Most journalists are to the left of Bernie Sanders (but don’t worry they’re totally fair)

6 mins read

An academic study by a trio of professors claims to have proven there is no such thing as media bias despite the fact that the same study found most journalists are much father left than the average Twitter user. In fact, a majority of journalists, based on their Twitter interactions, are somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders. Here’s the graph showing the results:

From the study:

Figure 2 shows the distribution of ideological positions of journalists based on their Twitter interactions. As can be seen, journalists are dominantly liberal and often fall far to the left of Americans. A full 78.1% of journalists are more liberal than the average Twitter user. Moreover, 66% are even more liberal than former President Obama, 62.3% are to the left of the median Senate Democrat (in the 114th Congress), and a full 14.5% are more liberal than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (one of the most liberal members of the House).

In short, journalists are overwhelmingly liberal/Democrats and many journalists appear to be far to the left of the average American.

Those findings certainly comport with the experience of a lot of people on Twitter, a place where support for Sanders often seems overwhelming. But the study goes on to argue that despite this overwhelming personal bias, reporters don’t show any evidence of bias in their work.

How did they determine this? Well, that was a separate part of the study which directed emails at hundreds of journalists offering to let them sit down with a new candidate for office (one who didn’t exist but the journalists didn’t know that). In both cases the letter was identical except that in some cases the candidate was described as left-wing and in others as right wing.

Having sent out the emails the authors then waited to see who would respond and whether those responses would favor one side of the aisle over the other. What they found was no statistical difference:

As can be seen, there is no statistical or substantive difference in the probability of a journalist responding to the email based solely on the treatment conditions. Comparing the two poles, strong conservative candidates are, on average, a mere 0.4 percentage points less likely to get a response than strong progressive candidates…

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.

I think the authors are asking the right questions but the email responses don’t seem conclusive to me. They assume that the an even number of responses to interview candidates on the left and right demonstrate a lack of bias but less than a quarter of journalists responded. Maybe we’re just seeing a self-selected fraction of journalists who take a neutral approach to news gathering. They aren’t necessarily representative of the whole group.

The other thing I’m curious about is whether this got a relatively blase neutral response because the potential story here is relatively blase, i.e. Person X Announces Candidacy for Office. I wonder what would happen if the email had offered to provide specific proof of illegal behavior about a) President Trump or b) Bernie Sanders. Would journalists be equally interested? Maybe but I suspect as the stakes grow higher you might see more tendency for bias to creep in.

Salon spoke to the authors of the study and they were concerned about doing anything ethically dubious:

“I think absolutely there should be other ways to do this,” Hassell said. Then he described some of the difficulties in doing so, starting with ethics. You don’t want to damage a journalist’s reputation with a false story lead, and you don’t want to waste his or her time and resources “following up a story that really doesn’t exist.” One idea Hassell suggested might work was to pose as a researcher announcing a new study, varying the topic. “Some topics are more conservative or more preferential to liberals,” he said. “That way you’re not forcing the journalist to go out and do any research on it. You can be the researcher.”

Obviously there are problems with offering false information to real journalists who do this for a living. But it’s really difficult to believe that the overwhelming ideological bias the researchers found never results in any bias in their work. I think conservatives can point to fresh evidence on an almost daily basis that that’s not the case.

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