No, 'Liberal Bias' Isn't Killing Print Media

There is no evidence print media is dying because of so-called liberal bias.

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A view of the Washington Post building on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Washington. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million.

Last week, Peter Roff posted an unconvincing argument derived from inferences based on defective and presumptive evidence. His charge that "liberal media bias" is killing print media is not supported by empirical research, nor does it make sense vis-à-vis business explanations for print media's decline.

We can trace the roots of the term liberal media bias to the Nixon presidency. Nixon used the term to weaken press criticism, activate conservatives and reframe the word liberal as a negative connotation. The Washington Post was a particular target of his efforts because of its reporting on the Watergate scandal.

Liberal bias proponents contend that liberal ideas have an undue influence on the selection and reporting of news stories, and that this influence gives Democrats and progressives an edge in policy debates and elections. Bias claims rest on the assumption that liberal bias is willful, influential, sustained and threatening to widely held beliefs.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Although individual newspapers and some editors and reporters demonstrate liberal leanings, there is no empirical evidence to support Roff's claim of general bias. When looking at coverage of elections, an area where one would assume liberal bias has the most impact, media studies find no difference in the proportion of stories in either tone or amount on each party's candidates. Election coverage is fair and balanced.

Conservative polemicists like Ann Coulter, who Mr. Roff gives nod to in his column, use the liberal media argument to bolster their partisan rhetoric, as claims regarding such bias resonate with Republicans. Survey research indicates that Republicans distrust the press, and are more likely to believe that liberal bias exists.

This disposition is further enhanced by two factors: confirmation bias and the homogenous composition of GOP voters. Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that predisposes us to gravitate to news that reflects our beliefs. People prefer to confirm, not contradict, their views because contradictory information creates cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance requires people to expend extra energy reconciling the information with their beliefs.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Republicans as a whole share similar socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, and hold convergent political beliefs. This makes it easier for Republicans to communicate with each other. One of the reasons for the strong success of Fox News and conservative talk radio is that their hosts discuss politics in commonly accepted Republican terms. Democrats, on the other hand, have failed to produce common language because their members diverge in beliefs; that is, coastal Democrats differ from inland Democrats and northern from southern ones.

Liberal media bias charges gained traction during the Reagan administration and have grown in strength since. However, if we assume Roff's claims to be true, we would expect the decline in print journalism to have occurred far earlier than it has. That is, newspapers would have long ago lost readers because they were willfully offending them with biased stories. In fact, circulation and advertising revenue hit its highest point in 2004. Newspapers suffered their biggest decline between 2008 and 2012. They lost advertising revenue because of a combination of the financial crisis and cheaper online advertising rates.

Readers' tastes have changed over the last decade. Indeed, Mr. Roff is correct to point out that more of them get their news from digital sources, but readers also seek more personalized content. They are less inclined to read newspapers because newsroom spending has affected the quality and depth of coverage. Newspapers have fewer reporters, and are unable to cover a broader array of stories people would like to read. Newspapers are not in a position to personalize content.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should There Be Such a Thing as 'Reporter's Privilege'?]

Mr. Roff laments that journalists refer to those who oppose abortion as anti-abortion activists and not pro-life ones. However, he ignores the fact that most journalists opt to use neutral language in their reporting. The term pro-life was adopted by the anti-abortion movement in the 1970s as a way to reframe the abortion debate away from women's reproductive rights and onto the protection of human life. "Pro-life" and "pro-choice" are politically-loaded terms meant to mobilize public opinion, not communicate a neutral understanding of the issue. At any rate, the journalistic term "anti-abortion" has had no effect on politicians. The "pro life" movement has been quite successful over the past 20 years pushing numerous state legislatures to pass more restrictive abortion laws.

Mr. Roff would have done better grounding his column in fact, not fiction. The last thing newspapers need to do is douse their broadsheets in ink full of partisan talking points. Instead, they must innovate the medium and provide readers with compelling personalized content that gets them to think about politics and become more informed voters.

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