To get things started, here’s a little something about an interesting new study on media bias.

People love to criticize the media, and they often assume political bias on the part of reporters, editors or owners of media outlets. A new study, reported here in The New York Times, shows that they’re right. But not for the reasons most people might think.

It turns out, according to University of Chicago economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, that daily newspapers simply reflect back the politics of their readers. That is, whatever measurable bias is found in most papers tracks very neatly the bias reflected in the local community, as measured by campaign donations to each political party. In areas where most folks open their wallets for Democrats, the local paper shows a more left-leaning bias. Where local readers donate to Republicans, the paper leans right.

A comparison of circulation data (per capita) to the ratio of Republican to Democratic campaign contributions by ZIP code showed that circulation was strongly related to whether the newspaper matched the readers’ own ideology.

So, how did the economists measure a newspaper’s partisan slant to begin with? They devised a clever standard based on the use of the most common hot-button phrases used by Democrats and Republicans as reported in the 2005 Congressional Record. As described by the Times, they “measured, for example, all the times in articles about Social Security that a newspaper referred to “personal accounts” (Republican) or to “private account”‘ (Democratic). Their measure of partisan slant came only from the news coverage. They did not include anything from the editorial page.

News junkies can read the report for yourselves here. Follow the links to “data appendix” and “Media Slant Data” to see the list of all 417 newspapers studied, with their slant-scores, plus the list of all the political catch-phrases used to measure ideological bias.

And, in case you’re wondering, yes, The San Diego Union-Tribune does lean right, while the Los Angeles Times leans left.


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