Is the News Media Politically Biased?

Contents

Issue

Is the news media politically biased, i.e. biased in favor of a political party or ideology?

Big Picture

Bias

  • Person Bias
    • A person is biased if they have an unreasoned preference or inclination for or against something.
  • Process/Product Bias
    • A process or product of reasoning is biased if it deviates from the canons of rationality because of person bias
  • View Bias

Arguments the News Media is Politically Biased

The New York Times editorials are one-sided, expressing a liberal point of view.
  • A paper’s Editorial Point of View, or Editorial Slant, is the official opinion of the paper, set forth in its editorials. 
  • First Objection
    • A process or product of reasoning is biased only if it violates the canons of rationality because of person bias.
    • Like a lawyer’s closing argument, an editorial may be one-sided but perfectly rational, in which case it’s not biased. 
    • Therefore, the fact that a paper’s editorials take a political stand does not logically imply they’re biased.
  • Second Objection
    • A paper’s editorial point of view doesn’t mean its news reporting is biased.  Reputable newspapers have strict policies on the separation of news and opinion.
      • Washington Post Policies and Standards
        • “The separation of news columns from the editorial pages is solemn and complete. This separation is intended to serve the reader, who is entitled to the facts in the news columns and to opinions on the editorial and “op-ed” pages.”
  • Kinds of Articles in the News Media
    • News Reports report newsworthy events
    • Feature Articles explore news stories in more depth or cover related topics.
      • News Analysis, Fact-Checks, Timeline, Background, Text of Documents, Opinion Polls, Videos, Photos, Graphics, Interviews, Personality Profiles, Historical Parallels, Maps, Expert Opinion, Primer, Explainer, Follow-up
    • Opinion Pieces set forth opinions and arguments, make value judgments and normative statements 
      • Editorials: official opinion of the newspaper, written by the editorial board.  Editorials set forth the newspaper’s point of view.
      • Op-Eds and Columns: written by regular and guest columnists
      • Letters to the Editor: letters written by the general public.
Journalists tend to be liberal and can’t help slanting their reporting. A Pew Research Poll, for example, found that reporters are more liberal than the population at large.
  • Objection
    • A person’s point of view doesn’t mean he’s incapable of being impartial in conducting an investigation. 
    • People can, and do, overcome their biases.
Partisan-leaning editorial pages are correlated with the amount of news coverage of scandals.
  • Newspaper Coverage of Political Scandals, published in The Journal of Politics
    • journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/news-bias-political-scandals
      • Partisan-leaning editorial pages are strongly correlated with biases in the amount of reportorial coverage of scandals. Democratic-leaning newspapers devote significantly more attention to scandals involving Republican politicians than scandals involving Democrats, and Republican-leaning newspapers do the opposite. This apparent bias holds for scandals both local and national in origin.
      • On average, a news organization with a higher degree of editorial endorsements for one political party will devote 26% more reportorial news coverage to a scandal involving a member of the opposite party.
  • Objections
    • A paper may devote a large amount of coverage to a scandal because of its newsworthiness rather than its editorial point of view, e.g. The Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate Scandal
    • Correlation doesn’t prove causation
      • A and B’s being correlated proves neither that A causes B nor that B causes A
Bias is evident in single news stories
  • Biased news stories sometimes make it to print. But there’s no evidence such stories are widespread
  • Reputable newspapers maintain journalistic standards of objectivity and fairness.
    • journalistsresource.org/syllabi/syllabus-covering-the-news
      • Objectivity remains an ideal, a method for guarding against spin and personal bias by examining all sides of a story and testing claims through a process of evidentiary verification. Practiced well, it attempts to find where something approaching truth lies in a sea of conflicting views.
  • Reputable newspapers issue retractions and corrections
    • WaPo Fact-checking President Trump’s ‘Fake News Awards
      • “To sum up, at least seven of the eleven “Fake News” winners resulted in corrections, with two reports prompting suspensions or resignations. One of the winners was simply a tweet that was quickly corrected and never resulted in a news article. One was an opinion article in which the author later retracted his prediction.”
  • A news story may be mistaken, not because of bias, but for other reasons, e.g. sloppy journalism
The tone of news coverage in national news outlets is anti-Trump
  • News Coverage of Donald Trump’s First 100 Days
  • The tone of a news article is judged from the perspective of the subject. Negative stories include stories where the subject is criticized directly or where an event, trend, or development reflects unfavorably on the subject.
  • Second Objection: A negative headline may be more objective than a neutral headline.
    • Headlines for Same Story (WaPo)
      • Fox News: Trump tells Congressional leaders 3-5 million ‘illegals’ cost him popular vote
      • Las Vegas Review-Journal: Trump insists voter fraud cost him popular vote
      • New York Times: Trump repeats lie about popular vote in meeting with lawmakers
      • Wall Street Journal: Donald Trump repeats unsupported claim that voter fraud skewed election tally
      • Washington Post: Without evidence, Trump tells lawmakers 3 million to 5 million illegal ballots cost him the popular vote
      • Politico: Trump repeats debunked voter fraud claim at meeting with Hill leaders
      • ABC News: Trump repeats unsubstantiated claim about voter fraud during election
      • CNN: Trump talks replacing Obamacare, reiterates unsubstantiated voter fraud claims
      • USA Today: Trump revives false claim that illegal ballots cost him popular vote
      • Slate: Trump, again, falsely claims he lost the popular vote because of millions of fraudulent votes
      • New York Daily News: President Trump still pushing unconfirmed claims that voter fraud cost him the popular vote
      • Business Insider: Trump repeats debunked claim that voter fraud caused him to lose popular vote to Hillary Clinton
      • New York Post: Donald Trump brings up bogus voter fraud claims — again
      • Associated Press: Trump wrongly blames fraud for loss of popular vote
Polls indicate that people believe the news media is biased
  • Bias Perceived in News Coverage, February 2012
  • Six in 10 in US See Partisan Bias in News Media, April 2017
  • Voters Say Media Still Anti-Trump, January 2017
  • Objection
    • According to the Gallup poll, most Americans say the media is “often inaccurate.”  Since there’s no evidence for this claim, the belief that the media is biased may also have no basis in fact.  The key question is not how many people believe the media is biased, but  why they believe the media is biased.  If they have good reasons, what are they?

