Media Bias in the 2008 Election: Letters to the Editor

by John Sides on February 25, 2010 · 5 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Media

During the 2008 presidential election we submitted letters to the editor at 100 major U.S. newspapers as part of a field experiment to test whether interest in the letter depended on which candidate the letter supported. We find, contrary to what charges of a liberal media bias would suggest, that newspapers expressed more interest in pro-McCain letters than pro-Obama letters. Further, we find that papers were most likely to be interested in letters supporting the candidate they did not endorse, a result that is consistent with the idea that editors seem to be using their gate keeping powers to allow dissenting opinions to be heard.

That is from a newly published paper by Daniel Butler and Emily Schofield. An ungated version is here.

{ 5 comments }

Eric February 26, 2010 at 1:28 am

This is really quite astounding.

beejeez February 26, 2010 at 8:34 am

Authors of this study should point out that daily newspapers on average support Republican candidates for president; it’s not as if printing pro-GOP letters represents an exercise in tolerance. 2008 just happened to be a year that publications would have trumpeted their bad judgement had they backed the Republican ticket — not that that stopped many of them. The “left-wing bias” MSM charge has always been a canard that’s the equivalent of “working the refs” in a basketball game. If the MSM look liberal to you, you are coming from a very right-wing place.

Not Marc February 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm

What’s astounding it that this passes for valid research. There is a puny sample size and scads of unmentioned subjective variables. The letter to the editor is so generic and uninteresting that all this study truly measures is how desperate the newspaper is for a particular viewpoint.

I didn’t realize it was that easy to get a letter published. I thought you had to spend several years in higher education and then start a quirky-named blog with an animal reference to get your opinion published.

Adam February 26, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Fascinating study, and a good use of field experiments. However, the results were: the pro-Obama letter hit 10 of 51, and pro-McCain was published 16 of 49. In other words, the posited effect was produced by the idiosyncratic decisions of six editorial editors. For obvious reasons, I know it would be difficult to increase the N — but I’m wary of claiming an effect here. At the very least, though, the lack of overwhelming pro-Obama bias will probably surprise some readers who buy into the liberal bias myth. So that’s good.

However, the theoretical underpinnings of the article are pretty weak. May I humbly suggest that it might be attributable to citing Howard Kurtz and David Limbaugh, rather than even one academic study of media bias?

Wayne March 2, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Beside the methodological issues, I doubt that a short Letter to the Editor is the equivalent of the much larger editorials and the editorial slant on the news that an editor wields. Including token dissent is an easy and painless way to show largess without actually making any changes.

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