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Is the media biased?

By Chris Lewis - posted Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Is the media biased? Though mainly asked of the mainstream media, such as television, radio and newspapers, this question has also been raised on On Line Opinion. One has only to read the dummy spit by Clive Hamilton when annoyed that too much exposure was given to global warming sceptics. Hence, Hamilton’s refusal to ever contribute to On Line Opinion again.

Most recently, an article How Partisan is the Press? (PDF 551KB) by Joshua S. Gans (University of Melbourne) and Andrew Leigh (ANU) received considerable criticism for methodological reasons, although the authors concluded that Australian media was “quite centrist”.

To be fair to Gans and Leigh, they acknowledge that measuring media is “empirically difficult” as “most media outlets tend to provide a greater volume of coverage to the incumbent political party than to opposition political parties”.

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There is some useful information in the Gans and Leigh article (albeit hardly surprising). For instance, editorial election endorsements strongly favoured the Coalition in the period 1996-2007 (36 of 44), as did political donations by media proprietors (3:1 in favour of the Coalition).

The major flaw of the Gans and Leigh is the extensive use of a list of 147 so-called public intellectuals. As noted by Andrew Norton (September 2, 2009), locating public intellectuals on a left-right scale based on whether they get more positive or neutral mentions from Labor or Coalition federal politicians is severely flawed, especially when Phillip Adams, Eva Cox, and Germaine Greer alone are mostly mentioned by the Coalition. In addition, Norton rightfully notes that many public intellectuals are not party partisan in their public intellectual work as their loyalties “are to a discipline, ideology, theme or issue”.

By trying to form a judgment by measuring media sources that cite public intellectuals, any conclusion is likely to be problematic. I would doubt that many political commentators or students of politics would accept such a criteria to decide whether Australia’s newspapers are generally more pro-Labor compared to radio and television which are mostly pro-Coalition.

So how better to measure media bias? Should it be measured by a comparison of media sources in terms of their bias, as attempted by Gans and Leigh in regards to their analysis of many newspaper, radio and television sources? Should it be measured with greater weight given to the media sources that provide the news to most people through radio and television? Should it measured by the choice of news options given to readers, which may include the growing influence of Internet sites such as On Line Opinion, Crikey and many others? All of these options have some merit, although determining the balance of each media source is probably the most straightforward.

However, measuring bias towards Labor and the Coalition is not that informative in intellectual terms, as attempted by Gans and Leigh. This is because Labor will mostly be deemed to be left of the Coalition on many issues in the ongoing battle between centre-left and centre-right political parties, yet individual policy issues may still trend in a certain direction despite differences between the major parties. For instance, Labor and the Coalition may offer different policy versions of what is needed to fix Australia’s hospitals, yet neither party has prevented longer waiting lists and greater budgetary difficulties for public medical facilities. Whether the perception is valid or not, many believe that both Labor and the Coalition have moved to the right in recent decades.

On the other hand, comparing bias of media reporting towards the major parties on health may underestimate the role played by the media in terms of any policy outcome. For instance, when Labor sought to attack the Coalition over Medicare in 2003 and 2004, the Coalition responded by introducing the Medicare Safety Net and other measures that in turn helped increase bulk-billing rates.

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Therefore, it may be more sensible for a researcher to answer questions of media bias on an issue-by-issue basis in terms of policy direction rather than whether Labor or the Coalition was favoured. For instance, how many articles support freer trade or more industry protection, how many supported higher or less taxation or other related reform, how many supported public versus private health and education, and so on? Media scrutiny can only be enhanced by measuring the quality of the articles with academics (or whoever) measuring the bias and balance of articles in response to an individual issue over time.

To do this, research must go much further than what Gans and Leigh did with their examination of front-page political stories published in nine newspapers during the 2004 election campaign (August 29 to October 9, 2004). Given that an evaluation of all articles would be very time consuming and expensive, it may be more sensible to target editorials and opinion pages where a view is offered rather than scrutiny of all articles with many just reporting the news.

Judging media bias on an issue-by-issue basis may also better reflect the eclectic views of Australian today when compared to the past when a greater proportion of voters were loyal to the same party.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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