Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Behind the Numbers: Liberals in Public, Press More Likely to Self-identify as Moderates

By: Rather Biased

Among nation-wide media outlets such as the six channels providing news programming and America's biggest daily newspapers, just seven percent of working journalists and executives identify themselves as conservatives compared to 33 percent of the general public, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.
Five times as many national journalists (34%) call themselves liberal, which is an increase from 22 percent who identified themselves as such in a survey the group conducted in 1995.

There is a lot of interesting and compelling data in the Pew Center's poll and it is well worth reading if you have the time, but the fact that it relies upon the sample's own assessment of itself raises questions about its accuracy.
In the field of polling, self-diagnosis is widely panned as an accurate measure of ideological identification, largely because most people do not have a good understanding of the ideological spectrum. This is especially true among people who classify themselves as moderates, which is what most journalists claim to be.

Over the years, most pollsters have come to the conclusion that there are very few actual moderates and that most people who claim to be centrists are usually anything but. Research has also shown that among the general public, liberals are more likely to classify themselves as moderate than conservatives.

Although many surveys have shown this, a good example is the 2000 election: while only 20 percent of the public identifies itself as liberal, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore earned 48 percent of the popular vote. Thus, Gore's share of the "moderate" vote had to have been bigger than Republican George Bush's who was operating from a larger base of 33 percent.

This is not to say that self-identification is never used among pollsters, but rather that it is only considered useful to gauge a sample's view of itself and then compare it with the sample's actual views (which can be readily ascertained through single-issue questioning).

When this line of reasoning is applied to the journalists surveyed in the Pew Center poll, it is apparent that the phenomenon of liberal misidentification is very much present in the American press.

Compared to nine years ago, national journalists are much more of the opinion that the press is playing it soft on President Bush. Fifty-five percent say that the press is "not critical enough" of the president; just nine percent believe the media is being "too critical." By comparison, in 1995, only two percent thought the press gave too much coverage to the achievements of President Clinton. Forty-eight percent believed the media didn't cover them enough.

On moral issues, it is evident that despite the fact that 54 percent of journalists claim to be moderate, they are considerably more liberal than the public. Fifty-eight percent of Americans believe that it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. Just six percent of surveyed journalists believe this. Asked about whether homosexuality "should be accepted by society," 88 percent of journalists agreed, compared to 51 percent of Americans. Among journalists describing themselves as moderate, 84 percent were of this opinion.

On the subject of news bias, journalists were much more sensitive to conservative bias. When asked if they could name a national news organization that struck them as "especially liberal," 62 percent could not do so. Among those who could name a liberal news organization, 20 percent cited the New York Times.

By contrast, 82 percent were able to list a news organization that they felt was "especially conservative." Among this group, the vast majority (69 percent) cited Fox News Channel as the embodiment of conservative media bias.
While this poll did not ask the general public about its opinion of bias, most polls show that the public is much more likely to perceive a liberal slant in the news. In a survey conducted last year by the Gallup Organization, 45 percent of the respondents said that the press was "too liberal" while just 15 percent felt it was "too conservative."

Rather Typical

Although he likely was not surveyed by the Pew Center, Dan Rather's attitudes toward himself and the press are strikingly similar to the national journalists who were polled. Like many of them, he insists that he is a moderate and is seemingly oblivious to the idea that the press is dominated by liberals who often inject their opinions into their stories.
Over the years, Rather has persistently denied that he is a liberal, despite his long record of favoring Democrats and liberals over Republicans and conservatives.

In 1999, when asked by CNN's Bill Press if he was a liberal, Rather rejected the idea out of hand saying that " If I were, I would say so and I would be proud of it, but I'm not."

Asked about his opinion of claims that liberals dominate the news media and as a result bias the news to fit their views, the anchor told late night talk show host Tom Snyder that such claims were groundless:

"It's one of the great political myths, about press bias. Most reporters are interested in a story. Most reporters don't know whether they're Republican or Democrat, and vote every which way. Now, a lot of politicians would like you to believe otherwise, but that's the truth of the matter. I've worked around journalism all of my life, Tom Snyder has as well, and I think he'll agree with this, that most reporters, when you get to know them, would fall in the general category of kind of common-sense moderates.

Rather even shares most national journalists' opinion of the New York Times, as former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg recounted in a May 24, 2001 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal:

"In 1996 after I wrote about liberal bias on this very page, Dan was furious and during a phone conversation he indicated that picking the Wall Street Journal to air my views was especially appalling given the conservative views of the paper's editorial page. 'What do you consider the New York Times?' I asked him, since he had written op-eds for that paper. 'Middle of the road,' he said.

"I couldn't believe he was serious. The Times is a newspaper that has taken the liberal side of every important social issue of our time, which is fine with me. But if you see the New York Times editorial page as middle of the road, one thing is clear: You don't have a clue."

Other takes on the Pew Center's poll of journalists:

Read the center's summary of its findings here. For its methodology, see here. See also its press release
The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz quotes study director Tom Rosenstiel: "This is something journalists should worry about," he says. "Maybe diversity in the newsroom needs to mean more than ethnic and gender diversity." See also his online chat about the survey.

John Hinderaker noticed that the number of reporters concerned about unfairness in stories declined from 12 percent in 1999 to 5 percent in 2004.

Former newspaperman Mike Gordon on why journos see things differently than the public: "Journalists live in a world dominated by government, and they reflexively see government action as the default way to approach any problem."
Editor and Publisher notes that the number of self-described liberals increased dramatically from 1995.

San Diego Union-Tribune designer Matthew Hoy argues: "Most journalists look around the newsroom and can point out the Vietnam-era protester/Marxist/Leninist and say to themselves: 'Well, that guy's more liberal than I am.' Then they watch television and they see Tom DeLay or Jesse Helms and think: 'I'm definitely not a conservative.' Therefore, the only thing left is to label oneself a moderate."

James Joyner wonders if journos think they're too easy on Bush how would a "too tough" media cover the prez?

WSJ's James Taranto: "All this suggests that journalists not only are considerably more liberal than the general public but also wish their own coverage were more liberal than it is. No wonder public confidence in the press is suffering."
Scott Wrightson believes reporters call themselves moderates to avoid giving ammunition to supporters of the liberal bias theory.

Asian wire service Press Trust of India takes a different tack on the story in a piece headlined "Journalists have very low self-esteem: Survey."

UPI's report

USA Today completely ignores Pew's findings on bias, focuses on everything but. It does find room to promote a study by liberal media watchdog group accusing NPR of conservative bias, though.

Dean Esmay: "All this tells me one thing: Blogs are more representative of the general population than the professional press is. Which should be no surprise. My guess is that an awful lot of people who lean right will tend to be people who choose careers other than journalism--but for whom blogging is a perfect outlet."

(From May 25, 2004)

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