Is there a liberal bias among US newspapers?

by david_park on February 5, 2008 · 4 comments

in Blogs

We’ve all heard about the liberal bias in the media, but Kevin Quinn (Harvard) and Daniel Ho (Stanford Law School) actually attempt to quantify this bias. Here’s how they do it according to their abstract:

Although central to understanding the role of the media, few quantitative measures of the political positions of media exist. We amass a new, large-scale dataset to shed light on this question. Collecting and classifying over 1500 editorials adopted by 25 major U.S. newspapers on 495 Supreme Court cases from 1994-2004, we apply an item response theoretic approach to place newspapers on a substantively meaningful and long validated scale of political preferences. Our results provide significant insights into the study of the media. We show that 18 of the 25 papers are more likely to the left of the median Justice for this period, but also considerable evidence that this may be an artifact of the liberalness of urban, elite, high circulation papers.

Here’s a ranking of justices and newspaper on the same scale and also the ranking of newspapers.


Here’s a link to the paper (ungated).


Robert L. February 5, 2008 at 5:58 pm

The study is very interesting but one axis label is misleading. If you want to talk about conservative ideology, as distinct from Republican or neo-con ideology, the only two on the court that are close to being conservative are Thomas and Scalia. By this measure, almost all the papers are liberal and the New York Times, LA Times, and San Francisco Chronicle are extremely liberal, which is pretty much what conservatives have been insisting all along.

Jay Livingston February 6, 2008 at 7:48 am

The paper concludes that the newspapers are to the left of the median justice. The authors’ frame this as the press being liberal. It is equally accurate (if not more so) to conclude that the Court is conservative.

Why not call this post, “Is there a conservative bias on the Court”?

Barry February 7, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Last I heard, 7 of 9 justices were GOP. That suggests that the SCOTUS is not a good measure of the media position of the country. Of the ruling elite, perhaps.

John in Michigan, USA February 8, 2008 at 1:55 am

@Barry: “7 of 9 justices were GOP”

No, justices do not have a political party affiliation.

Besides, of the seven who were appointed by a GOP President, four of them (Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, and Thomas) were confirmed by a Democratic Senate. Indeed, one of these, Stevens, is on the far left of the scale. Of the two that were appointed by a Democratic President, all were confirmed by a Democratic Senate, and none of them are on the far right of the scale.

So even by your own, superficial criteria, it is highly unlikely the SCOTUS as a whole is right of center.

@Barry and Jay:

On a less superficial level, the study attempts to “place newspapers [and justices] on a substantively meaningful and long validated scale of political preferences”. This implies that the study authors have done their best to scientifically place the papers and justices on what they consider to be a scale that fairly reflects the American political spectrum. You may disagree with the authors, but unless you can find a specific fault with their scale or ranking, your complaint tells us more about your political preferences than it does about the study.

Even if you claim that the SCOTUS is conservative, it doesn’t disprove that the media are liberal. If the media were not liberal, they would tend to cluster near the center of the scale, rather than towards the left.

The study’s main finding is that the papers have a leftward bias as compared to the Justices, but they also appear to have a leftward bias as compared to the objective scale. Like good scientists, they point out a possible weakness of their finding, that “this may be an artifact of the liberalness of urban, elite, high circulation papers”, however, I do not consider this a weakness in the study. Due to both their reputations and their high circulations, these papers are the ones that matter most in judging the bias of the media.

If the study had included a measurement of newspaper influence (based perhaps on circulation, and on the number of times the newspaper has editorials cited by other media, which could be determined by database analysis), I suspect the bias would be even more apparent, since (with the exception of the WSJ — Wall St Journal) the most influential newspapers (particularly the NY Times and the LA Times) are biased towards the left.

Finally, since the study only looked at editorials, it doesn’t consider the AP (Associated Press) which is where the small newspapers, and many of the large ones, get most of their non-local content. The AP has recently announced the debut of “accountability journalism”, which in effect means they will be mingling analysis (i.e. editorial content) in their news articles. So far, they seem far more critical of current Republican candidates than of current Democratic candidates. If the AP’s “accountability journalism” continues this way, and if the newspapers that use the AP continue to use them, the leftward bias may be getting worse.

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