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Media Bias in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election and the Effect of the Blogosphere

Prologue

This is a research paper I wrote this spring regarding Media Bias during the Election of 2008 for a writing class in school.  I haven’t been able to post it until after I received my grade for the class.  I’m primarily publishing this just for sake of publishing it.  My hope is that for nothing else you enjoy it.  Bibliography has been included, and I would like to thank RS contributors and posters for their influence on the scope of the subject.

Introduction

Old media, such as widely circulated newsprint, journals and publications, as well as television and radio broadcasted network news; frame the direction of the public debate regarding presidential elections. The blogosphere is also an important factor as a new media format that utilizes social networks on the web that cater to web-loggers, freelance writers, or even novice journalists. This domain of writing and broadcast has become more popular to younger generations and is an established medium of alternative media to forms of old media.

Both old and new media outlets seem content obfuscating lines of journalistic integrity by accepting bias as a state of normalcy when reporting information, effectively giving direction to the public’s perceptions of presidential candidates. One might ask, ‘Does objectivity matter when reporting on subjects that are as polarizing as U.S. presidential politics?’ Hunter S. Thompson, a prominent gonzo journalist said in an interview with The Atlantic, “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.” (Thompson, 1997)  Clearly the theory that objectivity promotes corruption is contrasted by the obtuse assumption that we haven’t had objectivity in media since Nixon.  Imagine the kind of corruption we might see if bias was clearly admitted and dismissed. The object of this research paper will attempt to make the case that media bias did indeed have a gross effect on the 2008 presidential election cycle. In turn this effect is perilous in terms of maintaining the freedom of our republic.

Defining Media Bias in a U.S. Presidential Election

Bias in the media whether real or perceived tends to be more systemic wherein events and subjects are selected for coverage by agenda and purpose. Media bias is the abject representation and/or framing of an article by a journalist regardless of tone where an absence of objectivity is detected. Sometimes this bias is individually created by a journalist. Sometimes it is the cause of editorial work that prevents the unprejudiced consideration of subjects related to political and social issues. Admittedly, there are many limitations in journalism that prevent total objectivity, which is why bias is more the complaint of subjective writing rather than objective. However, in our free society, the United States, we experience freedom of the press that offers a free market for journalists to present both their writing and opinion. Journalists are often employed or syndicated and in order to get published they must write the types of articles that editors and news outlets desire to publish.

The Society of Professional Journalists states,

The duty of the journalist is to further [public enlightenment] by seeking truth and providing a fair and  comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with throroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. (Society of Professional Journalists)

Examples of the device of bias in journalism are substantiated when one detects the following: stereotypes, loaded language, double standards in juxtaposition, unchallenged assumptions, or when stories on important issues are omitted. When journalists do not disclaim a writing as opinion it is assumed they are writing an objective and comprehensive article, and when devices of bias are employed and detected in said article it becomes an issue of journalistic integrity and is labeled as bias.

Studies Conducted on Media Bias in U.S. Presidential Elections Prior to 2008

A working paper by DellaVigna and Kaplan published in 2006 titled, “The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting” measuring the effects of Fox News on voters suggests that

The impact of Fox News on the two-party vote share in 2000 is estimated to be 0.15 to 0.2 percentage points, 200,000 votes nation-wide. While this vote shift is small compared to the 3.5 percentage point shift in our sample between 1996 and 2000, it is still likely to have been decisive in the close presidential 2000 elections. (DellaVigna & Kaplan, 2006)

It is not clearly implied from this statement that their study concluded that Fox News Channel was able to persuade enough voters in Florida counties with narrow margins in voting results that favored George W. Bush over opponent Al Gore. It is also not implied how one should quantify ‘likely to have been decisive’ considering that only a handful of counties in Florida determined the outcome of the election. Another way to describe the “Fox News Effect” is just a little under two-tenths of a percent of the total voter shift from 1996 to 2000 nationwide were swayed by FoxNews. Given that the study doesn’t explain that the numbers are simply an assumed correlative statistic and cannot be directly tied to Fox News and the voters that supposedly should have voted for Gore, I believe “possible to have been decisive” would have been a more accurate description than “likely to have been decisive”.

