PCA: How My Research Fits Within The Field

Is FoxNews.com Fair and Balanced?

Bias is prevalent in news coverage.

Despite the ideal that journalists are objective, all journalists have an opinion and, even when they are trying to be objective, their opinions influence their reporting. Deborah Howell analyzed the Washington Post and its coverage of the presidential race. In political stories from June 4 to August 15, Obama dominated overall. He had 142 stories to McCain’s 96. That balance could easily be explained away by the fact that McCain was already a national figure, known as the Maverick, and Obama was fairly unknown. However, Obama had 35 page one stories to McCain’s 13. A 3 to 1 advantage is significant in news (“Obama’s Edge”).

An examination of bias in the New York Times showed that headlines of articles for three months after the primaries mentioned Obama 96 times and McCain 70 times. To take into account that not all of a newspaper is read, these headlines were multiplied times the page number they appeared on, so a story on the third page was 1 x 1/3 for a total point value of .33. In addition, headlines were evaluated for positive and negative spin. Using this method, the totals for Obama headlines were 18.23 positive and 2.22 negative for a net of positive 16.01. Using the same method, the totals for McCain headlines were 2.16 positive, 11.3 negative, for a total of negative 9.14 in the NYT.

Even the Times crossword puzzle included Obama and left McCain out to dry. Since 2005 Obama’s name has appeared regularly in the puzzles. McCain’s had not appeared at all as of October 2008. When contacted for comment, the spokesperson said,

“The answer is obvious for anyone who does crosswords. It is because ‘Obama’ is a five-letter name that alternates vowels and consonants. … So it is much more crossword-friendly than ‘McCain,’ which is a harder word to put in a crossword. If McCain’s name was Obama, then his name would have been used many more times in crosswords.”
(Wilk)
This explanation, however, does not account for the fact that Biden has been used as an answer multiple times, referring to the then-senator, but Palin only appears as a reference to Monty Python (Wilk).

The Russians studied the election reports on the big three networks and concluded that Barack Obama had a “hidden advantage” because while more time was given to John McCain, “the material that makes up that time difference can be assessed as negative” (“CEC Monitors”).
Bias is clearly present in the news.

That bias is prevalent does not necessarily mean it is accepted. When Deborah Howell came out with her article “The Story the Campaign Pictures Tell” about the photography in the Washington Post, she found that the pictures favored Obama at just under a 5 to 3 ratio, with a gap of 44 pictures in Obama’s favor. Once this discrepancy was announced, in their own paper, the Post began to correct themselves. In the next two weeks, the gap was maintained in number but not in ratio as almost the same number of photos were run on both candidates. Clearly the Washington Post did not intend to be biased. If they had, they would not have let one of their reporters run the story. But they had been biased and when they discovered that, they attempted to correct the problem.

These studies were all conducted on newspapers. But newspaper reading has gone down, to the detriment of the newspaper publishers, while television news has remained stable since 2006 (Pew, “Audience” 4). The cable news shows draw large numbers of people from both those who get their news from various sources and those who get their news primarily from the internet. As many people now get their news online as watch one of the nightly news programs (4), which means that the reliability and credibility of online news sources is more important than ever.

FoxNews.com presents itself as a neutral news source, using slogans such as “fair and balanced” and “We report. You decide.” However, many criticize Fox saying it has a clear right-leaning bias. These critics include Slate Magazine (Plotz, Noah), Wall Street Journal (Poynter Online), the Huffington Post (Alterman), and MoveOn.org (Aronoff and Park). Based on a quick perusal of high-traffic sources, it would seem that FoxNews.com is biased. However, the anecdotal evidence is insufficient to determine whether or not FoxNews.com exhibits a political bias in its reporting.

Is Fox News, specifically FoxNews.com, really biased? Part of the impression of bias may come from the audience of the cable news show. The demographics indicate that certain kinds of people watch Fox, as opposed to CNN. The regular audience for Fox News is more likely to be Republican, 39%, than Democrat, 33%. This is actually a fairly balanced percentage for the audience compared to CNN. CNN’s audience is composed of 51% Democrats and only 18% Republicans (Pew, “Audience” 15).

According to a study of Fox News in its early years published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Fox News positively impacted Republican voting in presidential elections. When Fox News came into an area, voter turnout for Republicans increased. The study argues that 3 to 28% of viewers were convinced to vote Republican either as a “temporary learning effect for rational voters, or a permanent effect for nonrational voters subject to persuasion” (DellaVigna and Kaplan 1187). According to the study, the “Fox News Effect” indicates a right-leaning bias on the part of the news channel.

To determine whether or not FoxNews.com was “fair and balanced” or a “right wing propaganda machine” or something else entirely, I decided to go to the source. I chose to do the study in 2008 since we were in a presidential election cycle. The election campaigns had been fascinating, with a relative unknown overtaking the perceived party favorite in the Democratic primaries.

Sources

“CEC Monitors U.S. Electioneering.” Kommersant Moscow. 20 October 2008.

DellaVigna, Stefano and Ethan Kaplan. “The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122.3 (August 2007): 1187-1234.

Howell, Deborah. “Obama’s Edge in the Coverage Race.” Washington Post Online. 17 August 2008.

Howell, Deborah. “The Story the Campaign Pictures Tell.” Washington Post Online. 3 August 2008.

Pew Research Center. “Audience Segments in a Changing News Environment: Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources.” 17 August 2008.

This paper will be presented at the national conference of Popular Culture on 8 April 2009.

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