October 6, 2006

The American Journalist

In findings likely to fuel the raging debate over the issue of media bias, a new book concludes that the nation’s journalists have moved a bit to the right since the 1990s, but are still considerably more liberal than the general public.

This political snapshot of the media comes from the new edition of “The American Journalist in the 21st Century: US News People at the Dawn of a New Millenium,” the major academic study of the characteristics of American newsrooms. Published every 10 years since the 1970s, it is based on four decades of survey data, the latest a national telephone survey of 1,149 mainstream journalists conducted in 2002.

In the most recent survey, 40% of journalists described themselves as being on the left side of the political spectrum (31% said they were “a little to the left” and 9% “pretty far to the left”).But that number was down notably, seven percentage points from 1992, when 47% said they leaned leftward.

The percentage of “middle of the roaders” moved up slightly to 33% in 2002 from 30% in 1992. And the number of journalists identifying themselves leaning toward the political right also inched up to 25% from 22% a decade earlier (20% “a little to the right” and 5% “pretty far to the right”).

The findings, interestingly, stop a trend of newsrooms becoming more liberal that the authors detected between 1982 and 1992.

If newsrooms have moved slightly rightward, the research shows, however, that journalists are still more liberal than their audiences. According to 2002 Gallup data in “The American Journalist,” only 17% of the public characterized themselves as leaning leftward, and 41% identified themselves as tilting to the right. In other words, journalists are still more than twice as likely to lean leftward than the population overall.

When it came to the subject of party affiliation, 36% of the journalists said they were Democrats in 2002 compared with 44% in 1992. (That’s the lowest percentage of self-proclaimed Democrats since 1971.) The percentage of Independents dropped slightly from 1992 to 2002 and the ranks of Republicans grew incrementally from 16% to 18%. (There was actually a notable bump in the percentage journalists who named another political affiliation or declined to answer the question in 2002)

By comparison, the public’s party affiliation is evenly divided with 32% characterizing themselves as Democrats and Independents and 31% saying they belonged in the Republican ranks.

“There was a little shift to the right, not a great one,” says Indiana University journalism professor David Weaver, who co-authored the book with colleagues Randal A. Beam, Bonnie J. Brownlee, Paul S. Voakes, and G. Cleveland Wilhoit.

While there are many theories for the discrepancy in the politics of journalists versus the public, Weaver believes it has a great deal to do with the kind of people attracted to the media profession. “I think journalists in general tend to be social reformers,” he says, adding that he believes this reform impulse is basically liberal.

Ideological bias in the media obviously has been a major issue among conservatives for decades, and in recent years Republican party leaders have become increasingly willing to denounce the press for it. Lately, a growing number of liberals have become more vocal about what they perceive as a conservative media bias. In a survey released last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 73% of the Republicans questioned complained of press bias as did 53% of Democrats.

There is also some evidence of an ideological divide in media usage. Republicans, for example, are more likely to regularly tune into the Fox News Channel, and Democrats more likely to set the remote for CNN.

The research from Weaver and his colleagues echoes the findings of a Pew Research Center survey from 2004 revealing that while the majority of journalists described themselves as moderate, they were clearly to the left of the public. One example was that journalists were considerably more willing to say that society should accept homosexuality than the average citizen was.

“The American Journalist” also included several “wedge issue” questions and found journalists more likely to take liberal social positions than the public generally. For instance, journalists proved more supportive than the public of legal abortion under any circumstances (40% to 25%) and stricter laws regulating firearm sales (65% to 51%).

Weaver and his colleagues concluded that while “the pendulum moved back toward the center a bit” in 2002, “the overall picture was still one of U.S. journalists being somewhat more liberal politically than the public at large.”

In short, the data suggest that the political makeup of America’s newsrooms remains an issue.