understands the news cycle better than a lot of other people. That whole story about Miss [Universe] — it broke at 3:00 in the morning. Since when is 3 in the morning part of the news cycle? Since now. He’s sort of like PT Barnum so of course he dominates the news cycle. They might be prepared next time for a candidate like that but they weren’t this time.
One last question: Why do you think there’s so much focus on media bias?
Everybody thinks the media should do something but that something varies from person to person to person. And that means we’ll never stop talking about it.
They see the media as biased no matter if it is or it isn’t. That’s a conversation that should be happening right now and in the future in civics classes What role does the media play in the political process? People have no idea.