Allegations of media bias are nothing new in the United States. Though conservatives have been the most vocal in recent years, liberals have also been known to argue that the news media systematically presents information in a way that privileges the opposition’s viewpoint. This debate has been carried out in the popular press as well, with each side struggling to provide the definitive proof that the media disadvantages their side in reporting the news. In this paper, I argue that the question about whether or not the news media are biased is the wrong question to ask, not only because each side will always be able to construct an answer that suits them by ignoring evidence to the contrary, but also because producing an un-biased news media is simply not possible. Because there is no broadly agreed-upon definition of “bias,” debates about bias resemble arguments about some mythical beast that no one has ever seen. What matters is not whether news media are biased in some abstract, essentialist sense, but how particular media outlets cover particular stories in more or less biased ways than their real-life counterparts.
In this paper, I first survey the scholarly literature on news media bias in the sense commonly assumed in the claims of political partisans, the privileging of one political party/candidate/ideology over the other. Overwhelming evidence shows that mainstream news media taken together do not exhibit any systematic preference for either Democrats or Republicans. Next, I argue that such null findings do not mean that media are “unbiased;” rather, there are many ways in which news content is shaped and framed in ways that make the news a distorted picture of reality. A bewildering array of structural factors, ideological factors, and individual actions at all stages of the media production process all contribute to the final product: the news as a subjective, social construction rather than a mirror image of reality. Given such overwhelming evidence of news distortion, I argue that the debate about whether or not news media are biased is a sterile one that yields an uninteresting answer: yes. Instead, scholars need to shift their focus towards comparative research that asks which media outlets are more or less biased compared to others, and about what subjects are media outlets more or less likely to be biased. This pragmatic conception of media bias offers several important advantages over the essentialist conception that is the object of almost all studies of bias, and I show how those advantages can be taken into account methodologically by proposing a program for future research.
Partisan Political Bias
While a host of popular works has claimed that news media are either biased against liberals or biased against conservatives, most works rely mostly on anecdotal evidence rather than any systematic study of the phenomenon. While substantively intriguing, a handful of isolated examples of news bias cannot justify the broad claim that news media are inherently biased. However, there have been a handful of rigorous studies that have claimed to produce concrete evidence of systematic partisan political bias, whether towards the right or the left. Before proceeding further, these works must be addressed.
Of the works arguing that news media are systematically biased towards the conservative viewpoint, no other has been as influential as Manufacturing Consent (Herman and Chomsky 1988). Employing detailed content analyses of news coverage of several important international events from the 1970s-80s that have ramifications for U.S. foreign policy, Herman and Chomsky advance a “propaganda model” that “suggests that the ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state” (298). While this...