Arguments the News Media is not Politically Biased

  • If news articles were biased they would be logically flawed, making false or unsupported claims, cherry-picking the evidence, distorting the facts, drawing unwarranted conclusions, and so on.  There’s no evidence that news articles are in general logically deficient.
  • A person’s point of view doesn’t mean they can’t be impartial.  People can, and do, overcome their biases.
  • Reputable newspapers maintain journalistic standards of objectivity and fairness, keeping a Chinese Wall between news reporting and the editorial page

Conclusions

  • The burden of proof is on those who claim media bias.
  • The arguments considered fail to establish the news media is politically biased.
  • Process/product bias is hard to prove since it requires showing that
    • the process violates the canons of rationality,
    • any logical flaws in the process result from person bias rather than from sloppy reasoning.
Person and Process/Product Bias
  • Person Bias
    • A person is biased if he/she has an unreasoned preference or inclination for or against something.
  • Process/Product Bias
    • A process or product of reasoning is biased if it deviates from the canons of rationality because of person bias
Examples of Process/Products of Reasoning

Criminal investigations, congressional investigations, appellate opinions, reports by government agencies (e.g. CBO), news stories, the judging of competitions, audits, clinical trials, forensic analyses, scientific experiments, research polls, fact-checks, autopsies, arbitrations, attorneys’ closing arguments, editorials, op-eds, columns, debater’s speeches, mathematical proofs, legal motions, criminal and civil trials

