Media Bias, Political Science, and the Tea Party

Washington Times, Sept. 4:

Academics Dub Tea Partyers Devout, Racist

Washington Post, Sept. 10:

What the Tea Party Is—And Isn’t

The former, written by Stephen Dinan, and the latter, written by Dan Balz, are about the same set of papers presented at the recent meeting of the American Political Science Association.  But Dinan and Balz describe the papers differently.  Take this paper by Alan Abramowitz.  Here is Dinan:

In another paper, Alan I. Abramowitz, a professor at Emory University, crunched the numbers from the American National Election Studies’ October 2010 pre-election survey and drew up a portrait of tea party voters that found they are more likely than other Republicans to be registered to vote, to have contacted a public official or to have donated to a campaign. They also are generally older, wealthier and more likely to be evangelical.

…Mr. Abramowitz also said they were more likely to harbor racial resentment, which he judged based on their answers to questions such as whether blacks could succeed as well as whites if they “would only try harder,” and whether they agreed with the statement that Irish, Italians and Jews overcame prejudice and “blacks should do the same without any special favors.”

Mr. Abramowitz said tea party supporters were substantially more likely than other voters to question how much effort black Americans are making to advance themselves, versus being held back by social factors.

“Tea Party supporters displayed high levels of racial resentment and held very negative opinions about President Obama, compared with the rest of the public and even other Republicans,” Mr. Abramowitz wrote. “In a multivariate analysis, racial resentment and dislike of Barack Obama, along with conservatism, emerged as the most important factors contributing to support for the Tea Party movement.”

And here is Balz:
That the tea party sprang to life during Obama’s presidency should have been less surprising than it was. According to Alan Abramowitz of Emory University, “The tea party movement can best be understood in the context of the long-term growth of partisan-ideological polarization within the American electorate and especially the growing conservatism of the activist base in the Republican Party.”

Over the past three decades, the size of the base within the party has grown significantly. At the same time, those activists were becoming more and more conservative in their views — and more and more hostile in their evaluations of the opposing party. When these activists were asked to rate Democratic presidential candidates on a thermometer scale of 1 to 100, the average fell “from a lukewarm 42 degrees in the late 1960s to a very chilly 26 degrees in the 2000s,” Abramowitz said.

Abramowitz notes that they are also much more conservative than the electorate at large and more conservative than Republicans who are not supporters of the movement. They are also more likely to have engaged in political activity — such as attending a rally, contacting an elected official — beyond simply voting. Almost nine in 10 tea party sympathizers identify with the Republican Party compared with 32 percent of non-supporters.

Both (Gary) Jacobson and Abramowitz also say that those who support the tea party movement show higher levels of racial resentment than do non-supporters and that they were more likely to say they disliked Obama.

There is a similar divergence in their discussion of this paper by Gary Jacobson.

Since we’ve been discussing media bias of late, and since this example concerned political science research, I thought it relevant.  There’s nothing categorically “wrong” in either article.  Abramowitz and Jacobson do use a measure of “racial resentment” to show that Tea Party supporters have higher levels of resentment than others.  At the same time, both are trying to situate the Tea Party in broader political currents that are not entirely about race, and in particular the partisan polarization that Abramowitz references.  Dinan focuses more on race.  Balz focuses more on partisan polarization.

As I’ve written before, I typically don’t believe strong claims about media bias, mainly because good systematic evidence of bias is in very short supply.  But this, to me, is what media bias looks like when it exists: subtle decisions about emphasis.

And as for political science and the Tea Party, my sense of the research is that racial resentment is one theme but by far not the dominant theme.  As Abramowitz notes, it is their general conservatism and their political activism that makes Tea Party identifiers politically relevant.  For discussion of their relevance to election outcomes and congressional voting behavior, see this paper by Jon Bond, Richard Fleisher, and Nathan Ilderton, as well as the research discussed in my earlier post.


14 Responses to Media Bias, Political Science, and the Tea Party

  1. Andrew Gelman September 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm #


    You write, “this, to me, is what media bias looks like when it exists: subtle decisions about emphasis.”

    Have you ever watched Fox News? War on Christmas etc? This is not “subtle decisions about emphasis.”

    I agree that media bias is complicated (as I’ve written in my posts here), and I think that liberal media bias and conservative bias have different characteristic forms (at least in the U.S.). But I think you’re being way too moderate by referring to it as “subtle decisions about emphasis.” There’s some big-time bias out there.

  2. John Sides September 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    Andy: I certainly could qualify a bit further: for the vast majority of news organizations, the presence of “bias” in their reporting tends to involve decisions (conscious or unconscious) about emphasis.

  3. Andrew Gelman September 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm #


    Maybe so—and I agree that the “emphasis” framework makes sense for considering how news media report economic news, political scandals, etc. But consider two big exceptions:

    Fox News, which creates stories from thin air. They didn’t just emphasize the War on Christmas, they pretty much created it, right?

    Mainstream news organizations in their “investigative” mode, in which the news organization picks a topic and follows up on it deeply. Again, much of the decision making here would seem to be in what topics they pick. If you decide that you’re going to investigate waste in the Pentagon, or corruption in privatized prisons, or incompetence in the public schools, or whatever, you’ll probably find something! The bias comes in at the beginning, when you decide what to investigate.

    These two special cases seem to me to be important in considering media bias.

  4. anonymous coward September 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Andrew, John is talking about news organizations, and {Fox News}∉ {news organizations}.

    • Andrew Gelman September 12, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

      Cool! I’ve never seen that pitchfork-like symbol ∉ in a blog comment before.

  5. Bryan Gervais September 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    The issue at hand, I think, is beyond media bias, but how scholars–particularly political scientists–hope to have findings relayed to the general populace while relying on the popular media as a vehicle to do so. Both articles have agendas, and they use (manipulate?) the findings presented in the research to advance those agendas. Having read each of these papers, The Post article, in my opinion, seems to capture the essence of the research better. But it is not perfect. Is not the solution to ensuring scholarly findings are properly interpreted for the public a more direct relationship between academics and the public? I think (or hope) that a proliferation of blogs like The Monkeycage which allow scholars to cut out the “middleman” and provide concise summaries of findings for popular audiences would benefit both–academics are less likely to be demonized when findings are misrepresented (see the comments section in the Dinan piece) and the public will have access to interpretations directly from the source, without being misled about its purpose, conclusions, or intentions.

  6. Brad September 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    Am I missing something here? Both pieces seem really fair with regard to the Tea Party? I agree that the two pieces emphasized different parts of the research, but I don’t think either showed much bias one way or the other.

    To wit, the Washington Times, which is normally an extreme right-wing paper, was remarkably fair in describing research critical of the Tea Party.

    Can someone lay out for me more specifically where one or the other piece is biased?

  7. Michael September 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    Isn’t the bias story here that based on the leanings of the publications in question you would expect the articles to actually be in the opposite papers? It is not often you hear of the Washington Times leaning left and the Washington Post leaning right, although I find the WaPo excerpt to read as very neutral.

    Also, even if the difference is emphasis, isn’t the finding about racial resentment actually sort of a big deal? We pride ourselves on being a free and equal society and our current president, who is experiencing a lot of extreme opposition, is black. Seems like an academic connection to racial resentment is worth talking about if the evidence exists, and apparently it does.

  8. Michael D. September 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    This is an excellent example of how the presentation and subtle framing of research drives interpretation. Researchers always have the first crack at the presentation of their own findings and as such they are responsible for the first “taints” that enter the interpretation of those findings. We decide the questions to ask and which measures to use to get at concepts. Here racial resentment (loaded term) is measured using questions which could easily be tapping into a respondents feelings regarding the responsibility of all individuals to be self reliant and self sufficient and yet it is interpreted only with regard to race. The taint begins with the questions we ask, the concepts we define and the measures we use. If we preclude the possibility of alternative interpretations at the outset, it should come as no surprise that successive interpretations exacerbate the biases already subtly present in our work.

  9. Alfred G. Cuzan September 20, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    You write, “I typically don’t believe strong claims about media bias, mainly because good systematic evidence of bias is in very short supply.” Tim Groseclose of UCLA has done a good deal of work measuring media bias, which he finds to be leaning strongly to the left. He’s published academic papers and also a book written for a more general audience, LEFT TURN. HOW LIBERAL MEDIA BIAS DISTORTS THE AMERICAN MIND.

    • John Sides September 20, 2011 at 9:22 am #

      Alfred: If you search for “Groseclose” on the blog you will see extensive discussion of his book. There is also a link in this post as well.

      • Alfred Cuzan September 20, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

        Thank you. I had not clicked on the link leading to the Groseclose work and it’s critics. I will explore those.

  10. Alfred Cuzan September 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    Correcting a typo introduced by the writing program–Groseclose and its critics.

  11. Alfred Cuzan September 21, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    Thanks again for alerting me to previous discussions of Groseclose’s work. Has he replied to any of it? I met him at the APSA in Seattle and just now called his attention to your postings.