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by Jason Salzman

Bernard Goldberg's "Bias" Gets The Facts Wrong

Last month, two UCLA professors produced a study alleging liberal bias in the mainstream media. In their study, titled "A Measure of Media Bias," the professors first tallied how often members of Congress cited 200 prominent special interest groups. Then the researchers assigned these special interest groups ratings based on the voting patterns (liberal or conservative) of the members of Congress who cited them in speeches. The UCLA professors then studied how often the 200 special interest groups were mentioned in news articles.

Media outlets that cited the Heritage Foundation were given a more conservative rating; those that cited Children's Defense Fund were assigned a more liberal score. And it turned out that most of the national media lean left, with only FOX News and "The Washington Times" on the right.

It sounds convincing, but the study was completely flawed.

As the media watchdog group Media Matters pointed out, a researcher cannot analyze one type of source (special interest groups) and make broad conclusions about overall bias. Reporters consider a quote from Vice President Dick Cheney as a "source." Yet this type of source would not be counted in the UCLA study. So a newspaper article that included a quote from the vice president alongside a quote from a Greenpeace campaigner would be considered to have a liberal bias, because the quote would not count as a "source."

Consider the following fictional news "brief:"

The Bush administration announced more cuts today aimed at streamlining government, fulfilling an overdue campaign pledge. The cuts were mostly in education and health. "Too many people claim to be poor and sick, when in reality they can take care of themselves," said Vice President Cheney.

"We're looking out for the little guy," said former House Speaker Tom Delay. "We need funds for the Iraq War and tax cuts," said Pat Robertson, a Bush supporter. "Why can't the richest nation in the world provide health insurance for its children?" asked Jane Doe from the Children's Defense Fund.

Under the UCLA study's methodology, this article would have a liberal bias because three out of four sources for the article (Cheney, Delay, Roberston) are people, not special interest groups. Yet, it's obvious that this article has a conservative bias. The flawed UCLA study highlights the complexity and danger is alleging media bias. It's complex because so many factors (story placement, story selection, story length, story sources, etc) intertwine with one another in the daily coverage of news outlets.

For example, a newspaper might run a long front-page article that could be shown to have a liberal bias, and then bury a small brief, like the one above, inside the paper that has a strong conservative bias. How do you weigh one measure of media bias against another? The answer is, it's very difficult.

So here's what happens. Liberal and conservative partisans both accuse the media of having a bias -- and most often the partisans don't have data -- just anecdotes -- to back up their accusations.

It would be more reasonable to dispense with broad accusations of bias completely, and focus instead on specific coverage. Media watchdog groups like Media Matters or the UCLA professors should point out flaws in media coverage of a specific issue or event -- and focus on the work of specific media outlets.

For example, was media coverage in "The New York Times" of the build-up to the Iraq War fair? Were reasonable opinions represented? Did the issue get sufficient space? Were anonymous sources used ethically? With specific accusations of media bias on the table, citizens can debate them honestly -- and journalists can defend their work and be held accountable.

But when activists -- either on the left our right of the political spectrum -- make sweeping accusations of media bias, they do a disservice to the public. The real issues are hidden. The credibility of journalism, already low, in the public eye is diminished, and citizens are given yet another reason to tune out.

Jason Salzman is author of "Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits" and a media critic for the Rocky Mountain News

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Albion Monitor   February 20, 2006   (

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