What does bias look like?

When we talk about “bias” or “slant” in reporting (and though those are not really great terms, I use them because I think there’s a decent shared understanding of them), we usually talk about it in political terms. It seems to manifest primarily in ideological terms — liberal bias, conservative bias — and the response of most traditional news organizations to such charges has been to make “balance” an explicit goal in their reporting. Sometimes they achieve this goal, sometimes they don’t, sometimes the reporting is good, sometimes it isn’t, but part of the outcome of the charges and the response is that the idea of bias is salient and understandable for the typical political news consumer.

So, OK, even if the audience might not be very good at understanding or perceiving real bias or slant (particularly outside of the hostile media effect), forces have conspired to make them think about it within the confines of political news. But what about other types of news? When people read or see stories about non-political (or at least non-party political) topics, do they think about or perceive slant in the same way? An important sub-question is whether the audience even perceives multiple “sides” to a story in which traditional political divisions are not and the reporter doesn’t present multiple sides. For example, if a local affiliate runs a story that is largely a recut video news release about some dangerous new germ that requires you to stock up on Purell, does the audience see that as a slanted piece? With a week until the AEJMC deadline, I probably should be thinking about more pressing things, like research I actually have in progress, but this has been nagging me for a few days now.

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    • Rosanne

      I just finished a paper using secondary survey data that shows that selecting partisan news media sources affects opinions about the health of the economy (a non-political topic with political ramifications.) Whether or not people selecting these media perceive bias, effects consistent with it show up for this outcome, after controlling for ideology, income, unemployment, and overall news exposure.
      Separately, I’m working on a content analysis that is beginning to show that news about the economy is quite often framed as important because of its political side… that is, even topics that aren’t “politics” are made political, and partisan- and this happens more on cable news than in “print.”
      Neither is my AEJ paper, so I’m going away now…. thanks for the break :)

      • Part of the answer probably comes from categorizing issues as having or not having manifest “sides.” Issues in campaigns or legislative debates have clear political sides, other issues are politicized to the point that they either clearly map to political sides or at least clearly *have* sides, even if they’re not clearly politically partisan or ideological. Then you’ve got issues that the audience might not read as even involving dispute if the journalist doesn’t show the existence of multiple sides.

        This came to mind after reading a discussion in which one person claimed that most news was “ghostwritten” by corporate interests, and another person (a journalist) responded that you couldn’t do that because the audience was smart enough to twig to it. But I’m wondering now if there’s a set of issues in which we might see low bias/slant perception if only one side were presented, higher perceptions if one side was presented and an opposing side brought up but given short shrift, and then lower again if two sides were presented in balance.