We all have political opinions and those opinions help decide how we vote, the causes we support and even the activism many of us get involved in, but what shapes the opinions themselves? Mostly it’s what we learn about the world we live in and what’s going on in it, and for a lot of people – especially in the USA – our major source for that information is the TV news. Of course that opens up a disturbing possibility; if we develop our opinions from what we see on the news, can those opinions be influenced by the way the news is presented? It seems obvious that the way a news item is presented can seriously affect our perception of events. Don’t believe that? How about a tagline that reads “Surgeon performs successful transplant”? That’s likely to give you a positive feeling, but would you feel so good about it if it was rephrased as “Knifeman cuts out woman’s liver”? Both are technically true, but one is worded to create a very different impression.
A major concern among political analysts is that TV news programs apply a more subtle bias to their reporting, in a way that influences how viewers perceive what’s going on. Both sides have worries about this; the political right believe most of the broadcast media have a “liberal bias” whereas the left see certain channels as having a disproportionate right-wing influence. The situation in the USA is different to many other countries. For example in the UK both sides of the political spectrum regularly accuse the BBC of being biased against them, which tends to suggest that the BBC is playing it reasonably straight. You won’t often hear a US Republican complain that Fox leans left, though, or a Democrat protesting about MSNBC’s GOP propaganda.
Of course it’s possible that there is no bias in reality, just a perception based on the view from where the observers are standing. After all if you’re on the political right an unbiased news source is going to look, a lot of the time, if it’s to the left of you. In fact it is to the left of you, but that doesn’t make it biased. The political slant belongs to you, not the broadcaster. Naturally that works both ways; if you’re on the left an unbiased news show is off to the right from your perspective.
To decide if the news networks really are slanted it’s necessary to look at their coverage of a broad range of events and see if their reporting leans more towards one side or the other. Bias can take a lot of forms, from giving undue attention to one side of a debate – in extreme cases only presenting one side – to the use of emotionally loaded wording. Outright dishonesty is fairly rare, partly because it will quickly be picked up and partly because most journalists do try to be ethical. Examples of bias would be interviewing environmentalist protesters opposing a new power plant but not allowing the electricity company to explain the benefits of the scheme, or using loaded terms like “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” The last two are excellent examples of wording calculated to influence opinions because the opposites – which will be associated with the other side of the debate – are so appalling; “pro-death” and “pro- coercion.”
To get an idea of the actual situation let’s look at the six major US news networks – ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and NBC. Between them these six reach most American news consumers, so if there really is an issue with bias in the news it should show up here. To get an accurate idea of each network’s slant, if any, it’s vital to look at several assessments; that eliminates the risk of bias in the assessor skewing the results. In fact four separate analyses of the six networks came up with remarkably consistent results. Three of them are consistently biased towards the Democrats to some extent, and three are consistently biased towards the Republicans. Arranged in order from most Republican to most Democrat, this is how they look:
There aren’t really any surprises there except CNN, which some people believe to have a liberal bias; it turns out it has a slight conservative bias. The real outlier is MSNBC, which is much further to the left of the center point than either NBC or Fox are to the right of it – nearly 50% more than NBC and over twice as far as Fox.
This ranking is just a rough measure, however. To gauge the actual impact on political opinions and voting behavior it’s also necessary to look at the impact each network has. The best measure of that is how much potential exposure they get, measured in hours of output. This changes the picture quite a lot; the two leaders by a long way are both on the right – Fox with 14.02 hours of coverage per day, and NBC with 9.26. The only pro-Democrat network even close to that is ABC, which is only fractionally left of center, with 8.23 hours. MSNBC scores just 4.85 hours.
So, looked at by the degree to which each network is slanted, the TV news sector has a slight bias to the left. Looked at by the amount of content that goes out it has a slight bias to the right.
Before anyone becomes too concerned about these results there is one more thing that needs to be considered. It’s clear that US news networks are indeed biased; in fact foreigners who see them tend to be quite startled at just how slanted they are. The big question is, are people watching MSNBC and being influenced towards the political left as a result, or do people choose to watch Fox because it confirms and agrees with the right-wing beliefs they already have? The first would be worrying. The second would be simple human nature. In a competitive news market with multiple networks chasing viewing figures there’s a lot of pressure to give people what they want, and what people want is news they agree with.