If there's one complaint voiced so often it's practically a folk truth, it is the complaint that the news media have a liberal bias. Notwithstanding the fact that "liberal" is a bad way to say "leftist" (since "liberal" really just means "open", and the US is vastly more "open" than most of the rest of the world), the complaint really fails to get to the heart of the matter.
Simply calling something a "bias" doesn't really tell us anything. Everyone has some sort of bias -- whether it's a bias in favor of religious solutions to social problems, a bias in favor of human rights and freedoms, or a bias in favor of Communist Party doctrine -- and usually, we each have lots of them.
What the American news media really have isn't a traditional left/right political bias. It's something different, and it's something that can be explained rather easily by economic thinking. The American news media, more than anything else, tend to have a pro-government or statist bias.
It's important to distinguish here between "government" and "politicians." Members of the news media aren't big fans of politicians. But they tend to be big fans of government itself.
|Journalism is a low-pay profession, leading to an anti-business bias||
Journalism is one of the lowest-paid professions for college-educated people. The median salary for a radio or television news reporter is in the mid-$20,000 to mid-$30,000 range.
More specifically, earnings in journalism are generally much lower than comparable earnings for public relations workers, who have a median salary in the low $40,000's.
|Public-relations firms actively recruit reporters and other journalists. As the income-inclined self-select themselves out of journalism and into public relations, the people who stay in journalism tend to resent the influence of public relations on the news, and by extension, avoid private-sector sources for news and information. The result is that any news or commentary from the private sector is considered highly suspect, which inevitably comes across as an anti-business bias.|
|Journalistic "neutrality" favors government sources rather than private-sector sources||The ethic of journalistic neutrality holds that reporters should avoid taking sides on the subjects on which they report. Due in part to the public-relations bias, journalists tend to think of private-sector sources as "tainted" or "non-neutral," while sources within the government or in the "non-profit" sector are considered "neutral."||Of course, there is nothing "neutral" about a government agency that seeks more funding or a non-profit institution that wants more government support. But due to that perception of neutrality, journalists seeking to report "neutrally" will tend to favor those government and non-profit sources over private-sector sources.|
|The inverted-pyramid style of news writing spins the news in favor of people who want action and against smaller government||Most news writing follows the "inverted pyramid" style, which places the bulk of the action at the start of the story. The assumption is that people are most likely to read the start of a story and that they should be given the most interesting portions earliest in the writing. Thus, whomever starts the action (by organizing a protest or a campaign of any sort) gets the inherent advantage, since the respondents usually fall later in the writing.||By its nature, the small-government movement almost never organizes the events that get news. Few people would attend a rally to shut down departments of the Federal government. But every government program has its beneficiaries, and they are the people most likely to act when their programs are threatened. Thus, when the Medicare prescription-drug benefit program was proposed, there were legions of elderly people who would benefit from the spending who could provide volumes of "news", whether they showed up at protest rallies or were interviewed for feature stories. Against that sort of tide, it's nearly impossible to effectively communicate that the massive liabilities created by the program could hurt younger workers by starving the economy of funds needed for private-sector growth. The press advantage enjoyed by big-government advocates is enormous.|
|The "somebody do something" factor is difficult to overcome||Many journalists stay with their craft, despite the low pay and long hours, because they believe that journalism serves the public good. They believe in exposing wrongdoing and unfairness -- hence the credo, "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".||Unfortunately, the best answers to many problems involve government not doing things, rather than doing them. The Soviet Union was a lousy place to live not because the government didn't do enough, but because it did far too much; Hong Kong, on the other hand, is prosperous and happy because the government there spent a century doing very little at all. But explaining why government inaction is often better than government action can be difficult, nuanced, and impossibly subtle. But news is written on deadlines -- oftentimes due in a matter of hours. So when searching for ways to "comfort the afflicted", journalists are easily led to answers that call for more action. It's the "somebody do something" factor -- when we see a car accident, for instance, we want to do something to help. Thus far, very few people have become qualified enough to both understand exactly why inaction is often the best action, and fewer still have learned how to communicate that effectively -- especially on deadline. Because it's so much easier (and often more instinctively satisfying) to call for action every time we encounter the afflicted, the environment around news creation remains biased in favor of more government activity rather than less.|
The purpose of this exercise is not to exonerate what real bias (both left and right) really does occur in supposedly neutral journalistic reporting. We'd probably be better off if media outlets dropped the "neutrality" convention altogether and put their biases in the open, from the front page to the back. An enthusiastically partisan press can be a good thing for the public -- as it certainly seemed to be during the Revolutionary War, when the press was anything but neutral.
The real purpose is to identify some of the systemic causes for what appears to be a liberal/leftist bias in the news media. Most journalists are good people who sincerely believe they are doing the right thing -- and they probably are. But some of the macro-scale factors at work around them make it impossible for their work to seem neutral or fair or balanced, no matter how hard they might try. The better we understand those larger factors, the better we're able to change our expectations as consumers and address those larger factors in a way that could make reporting better for everyone.