Rigorous analysis of media bias really began in 1981, when Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman surveyed journalists at top media outlets on their political views and voting habits. The findings? Overwhelmingly liberal. Not exactly shocking, but it was nice to have the data. In the following years, survey after survey confirmed the media's leftist leanings.
For example, a 2005 survey of 300 journalists by the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy found that 52 percent of news reporters voted for John Kerry, the Democrat in the 2004 presidential election, versus 21 percent who voted for President George W. Bush, the Republican. In addition, 33 percent said they were Democrats, while 10 percent said they were Republicans. And self-identified liberals came in at 28 percent, as opposed to the 10 percent who called themselves conservatives.
Similarly, a UCLA-led study released in late 2005 found that "almost all major media outlets tilt to the left.” Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist and lead researcher on the study, said that he "suspected that many media outlets would tilt to the left because surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democrat than Republican.” But he was "surprised at just how pronounced the distinctions are.” Co-author Jeffrey Milyo, a University of Missouri economist and public policy scholar, added that "overall, the major media outlets are quite moderate compared to members of Congress, but even so, there is a quantifiable and significant bias in that nearly all of them lean to the left.”
Some journalists make their political preferences clear by how they spend their own money. After all, political donations are not exactly subtle. A 2007 investigation by MSNBC.com reporter Bill Dedman tracked journalists who made political contributions to federal candidates, political action committees, and political parties between January 2004 and the first quarter of 2007. The good news? Only a tiny percentage of journalists made political -contributions. The predictable news? Out of the 143 journalists identified as making political contributions, 125—or 87 percent—gave to Democrats or liberal causes, while only 16 percent gave to Republicans.
Does this liberal bias manifest itself in news coverage? Let's consider just one of the hot-button issues that currently divides liberals and conservatives: global warming.
Media-Made Global Warming?
The story of man-made climate change, or global warming, has everything a left-leaning journalist could possibly desire: It's about the environment, always a fave topic, and it pits those who care about the earth against big bad business and the presumably insensitive, self-absorbed consumer—likewise topics about which liberals love to write. And because there are scientists out there who argue that the case on global warming is already closed—that it is definitely mankind's CO2-spewing actions that are changing the climate—most major media outlets have shown themselves eager to run regular "news” stories that present man-made global warming as fact, insisting that no disagreement exists among scientists.
For example, a keyword search of The New York Times (April through June of 2007) resulted in 43 stories or analyses that focused on—or included—the topic "climate change,” none of which featured any substantive quotes or explanations that departed from the environmentalist party line on global warming.
A few articles did note disagreements between environmental groups over how best to deal with the problem, but none quarreled with global warming itself. And while most economic studies have tied the reduction of emissions to substantial costs for consumers, businesses, and nations, only three of the pieces in question acknowledged—not through research, mind you, but just via statements from interested -parties—some "possible” costs. In contrast, many of these articles quoted politicians who declared that fighting global warming would be just dandy for the economy.
Other articles focused on the people pushing our nation's spy agencies to focus on climate change; how poor nations will suffer most from global warming's fallout; the businesses that are aboard the climate-change fight; and even an artist going around New York City using blue chalk on streets and sidewalks to mark a flood line based on global warming projections.
Just in case you were wondering, it is not at all difficult to find climate scientists and experts who disagree with the absolutist position on man-made global warming. Over 17,000 scientists have signed the Global Warming Petition Project from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Here's what the petition states:
There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.
Despite such findings, however, media outlets such as The New York Times continue to proceed as if the global warming threat isn't a theory at all, but rather as demonstrable as gravity. Not only that, but when they are forced to admit that there are some who do disagree with such certainty, they often portray these individuals as idiots—or worse.
Take Brian Montopoli's recent interaction with CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley. On CBS's "Public Eye” blog, Montopoli describes their conversation:
Pelley's most recent report, like his first, did not pause to acknowledge global warming skeptics, instead treating the existence of global warming as an established fact. I again asked him why. "If I do an interview with Elie Wiesel,” he asks, "am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust denier?” He says his team tried hard to find a respected scientist who contradicted the prevailing opinion in the scientific community, but there was no one out there who fit that description. "This isn't about politics or pseudo-science or conspiracy theory blogs,” he says. "This is about sound science.”
Global warming skeptics equivalent to Holocaust deniers? No respected scientist disputes the manmade global warming theory? Pelley is a classic example of a biased reporter who cannot fathom that he might possibly be biased. Somewhat ironically, this ostensibly "open-minded” liberal won't even consider that an alternative viewpoint is possible.
Similarly, the Weather Channel's Heidi Cullen suggested that if any meteorologists do not agree with the manmade global warming theory, then perhaps the American Meteorological Society should give those individuals the boot. On her Weather Channel blog last December, she wrote: "If a meteorologist can't speak to the fundamental science of climate change, then maybe the AMS shouldn't give them a Seal of Approval.”
Are there exceptions to global warming bias in the media? Of course; but they seem to be a small minority. Lawrence Solomon, a columnist for Canada's Financial Post, started a series in late 2006 on global warming dissenters and deniers. In a 2007 news column, Solomon explained that when starting out, he accepted "the prevailing view that scientists overwhelmingly believe that climate change threatens the planet” and was only looking to do a few profiles on the dissenters to allow them "to have their views heard.” He was not prepared for the information that he encountered. What did he learn?
Somewhere along the way, I stopped believing that a scientific consensus exists on climate change. Certainly there is no consensus at the very top echelons of scientists—the ranks from which I have been drawing my subjects—and certainly there is no consensus among astrophysicists and other solar scientists, several of whom I have profiled.
Solomon admits that many scientists do agree with global warming theory, but he wanted the world to know that there were also some who do not; he came to that conclusion after interviewing top scientists. How unbiased. How unique.
The Right to Choose
According to a new Zogby poll on public attitudes in the U.S. toward global warming, 70 percent of Americans believe that man-made climate change is a fact. Clearly, media bias can, and does, influence our culture. The point here is not whether global warming is truly occurring, but whether the media covers the topic in a fair and complete fashion, which they do not. And if this is the case with global warming, on how many other issues is media bias influencing people's views?
Thankfully, we are becoming less and less reliant on legacy media outlets. As the internet and broadband technology leap ahead, media competition and choices for the public expand, too. And in the end, more choice just might be the answer to media bias.
Even so, bias will never be wiped out completely. Many in the news media are so imbued with their ideology that they are not even aware of their biases. Many strive for fairness but come up short. Many others do not even try. With expanding options, however, there will be more from which news consumers can pick and choose, and hopefully, balance and a well-grounded perspective will be recognized, and the truth will not be lost. •
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