Media bias in journalism and public relations

by Andrew Gelman on June 11, 2012 · 11 comments

in Media

One point I’ve tried to make in discussions of media bias is that journalism is part of the larger communications industry. It is my impression that the news media lean left but the public-relation industry leans right.

I was reminded of this by two stories in the newspaper today:

Syria’s Assads Turned to West for Glossy P.R.

Newspaper as Business Pulpit

Traditional newspapers make their money by attracting big audiences, often with left-wing populist stances. Public relations makes money by getting hired by rich people, often to push a conservative agenda. The correlation is not 100%—-you have Fox News on one side and various liberal-leaning public relations outfits on the other—-but I think when considering media it’s useful to think of the larger industry that includes news and also P.R.

{ 11 comments }

idiot June 11, 2012 at 11:51 am

Is Assad really “right-wing” though? He’s the leader of the Ba’ath Party (which is officially Arab Socialist), and while the Ba’ath Party is committed to creating a a “social market economy” (which may be a step away from leftism) and Syria , the Ba’ath Party is still vaguely leftist (and leads the “National Progressive Front”, so shouldn’t Assad be seen as vaguely leftist as well?

Assad also places himself as a secularist, which can be said to be a leftist standpoint.

Andrew Gelman June 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Good point. I was discussing the different inherent biases of news media and public relations, but I agree that this doesn’t map perfectly into left and right.

Alex M. June 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I tend to think of the news business like a factory. I think it’s absolutely true that the profession is much more attractive to liberal than to conservative types, but so far as I know generally underconsidered in this conversation (but I am a young journalism student whose finger could almost not be further from the pulse of the academic conversation here) is the corporatization and then conglomeration of media – politically speaking, who owns companies; who heads the divisions to which media properties belong? Much more important than the opinions of the factory line workers (whose jobs depend, after all, on their ability to conceal those opinions), I would think, are the opinions of the factory owners.

Joe U. June 11, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Journalism and P.R. are “kinda” part of the same industry because both deal in communication. But, that is akin to saying that Crosby, Stills, and Nash are in the same industry as Fox News because they both deal in communication. Further, democracy requires nothing of PR firms; it does however require things from the media: journalists has a set of norms that they are supposedly supposed to follow. I am not sure that P.R. people have such norms that speak to bettering society or objectivity. PR firms can say what they want, there is no expectation of objectivity (again, they are supposedly speaking on behalf of a client’s interests). (It is unfortunate when PR gets passed off as journalism.)

This leads to another point, PR firms and news outlets have different modes of garnering income. News firms bring in audiences and charge advertisers for time, while PR firms charge the client and then attempt to interject themselves into existing portions of the public sphere.

Referring to bias, several good studies (Groseclose and Milyo come to mind) show that different news firms do have discernible political biases. This may be due to the demands of the audience, due to the ideologies of the journalists, or even due to the ideologies of the management/ownership. (And, there are good studies showing support for each of these, see work by Dan Chomsky for instance.) My personal take is that liberal bias in the media has been mostly ignored by scholars. It exists, and is prevalent in many news sources because journalists lean left (by wide margins). I think that scholars in the social sciences have ignored leftist media bias because they lean left just as much, if not more than journalists. I am not suggesting a conspiracy here, but simply a problem of ideological vantage point: leftist scholars would likely view leftist news as unbiased, and FOX News as an evil propagandist machine. But since the population leans more to the right than scholars or journalists, Fox News is the top cable network, and many people think the rest of the mainstream news sources lean left.

But, we should not overestimate the impact of journalists’ personal ideologies on news content. It is there. But it is mediated by the financial concerns of the ownership/management who have to maintain sizable audiences. If journalists lean too left in a conservative market, their outlet will eventually lose revenue because audiences will turn away when they have alternative choices (Bovitz, Druckman, and Lupia have a good paper on this.)

reflectionephemeral June 12, 2012 at 12:22 am

“Traditional newspapers make their money by attracting big audiences, often with left-wing populist stances. ”

I don’t think this is true. Consider the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, for example.

Wonks Anonymous June 12, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Maybe OpenSecrets.org will have data on who the employees of P.R firms donate to.

Jay Livingston June 14, 2012 at 8:42 pm

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
― George Orwell

Andrew Gelman June 14, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Some commenters ask why I lump journalism and public relations into a single large category. I do so because these are similar occupations, staffed by people with similar goals, and with similar political outcomes of affecting public knowledge and attitudes. People who are worried about media bias are concerned that the public is being systematically misinformed. But public relations is the same story: it’s even more explicitly about shaping attitudes.

Joe U. June 15, 2012 at 11:16 am

But, there is no expectation that public relations folks are supposed to be unbiased; there is that expectation for “traditional” journalists. People are not concerned about bias in the news simply because the information might be biased; they are concerned because the news is supposed to be unbiased (whereas in public relations, there is no such expectation). Would you say that Jay Carney is doing the same thing now that he was four years ago at TIME? I think the answer is no. (Of course, some might say he was, and that is because TIME is biased.)

In short, I think that most people expect to get very different information about an object from a news outlet, as compared to the object’s PR representative or spokesperson. I would prefer not to be lied to or manipulated by either, but with the information coming from P.R. folks, I sort of expect it.

But beyond the expectations, there are different incentives involved. Public Relations folks work for the object they are providing information about. Journalists do not; they work for the news outlet (supposedly, anyway).

Andrew Gelman June 15, 2012 at 11:42 am

Joe,

Yes, I agree that journalism and P.R. are different, I just see them serving somewhat similar functions in society. Journalism has a traditional goal of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”–I see this as vaguely left-wing–whereas public relations serves the clients, who presumably are more likely to be “the comfortable” than “the afflicted.” Somewhere in this spectrum there is advocacy journalism, talk radio, etc.

Andy Hallman June 24, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Hi Andrew.

I have worked as a journalist at several small newspapers in Iowa. The media are biased in all sorts of ways, but political bias is very low on the list of the influential biases.

First of all, remember that newspapers, radio stations and TV stations are businesses. They exist as money-making enterprises, so the main way in which they are biased is that they report the news in such a way as to maximize their profits.

In practice, this means convincing their readers that they (the media) have something important to say.

How would you feel if I told you there might be a child molester on your block? Pretty scared. How would you feel if I told you kids were safer today than ever before? Pretty bored. The media realize this and they adjust their reporting accordingly.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: