Political scientist Adam Schiffer unpacks the bias charge against the media.
by Julie Engebretson
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Topics: Research & Discovery, Schieffer College of Communication
by Julie Engebretson
The issue of media bias has interested Adam Schiffer since high school, when he penned a letter to the editor of his hometown newspaper.
TCU political science professor Adam Schiffer said people are looking for bias in the wrong places. Photo by Jeff McWhorter
“I was responding to someone who had accused the press of being liberal,” the associate professor of political science said. “And I’d said, ‘No, in this case, there is actually an alternative explanation,’ which, in a nutshell, is the basis of my book.”
Published in summer 2017, Evaluating Media Bias (Rowman & Littlefield) provides a framework for understanding the charged topic.
“I argue that people are looking for bias in the wrong places,” Schiffer said. “The book, like my Media and Politics class I’ve taught for 15 years, is organized around two ideas: that partisan-bias charges tend to be overblown, and also that citizens should be more concerned with other types of media bias, or the ‘real biases’ as I call them, because these are more important than any left or right slant.”
One such “real bias” is the failure of the media to place facts, figures and events within the context of a broader narrative. Others refer to a tendency to report on the game of politics rather than the substance of policy and its material consequences.
“Instead of telling you what the candidates are going to do if elected, they focus on who’s ahead in the polls and their strategies and gaffes,” Schiffer said.
Because the professor began researching the book well before the 2016 presidential election, he could not have known then just how pertinent the topic of media bias would become. Nor could he have foreseen how the decades-old liberal-bias charge against the American news media would metastasize: Today’s “fake news” accusations call into question the integrity of the Fourth Estate, fueling what Vox.com contributor David Roberts referred to in a November 2017 think piece as an “epistemic breach” in America.
“The charges of media bias have been weaponized in a way that we haven’t seen before,” Schiffer said. “They’re being used to undermine the entire business of holding the government accountable. And along those lines, I think there is a lot of effort to try to undermine all of the various institutions — whether it’s the media, universities, career civil servants, anyone who’s charged with being the gatekeepers of fact, of reality. There has been a wholesale effort to cast them as partisan actors.”
While researching Evaluating Media Bias, Schiffer recruited the help of several undergraduate students. Kristy Cole ’18, a double major in political science and strategic communication, assisted Schiffer with studying coverage of the Affordable Care Act. She spent six months analyzing broadcast transcripts from three major television networks.
Photo by Getty Images © Petrovich9
“Focusing only on coverage surrounding the Affordable Care Act, I reviewed all of these transcripts and coded every source referenced in each broadcast using a numeric system that Dr. Schiffer had created,” Cole said. “Any time an outside source was utilized in the broadcast, it was coded by a number, which allowed Dr. Schiffer to analyze which types of sources were used by which networks to determine whether media bias might be present.”
The category “government official,” for instance, was further subcategorized according to titles such as “governor” or “senator.” A third numeral accounted for party identification — Republican, Democrat or independent.
“I kind of went in with a hypothesis about what the most common source would be,” Cole said. “But I was surprised! I won’t tell because I want people to read Dr. Schiffer’s book to find out.”
Schiffer did offer a few essential breadcrumbs for people who are suspicious about media bias.
“The first thing that a viewer should understand is that the traditional outlets — CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC — they generally get things right,” Schiffer said. “Whatever criticism you want to level at them … they generally get the facts right.”
Journalism’s primary obligation to the truth, Schiffer said, means that the media are always motivated to get facts correct, even above other incentives such as solvency or social media visibility.
“Understand that any media outlet’s main currency is trust and legitimacy, and regardless of whatever else motivates them — like making money or telling a good story — they always have the incentive to get it right,” Schiffer said. “There are real shortcomings by the news media as detailed in my book — all the ways the media fall short of giving people the news they need to be informed citizens. But just flat-out lying, flat-out reporting falsehoods simply isn’t one of them.”
Your comments are welcome
I would be the first to argue for more reporting on policy and its consequences. But, that takes research time and analysis by the reporters and takes space in the paper or time on tv. It also requires an audience willing make an effort to listen and/or read and try to understand the analysis. Today, the general public has become a custom to sound bites. It does not want to do the hard thinking required to understand complicated issues.
As long as you have no direct experience with anything the media is completely believable, otherwise it is completely irrelevant.
Mainstream media “generally” gets things right…
Except for when they don’t.
Just one example below:
Journalists getting fired at CNN…means they definitely got it wrong…
And another firing at ABC/ Oops! Brian ROSS made another mistake before reporting.
And there are many many more retracted stories from all mainstream media outlets.
TCU definitely leans to the left as do the vast majority of most universities these days (if they believe mainstream media “generally gets it right”).
Our young people get fed a lot of false material…
Seems like when I was in college/ Universities were much more NEUTRAL….and free speech alive and well.
