Sunday, January 06, 2013

Media more conservative than public

By Frank Moraes

For years, I've been arguing that journalists are centrists in their political orientation. What's more, those that identify as liberal are generally only socially liberal; on economic issues, they are conservative. Up to now, I have based this on my observations; it wasn't based upon research. But I just came upon a study that Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) performed back in 1998, that shows exactly this.

There are two claims that conservatives make to justify their belief that there is a liberal media bias. The first is that the framing of news is from a liberal perspective. Eric Alterman in What Liberal Media? has destroyed this idea, but many others have as well. Still, the liberal media bias myth lives on with a second claim: most reporters are liberal. This is based upon surveys that show reporters tend to be registered with the Democratic Party. But Democrat hardly means liberal.

My focus is always on economic issues. I care very much about social issues, but as long as our economy is as unequal as it has been these last 35 years, social issues don't really matter. For example, the rich can always fly to France for an abortion, regardless of the law in the United States. Anyway, access to abortion or even birth control might be practically unable to the poor even if they are legal. My problem with most mainstream journalists is that they are upper and upper-middle class in income, and thus in their economic concerns. The situation is even worse than I had thought.

The journalists involved in the the story are overwhelmingly in the upper class. In 1998, making more than $75,000 per year put you in the upper class (top 20%). Making $133,000 put you in the top 5%. Only 5% of respondents made less than $50,000 per year. Even at that level many probably found themselves at the bottom of the upper-middle class. The largest group (43%) had incomes between $50,000 and $100,000. The entire distribution skews high, but assuming it is evenly distributed, that would put 21.5% in the upper-middle class. Putting all this together, making assumptions that will understate where these journalists sit relative to the population they serve, we get the following:

  • Middle Class: 5%
  • Upper-Middle Class: 21.5%
  • Upper-Class: 73.5%
  • Top of Upper Class (5%): 41.5%

So it is no wonder that these people tend to think that free trade agreements and low taxes are great for the country. After all, such things are great for them. This fact is clear in the survey results. Most of the respondents consider themselves centrists. However, a large minority (30%) consider themselves liberal when it comes to social issues. But that large minority collapses when it comes to economic issues. Only 11% consider themselves liberal in this area. While only 9% consider themselves conservative on social issues, 19% consider themselves conservative on economic issues.

Specific issues just make things look worse for our journalists. Only 5% rated the economy as fair or poor. But 34% of the general public rated the economy thusly. This should come as no surprise. The economy was working rather well for these "objective" journalists. It is interesting to note that the same percent who said the economy was bad is the percent of journalist making middle class or less salaries.

On all specific policies, the journalists were far more conservative than the people. They thought entitlement "reform" was a top priority. They didn't think that providing healthcare was nearly as big a priority. And above all, they thought that NAFTA was great and should be expanded. The public was not nearly so keen.

FAIR is not claiming that journalists are conservative. Nor am I. It is more complex than this. FAIR, in particular, focuses on the structural nature of the problem: corporate news will produce corporate friendly stories. But I think these results show clearly that the problem is more fundamental than even this. Despite their claims to the contrary, journalists are not objective. They dependably report the way that we would expect someone from their social classes to report.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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