According to the report, “A Measure of Media Bias” Fox News Channel is centrist. This report was cited by DellaVigna and Kaplan although they suggested Fox News was decidedly right-minded. A Measure of Media Bias reads as follows:

Fox News’ Special Report is approximately one point more centrist than ABC’s World News Tonight (with Peter Jennings) or NBC’s Nightly News (with Tom Brokaw). In neither case is the difference statistically significant… (In fact, it would be slanted slightly left by 0.4 ADA points.) (Groseclose & Milyo, 2005)

Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo, authors of A Measure of Media Bias conducted their study to measure media bias based on the ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) scores of both politicians and media outlets relative to the think-tanks they cite. Their method is a quantitative approach to measuring the slant of major media outlets to create a comparative scale. The paper outlines the net result in the introduction: “Our results show a strong liberal bias… These findings refer strictly to the news stories of the outlets.” (Groseclose & Milyo, 2005)

In March of 2008 Alan Gerber, Dean Karlan, and Daniel Bergan released a report titled “Does the Media Matter?” that demonstrates “the results of a natural field experiment to measure the effect of political news content on political behavior and opinions.” (Gerber, Karlan, & Bergan, 2008) In this study they offer free subscriptions to The Washington Times and The Washington Post, both of which were considered in A Measure of Media Bias previously discussed. In the introduction to their report they describe The Washington Times as “conservative” and The Washington Post as “more liberal” citing Groseclose and Milyo (2005) as the reasoning behind these arbitrary labels. Oddly enough, A Measure of Media Bias states that The Washington Times was left of the average member of Congress. This would suggest that at best The Washington Times is centrist. Does the Media Matter? states that:

In our experiment, we find no effect of receiving either paper on knowledge of political events or stated opinions on those events, and on turnout in the 2005 Gubernatorial election. However, receiving either paper led to more support to the democrat candidate, suggesting that median slant mattered less in this case than exposure to media. (Gerber 2008)

One might draw the conclusion that this study is better at practicing bias than the outlets that are measured for effects on the voting population.

2008 Studies Regarding Media Behavior by Pew Research Center

Pew research center released results of a survey in March 2008 conducted between Sept. 17, 2007 and Dec. 3, 2007 interviewing journalists, editors, sr. editors and producers, and executives from national, local, and internet markets. The question of interest is “IDEOL How would you describe your political thinking. Would you say you are:” (Center for the People and the Press a project of the Pew Research Center, 2008) Respondents were given the choices of very liberal, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, and don’t know/refused. Interestingly 53% of journalists in national markets considered themselves moderate, 58% moderate for local journalists, and 46% for internet journalists. More significantly combining very liberal and liberal totals are 32% nationally, 23% locally, and 39% by internet. Combining conservative and very conservative totals are 8% nationally, 14% locally, and 9% by internet. Brent Baker of Newsbusters.org reporting on this survey rightfully titles his article, “Four Times More Journalists Identify as Liberal Than Conservative” and opines, “Only 19 percent of the public consider themselves liberal. And it’s not much of a leap to presume many of the 53 percent who describe themselves as ‘moderate’ are really quite liberal.” (Baker, 2008)

Pew research center for Excellence in Journalism generated a report labeled Winning the Media Campaign which is based on data collected between Sept 8, 2008 and October 16, 2008 regarding negative, neutral, and positive story counts to quantify the tone of coverage for perceived imbalance in 2008 campaign coverage. Most notably from this study, data shows that Obama received more coverage than McCain. Of that coverage, for every 1.4 positive stories published, there was 1 story with negative tone, whereas roughly estimated, every positive story for McCain resulted in 3.5 stories that were published with negative tone. As for the vice-presidential candidates the report states “[Palin] also received less than half the coverage of either presidential nominee, though about triple that of her vice presidential counterpart, Joe Biden.” (Winning the Media Campaign: How the Press Reported the 2008 Presidential General Election, 2008) The report expounds on Joe’s coverage:

Joe Biden was nearly the invisible man. His [campaign] had just one large moment, the vice presidential debate, which also offered his only positive or neutral contribution. Aside from that week, the limited coverage he did receive was far more negative than Palin’s, and nearly as negative as McCain’s. (Winning the Media Campaign: How the Press Reported the 2008 Presidential General Election, 2008)

The findings in this report could not conclusively determine if the media was pro-Obama. “Is there some element in these numbers that reflects a rooting by journalists for Obama and against McCain, unconscious or otherwise? The data does not provide conclusive answers.” (Winning the Media Campaign: How the Press Reported the 2008 Presidential General Election, 2008) The data may not reflect a conclusive pro-Obama agenda by the media as it is not part of the scope of the statistical analysis for the report. However, it is clear that Obama was favored. PEW suggests that “winning in politics begat winning coverage,” which is a reflection that the majority of reporting being measured is related to horse race articles focusing on strategy, tactics and polling rather than policy stance on issues.

Bias in the Media in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election

For the past two years, several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space called JournoList.” (Calderone, 2009) As posited by Calderone in the title of his article “JournoList: Inside the Echo Chamber,” the very implication of a cabal of journalists is the essence of group-think reporting. Members of the “JList” often use the communication channel to sound board ideas and express opinion in private debate. There may be nothing illegal or sinister about having a private forum, nor should it be assumed that this group is somehow engaged in message dissemination by agenda. However, issues of group-think arise as is evidenced according to “JLister Eric Alterman, The Nation writer and CUNY professor, said he’s seen discussions that start on the list, seep into the world beyond.” (Calderone, 2009)

The medium of news casting, opinion, and analysis in new media has opened a potentially endless resource market for consumers to find the information for what they are looking. Sometimes journalists of old and mainstream media become the consumers themselves. In the case of “A Blogger, a Baby, a Cry of Concern,” Howard Kurtz reports on the fabricated story that Palin’s youngest son Trig was actually the son of her eldest daughter Bristol. The story originated with an anonymous member of DailyKos.com a blog forum for liberal minded citizen-journalists. All is well that ends well as Kurtz puts it, “While the Web can serve as an incubator for unsubstantiated charges, it also tends to be self-correcting. Another Daily Kos contributor late Sunday unearthed a photo from earlier this year in which the governor looks quite pregnant.” (Kurtz, 2008) The fact that this story lead for over a 72 hour news cycle is an inkling of the effects of an anonymous blogger. Just one blogger can create a yellow journalism moment for old media and another blogger can clear the air. One might be inclined to ask where was the truth seeking media on that one?

Allegations abound in the blogosphere surrounding the media’s intentional dismissal of journalistic probing into Obama’s relationships with Bill Ayers (former domestic terrorist), ACORN (a radical left political urban community organization), Franklin Raines (failed CEO of private mortgage firm, Fannie Mae), Jeremiah Wright (Obama’s racially charged christian preacher of 20 plus years), or Tony Rezko (Real Estate Investor convicted of imbezzlement), etc. Yet the major media outlets spent many days probing every corner of the town of Wasilla Alaska in the hunt for the next Palin article. The alleged troopergate scandal, Bristol ‘s teen pregnancy, Palin’s supposed misunderstanding of the Bush Doctrine or foreign policy relating to Russia; alleged book banning as mayor; cutting funds for special needs children as govenor; Palin’s supposed gaffe in the senatorial duties of the vice president during the VP debate; are all examples of yellow journalism that was part of the regulated news cycle during the campaign. Editors of the Katie Couric interview went to the trouble of omitting key points from Palin during the interview in such a way as to take Palin completely out of context to make her look like a rube when facing the media. Endless overtures of concerns expressed by journalists by the oft used cliché, “one heartbeat away from the presidency” shows an impressive assumption that Palin is not ready for the role based on the misrepresentation of her knowlegde, views, and record of foreign policy, energy independence, and political integrity in the event of a McCain heart attack. Oddly enough the very same issues of Obama’s personal ties to imbezzlers, racists, domestic terrorists, and lack of foreign policy experience never resulted in inquiry but barely by mention to downplay serious implications. In either case facts should be reported and not distorted. Neither should they be ignored by political expedience for candidate preference.