Not impressed by this article.
I took Dr. Schiffer’s Media and Politics class 13 years ago… and it’s never been more relevant. Keep up the great work, Adam!
How do you analyze/compare news that is mentioned on one network, but ignored on another? Likewise, you can list how much time is devoted to a story on each network to show their bias, from zero to several minutes. A liberal justifying liberal bias, but I will check it out next time I’m at B & N.
To believe the media is more right than wrong. More factual than not. Shows a bias in and of itself.
When the tops news face of a network is fired for making up news. There is a problem.
When a political figure out and out lies and not one media source says a word there is a problem.
When one party is guilty under the accusations and the other party is not guilty even after the verdict is read. There is a problem.
We have people here claiming there is bias, or as the president would call it, “fake news.” But what is fake news, really?
I look at news coverage, and I don’t see much in the way of “news” that seems made up. What’s reported is what did happen or what someone said.
Now occasionally you get a story that’s inaccurate or with a lot of speculation, but usually that’s a story that’s quite new and developing rapidly (“While waiting for a report on the hostage situation, we have an expert here to speak about what the police may do. . .”), or in rare cases, that something just got in wrong or even someone sent in fraudulent information that wasn’t checked properly (see John Kerry).
You will also get stories in which the reporter is not familiar with what they are talking about. As a rail enthusiast, I could only groan when wire news reports said that then president-elect Barack Obama made part of his journey to the inaugural in a “caboose.” That “caboose” was a long, heavy, and very luxurious private railroad car originally used by rail executives! That’s a piece of equipment far fancier than any portable office for a conductor on a freight train!
Others may claim the problem isn’t that the news is inaccurate, but rather that another story, or perhaps another side of the story, should have been told and wasn’t.
None of this qualifies as fake news though, as none of it was made up by the media outlets in question.
So, what IS fake news?
Would someone here comment on what makes up fake news?
I look at various news stories, and I don’t see much in the way of “news” that seems made up. What’s reported is what did happen or what someone said.
Then there are the stories with technical inaccuracies. This is because the reporter is on a deadline and may not know the subject as well as he should. As a rail enthusiast, an example I can cite is how then president-elect Barack Obama, recalling Lincoln, made part of his trip to Washington by train, riding in a “caboose.” Well, if that’s a caboose, it’s the longest, heaviest, and fanciest one ever built–the car was a privately owned office car, one that would have been used by railroad executives, their counterpart to the corporate jet of today!!
A number of factors give rise to those that draw a conclusion about bias “in the news”. First, is the misconception that a “news program” or “news station” is in fact reporting the news all the time. The news is a set of verifiable facts (e.g. multiple sources). Reporting the news is reporting those facts in the context of other facts before and after the incident (the house burned to the ground in part due to the snowy road conditions that prevented fire fighters from arriving on scene in a more timely fashion).
What is troubling is the practice of mixing opinion with news, or the more subtle “spin” of choosing certain phrases or wording to skew the impression of what the facts actually mean. Some of this is natural human reaction to circumstances surrounding the facts – the shock of a horrible accident may lead to an expression of empathy for the victims, but that expression of empathy is not news.
What is even more troubling is the practice of presenting one’s opinion and interpretation of the news as fact, and doing it in the context of a “news program” in such a way that people willing to consumer sound bites start to believe the opinion is the accurate characterization of the factual circumstances.
Sean Hannity has specifically said he is not reporting the news, yet he wants every person watching his show to believe that he is honestly reporting the facts and has the most accurate interpretation of motives and predicted results from those facts. He mocks those that question his view, and certainly makes no secret of how the facts support his view. That does not make his view incorrect. What it does do is “confuse” those that cannot take the time to look at the facts independent of his characterization . The exact same thing – opinion presented as fact – on CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets. The “energy” of these opinion-based presentations fires up the viewer, AND confirms the viewer’s bias. It is why you have loyal watchers of one network or another.
It is unfortunate that many younger adults today have not experienced the delivery of news via print and how that media made clear distinctions in opinion and news – though even print media in the past would use some of the subtle word and phrase techniques to tint the view of a story filled with facts.
Another piece missing from many news consumers if the experience of MAGAZINE articles. These articles typically provided the depth of context necessary to consumer facts and draw one’s own conclusions. The better the writer and researcher, the more likely that the same article would elicit thoughtful perceptions from the reader – again, this is not to say that editors and writers in magazines could or would completely prevent their “bias” from becoming a part of the coverage.
The point made in another post is pertinent – people have become accustomed to “sound bites” and they use that limited information to form their own opinions and conclusions. Unless we have people willing to spend the effort to consumer reported facts and filter opinion (or balance opinion from different sources), then we cannot hope to have folks make policy choices for themselves and their representative government in a fashion that moves to the greater good as opposed to the tribal benefit system.
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