Is it ever possible to work out whether media are biased? Bias may be in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps we are all too prone to seeing bias whenever our preferences are challenged.
One way is to study the stated political preferences of journalists, and to compare them with national political preferences as shown by election results. Will journalists be to the left, to the right, or bang in the middle of the national political dimension?
Before getting into that topic, start with another question: why would anyone be a journalist? The only qualification is to be able to write, which most people can do. Having an opinion helps, but other skills are not essential. If you want to write on any topic, you simply ring people up, interview them, and write up your story. If people read it, you are a journalist.
Seen from a career point of view, writing things is not a very exclusive occupation. The bar to entry is not high. Teaching maths at school is more demanding, as are keeping accounts, servicing washing machines and repairing engines.
Nonetheless, why be a journalist when you can do other things? One commonly stated reason is: To make a difference. By implication, journalists want to change things by exposing them.
Many studies have indicated that there is a left-wing bias in the media. Indeed, lists of the most watched TV news channels and most read newspapers suggest that there are simply more left-wing outlets than right wing ones, so it is more than bias, it is hegemony. A simple explanation is that journalism is a left-wing activity, by and large. Left wing people are trying to change society. Right wing people are trying to make money, not scribbling.
The authors took great care to find objective ways to categorize political parties on the left to right dimension, only to find that these detailed methods correlated at .85 with the Wiki descriptions. However, the independent raters were far less likely to rate political parties as being “far Right” than was the case for Wikipedia descriptions.
They studied 17 countries, mostly European ones. They researched journalist’s actual voting behaviour, or voting intention
It can be seen that, apart from in Slovenia, journalists are to the left of the countries in which they work. This is a massive effect. It holds true even when countries lean to the left, as some European countries do.
All their data can be found in a publicly available data repository. https://osf.io/6uvnu/
The main finding is simple: journalists favour left-wing parties, with a correlation of .5 though this is mostly due to their support of centre left parties, not the far left ones.
Compared to the general voting population, journalists prefer parties that are associated with the following ideologies: green parties/environmentalism, feminism, support for the European Union, socialism. Conversely, journalists are less likely than the general voting population to support parties associated with the following ideologies: national conservatism, libertarianism, populism, nationalism and conservatism.
the general population votes about 6.1 times more for national conservative parties as journalists do, whereas journalists vote about 3.0 times more for green parties.
Journalists lean left overall. Another group who write for a living are academics. Which way do they lean?
Langbert (2018) found that the ratio of Democrat to Republican professors was 17.4:1 in History, 43.8:1 in Sociology and 133:1 in Anthropology.
This may lead to a self-confirming amplification effect: journalists are more likely to quote left-leaning academics, who will thus have a higher profile, and will get cited and funded more often, and have more influence on other academics, and thus lead their fields in particular directions. If the left dominate in both media and academia, then the best-known research will be left-inspired.
Is the bias media and academia a bad thing? Yes, and it would have been as bad if a bias to the right had been revealed. The ideal is that both journalists and academics should be even-handed, and give a balanced evaluation of the available evidence. Devoutly to be wished, but rarely achieved. Perhaps people love a fight, and love taking sides.
I doubt that any steps can be taken to ensure balance in journalists. Many people on the right will feel that they have better things to do than go about convincing people. If that is the case, the best that can be hoped for is that journalists nail their colours to the mast so that readers can be warned where their deepest preferences lie. Readers have to pick their way through different news sources, trying to put together the least implausible account. Let a thousand flowers bloom, as Mao said before cutting off their heads.
As for academia, academics have made a profound life choice: they are not direct producers of wealth, but provide a service at a cost. It is natural that, having chosen that life, they are in favour of more funding for research, and willing to countenance more taxation to fund that research. If their research is based on solid methods their personal preferences need not be fatal to truth seeking. But I am left with a feeling that if a few more right-leaning persons might be willing to enter academia, they would provide a small dissenting voice which might illuminate some blind spots.
Currently, journalists in 17 countries lean left, and that distorts the basis on which those democracies work.