Political vs. emotional bias

30Aug07

As I’ve written about before, I’m not convinced by accusations of political bias in the media – generally claims of “liberal bias” are motivated by right-wingers trying to frame the debate and make “liberal media” an unquestioned assumption. The larger biases in the media are tied to the corporate world of sponsorship and media ownership, the systematic bias toward official sources and consensus toward the status quo, and the medium bias of emotional stimulation and entertainment.

But my interest was piqued by a report by the right-wing Media Research Center called “Rise and Shine on Democrats: How the ABC, CBS and NBC Morning Shows Are Promoting Democrats On the Road to the White House.” The basic premise is that a content analysis of the morning network news shows suggests that the three shows (Today Show, Good Morning America, Early Show) provide more coverage to the Democrats than Republicans in the 2008 Presidential race, and that the coverage is more favorable toward Dems than Repubs. For the MRC, this means that the networks are trying to elect a Democrat.

Now let’s make a dubious assumption: the data they present may be accurate. Again, I’m not claiming that they are correct, but what if they were? Does that prove liberal bias? I’m not convinced that politics is the cause of this alleged effect, and another set of norms might have more explanatory power than any liberal bias: the norms of television genre. Compared to print journalism, TV news generally skews toward more emotional engagement and framing news events as narratives with clear heroes and villains. The morning shows are even more invested in stories of human drama and emotion, with specific goals of appealing toward female viewers with a mode of “infotainment” that many traditional journalists condemn.

I believe this set of genre norms accounts for the skewed coverage much more than political bias. The Democratic front-runners have much more compelling stories and emotional hooks than the Republicans: Clinton is a familiar character who offers a sequel to a sex scandal, a tale of overcoming odds and breaking new ground as a female Presidential favorite. Obama is a rags-to-riches story with charisma and another precedent shattering breakthrough in racial politics. Edwards has the emotional tale of his wife’s cancer – the report details that Elizabeth Edwards actually got more play than John, but doesn’t offer any rationale as to why aside from a “biased” attempt to bolster Edwards’ campaign through sympathy.

What are the infotainment hooks on the Republicans? Some scandals (Guliani’s personal life), gaffes (McCain’s campaign shake-ups), and lingering issues (Romney’s faith), but nothing that can effectively be made into an emotional tale of redemption or despair. The biggest emotional hook for the Republicans is the politics of fear – “it you vote for a Democrat, the terrorists win” – but this tale has been rerun so many times that it’s been played out (we hope). Coupled with the larger story of a political pendulum swing away from Republican rule, the morning shows are following the typical model of television news: present consensus positions that reflect the perceived sentiment of the public (and more importantly the consumers being marketed to sponsors) and engage viewers emotionally.

The lesson of this report? Evidence of a phenomenon doesn’t prove causality, and you need to look at more than just data and your own political assumptions to understand the rationale behind such patterns.

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3 Responses to “Political vs. emotional bias”

  1. 1 Jonathan Gray

    All good points, Jason. Meanwhile, nothing sells like conflict (or so the news media often think), and whereas the key Republicans are still timid in blasting Bush, the Dems do this all the time. Thus covering the Dems allows for starker conflict, and more fireworks. Besides, given Clinton’s gender and Obama’s ethnicity, if the MRC honestly think this wouldn’t equate to more publicity or public interest regardless of the candidates’ party politics, and if they can’t enter this into their thinking, this alone speaks of worrying blinders on their media analysis techniques.


  1. 1 University Update - White House - Political vs. emotional bias
  2. 2 Meyrowitz, Mittell & Me « Seen from the Sofa

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