Not fake news: Major study finds no "liberal bias" in media — but there are other problems

Mainstream media logos (Graphic courtesy of Salon)
Mainstream media logos (Graphic courtesy of Salon)

Complaints about press bias are as old as the press itself, but in recent decades, conservatives have pushed one complaint above all other: The media is biased against them because it is overwhelmingly staffed by liberal journalists. A new study, forthcoming in Science Advances, provides the strongest evidence ever that they’re half-right — but only the least important half: Yes, reporters overall are significantly more liberal than the general population. In fact, almost one in six are more liberal than Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, based on who they follow on Twitter. But no, that doesn’t matter — even for the most liberal cohort of them. The title of the study says it all: “There is No Liberal Media Bias in the News Political Journalists Choose to Cover.”  

Even though “journalists are dominantly liberal and often fall far to the left of Americans,” the paper itself was emphatically clear in its conclusion: In short, despite being dominantly liberals/Democrats, journalists do not seem to be exhibiting liberal media bias (or conservative media bias) in what they choose to cover. This null is vitally important — showing that overall, journalists do not display political gatekeeping bias in the stories they choose to cover.

In a way, that’s not that surprising: Journalists place a high value on objectivity and balance. Avoiding ideological bias “rates very high” among journalists, lead author Hans Hassell of Florida State told Salon — 8.5 on scale of 10 in the survey these researchers conducted. As Hassell acknowledged, “A response you give to a survey may be very different from the actual behaviors that you express in the things that you do.”

So the authors — Hassell, John Holbein of the University of Virginia and Matthew Miles of Brigham Young University — turned to a correspondence experiment, which Hassell said was “essentially an experiment to test for biases that individuals may not be willing to explicitly state, because it may be socially unacceptable to be biased in a certain way, or they may even be unintentionally biased.”