Canons of Rationality
Proving Bias and the Absence of Bias
  • Proving Process/Product Bias
    • It’s easy to make a claim of bias. It’s much more difficult to prove it.
    • For example, is the New York Times politically biased?
    • Its editorials obviously take a side, reflecting the editorial slant of the paper. But taking a side does not by itself prove bias, as we’ll see
    • The relevant question is whether the paper’s news reporting is biased, because newspapers are supposed to maintain journalistic rules of objectivity and fairness. And they’re supposed to maintain a Chinese Wall between the news division and opinion writers.  In fact, sometimes news reports contradict opinion articles.
    • If a person claims that the New York Times’ news reporting is biased, he has the burden of proof.  He/she needs to show two things:
      • The Times’ news reporting violates the canons of rationality, including journalistic standards of objectivity and fairness.
      • The violations are the result of person bias
    • But showing these things is hard to do. See page on Is the News Media Biased?
  • Proving the Absence of Product/Process Bias
    • A process or product of reasoning is biased if 
      • it violates the canons of rationality 
      • the violations are the result of person bias
    • Hence, a process/product adhering to the canons of rationality is not biased.
    • A process/product can be proved unbiased, therefore by establishing that it adheres to the canons of rationality.
  • Are Lawyers’ Closing Arguments Biased?
    • A Silly Conversation
      • Pete: Boy, the prosecutor’s closing argument was really biased.  
      • Rich: How so?
      • Pete: Because it was totally one-sided.
      • Rich: Duh? It was supposed to be
    • Is the prosecutor’s closing argument biased?
    • It’s biased if it violates the canons of rationality because of person bias.
    • But it’s false that the prosecutor’s closing argument is biased merely because it takes a side, since it may adhere to the canons of rationality.
  • Are Editorials, Op-eds, and Columns Biased?
    • Some yes, some no.
    • Kobach’s Breitbart article is likely biased.
    • But an opinion piece that adheres to the canons of rationality is not biased.
    • Consider a New York Times editorial, which set forth the following argument against capital punishment
      • Death is the only final and irreversible criminal punishment. As  DNA exonerations vividly show, humans and their governments are fallible. Prudent humility dictates that fallible people refrain from inflicting irreversible punishments.
    • Reconstructed, the argument is:
      • Fallible governments should refrain from inflicting irreversible punishments
      • Capital punishment is an irreversible punishment.
      • All governments are fallible.
      • Therefore, governments should refrain from inflicting capital punishment
    • The Times’ argument is deductively valid and its premises are at least plausible. It thus appears to abide by the canons of rationality.  If so, it’s not biased.
    • Like closing arguments, it’s false that editorials are biased merely because they take sides.
  • Allsides measures the perceived political perspective of news media rated on a left-right continuum.
  • A news paper’s political perspective is defined by its standards and value judgments.
  • Example:
    • Every newspaper must decide what to print and how much coverage to provide.  That’s a value judgment, a judgment about what’s newsworthy and how newsworthy.
  • Newspapers have different standards and make different value judgments about:
    • Newsworthiness
    • Evidence and verification
    • Content of
      • News stories
      • Analyses
      • Opinions
    • Writing style
    • Ethics
  • Allsides in effect measures the standards and value judgments of a news source.
  • Bias applies not only to people and organizations but also to processes that result in conclusions, such as:
    • Investigations, judging of competitions, scientific experiments, forensic analyses, polls, academic studies
  • It’s useful to distinguish between
    • Person Bias
      • A person is biased if they have an outlook, perspective, opinion, or inclination that inhibits impartial judgment.
    • Process Bias
      • A process resulting in a conclusion is biased if it’s rendered unsound by person bias.
  • Example: Report Criticizes Comey but Finds No Bias in F.B.I. Decision on Clinton
    • “The Justice Department’s inspector general on Thursday painted a harsh portrait of the F.B.I. during the 2016 presidential election
    • The 500-page report criticized Mr. Comey for breaking with longstanding policy and publicly discussing an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server in handling classified information.
    • Nevertheless, the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, did not challenge the conclusion that Mrs. Clinton should not be prosecuted.
    • “We found no evidence that the conclusions by department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations,” he wrote. “Rather, we concluded that they were based on the prosecutor’s assessment of facts, the law and past department practice.”
    • Mr. Horowitz repeatedly said he found no evidence that the F.B.I. rigged the outcome. “Our review did not find documentary or testimonial evidence directly connecting the political views these employees expressed in their text messages and instant messages to the specific investigative decisions we reviewed,” the report said.”