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Examining media bias

Posted by Richard on November 14, 2007

Investor's Business Daily has created an outstanding three-part editorial series, Uncommon Knowledge, that examines different aspects of "what the media misses, misrepresents and ignores completely." Highly recommended. 

Part One looks at a recent study of media bias by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School. The source may be surprising, but its findings are consistent with every similar study since forever (and with what any fair-minded observer sees as obvious):

The Harvard study – conducted with the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press – examined 1,742 presidential campaign stories appearing from January through May in 48 print, online, network TV, cable and radio news outlets.

Among many findings, it determined that Democrats got more coverage than Republicans (49% of the stories vs. 31%). It also found the "tone" of the coverage was more positive for Democrats (35% to 26% for Republicans).

… Fully 59% of front-page stories about Democrats in 11 newspapers had a "clear, positive message vs. 11% that carried a negative tone."

For "top-tier" candidates, the difference was even more apparent: Barack Obama's coverage was 70% positive and 9% negative, and Hillary Clinton's was 61% positive and 13% negative.

By contrast, 40% of the stories on Republican candidates were negative and 26% positive.

On TV, evening network newscasts gave 49% of their campaign coverage to the Democrats and 28% to Republicans. As for tone, 39.5% of the Democratic coverage was positive vs. 17.1%, while 18.6% of the Republican coverage was positive and 37.2% negative.

Part Two contends that the media are determined to portray everything in a negative light, at least as long as this administration is in office. Iraq, the economy, and global warming are cited as examples. Regarding Iraq, IBD notes how coverage has changed in recent months:

The surge of 30,000 new troops that began in February and peaked in June has been followed by stunning success in Iraq.

Yet coverage of the Iraq policy debate has tailed off since midyear, when the troop buildup that was announced in January was completed. In other words, the better the news has gotten out of Iraq, the less it's been discussed in the U.S. media.

Earlier in the year, the Iraq debate was the top story week in and week out, grabbing from 11% to 15% of coverage, according to an index compiled by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and monitoring 48 mainstream news outlets.

Over the first six months, and until the surge was in place, the Iraq debate averaged 11% of the coverage. Since then, it's averaged about 7% per week – a decline of 36%. The second-half percentage would be even lower if not for a 36% spike in the coverage during the week of Sept. 9, when Gen. Petraeus delivered his long-anticipated progress report.

Part Three argues that the non-reporting of success in Iraq and the relentlessly negative portrayal of the economy have had profound effects on public opinion:

The percentage of news stories devoted to events in Iraq, moreover, has shrunk to 3%, the lowest since September and barely half the 2007 average. In only three other weeks this year has Iraq coverage been so scanty.

All this in a period when word managed to get out through other sources that:

• U.S. troop casualties have plunged to their lowest level since February 2004, as rocket, mortar and suicide bomb attacks have all hit two-year lows.

• Iraqi civilian casualties are down two-thirds from their peak in December 2006.

• Iraq's government and the U.S. military say al-Qaida has been vanquished in Baghdad, as thousands of Iraqi families return to the capital to rebuild their lives.

• Iraq's government has signed up 20,000 Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites to fight foreign terrorists.

• The U.S. has announced it will remove 3,000 troops, with more to follow in coming months, as the wind-down of the surge begins.

But so it goes with anti-war news organizations that aggressively report setbacks in Iraq but give short, if any, shrift to the positive developments.

… the question remains of how Iraq coverage – or noncoverage, in the current context – affects attitudes in the population as a whole.

In other words, how can Americans led to believe the war in Iraq is a "mess" or "mistake" or "quagmire" (to use terms repeated often in media accounts) ever see it differently if they hear or read nothing to the contrary?

The latest IBD/TIPP Poll suggests they can't. … 

Sadly, although the majority of poll respondents are still hopeful about Iraq, more people today believe the war is already lost than six months ago, despite all the positive developments cited above. Most haven't heard about those developments.

I've barely touched the surface with the above. Read the whole series . But if you only have time for one, I recommend Part Two.

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