Public perception is formed by the inquiry and reporting from the media and the responses of the candidates in presidential elections. The media is instrumental in framing narrative, storylines, candidate positions on policy (rather than policy issues alone), and the public perception of character for the candidates and their associations. This is important to understand why bias is so instrumental in changing the outcome of an election. As such it is incumbent upon the media to report the truth objectively or to label analysis as opinion to ensure a free republic and a free press that seeks the truth from any source. The New York Times understands this and yet acted with personal interest as they allegedly spiked a story in late October that showed irrefutable evidence of ACORN’s personal ties to Obama, citing the reason “it was a game changer” according to The New York Times employee and author of the expose Stephanie Strom. (Huston, 2009)

The final result in the popular vote was a mere 7% point difference between Obama and McCain, more specifically Obama’s 69,456,897 votes to McCain’s 59,934,814 votes. (Public Disclosure Division of FEC 2009) However the electorates representing the population in the Electoral College highly favored Obama in high density populations where old media has its largest market share. It is quite possible that the measure of bias and tones from the most negative to the most positive are all relative and only perceived. Bias does in fact exist systematically in both old and new media. When the media sways public perception through misinformation, the freedom of an informed republic is threatened. The consumers may speak truth to bias.

Conclusion

In closing a Rasmussen report with a significant analysis the day of the election: “As the presidential campaign comes to a close, a majority of voters (51%) say most reporters have tried to help Barack Obama win the presidency. Just seven percent (7%) think they tried to help John McCain.” (Rasmussen Reports, 2008) Not only a majority of voters believed the media was pro-Obama, but a largely significant difference of perceived pro-candidate bias exists in comparison to pro-McCain media detection.  The integrity gap comes from an outright denial rather than a denunciation of bias when it is clearly perceived by the consumers at large.  Bias certainly affected the 2008 U.S. Presidential election and will likely continue to affect U.S. presidential elections in the future.

Bibliography

Baker, B. (2008, March 19). Four Times More Journalists Identify as Liberal Than Conservative. Retrieved March 31, 2009, from Newsbusters.org: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/brent-baker/2008/03/19/four-times-more-journalists-identify-liberal-conservative

Calderone, M. (2009, March 17). Politico. Retrieved March 31, 2009, from Politico.com: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0309/20086.html

Center for the People and the Press a project of the Pew Research Center. (2008, March 17). 2007 SURVEY OF JOURNALISTS Final Topline. Retrieved February 23, 2009, from Stateofthemedia.com: http://www.stateofthemedia.com/2008/Journalists%20topline.pdf

DellaVigna, S., & Kaplan, E. (2006). The Fox News effect: Media Bias and Voting. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

FEC Office of Communications, Public Disclosure Division. (2009). 2008 OFFICIAL PRESIDENTIAL GENERAL ELECTION RESULTS. Washington, D.C.: Federal Election Commision.

Gerber, A., Karlan, D., & Bergan, D. (2008). Does the Media Matter? A Field Experiment Measuring the Effect of Newspapers on Voting Behavior and Political Opinions. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale University.

Groseclose, T., & Milyo, J. (2005). A Measure of Media Bias. Quarterly Journal of Economics , CXX (4), 1191-1237.

Huston, W. T. (2009, March 31). NYTimes Killed Story on Crooked Obama Donor. Retrieved March 31, 2009, from Newsbusters.org: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/warner-todd-huston/2009/03/31/nytimes-killed-story-crooked-obama-donor

Kurtz, H. (2008, September 2). A blogger, a baby, a cry of concern. Washington Post , p. A22.

Rasmussen Reports. (2008, November 4). Majority Say Reporters Tried To Help Obama. Retrieved March 14, 2009, from Rassmussen Reports: http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/election_20082/2008_presidential_election/majority_say_reporters_tried_to_help_obama

Society of Professional Journalists. (n.d.). Code of Ethics. Retrieved January 13, 2009, from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Thompson, H. S. (1997, August 26). Writing on the Wall. (M. Haun, Interviewer)

(2008). Winning the Media Campaign: How the Press Reported the 2008 Presidential General Election. Washington, D.C.: The Project for Excellence in Journalism, a project of the Pew Research Center.

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