If people tended to believe that the media was biased in favor of their own views, it would be easy to explain. There is an extensive literature on "assimilation bias," or the tendency to perceive neutral information as favoring one's own views. Since most perceptions of media bias are in the opposite direction, however, this explanation won't work. In fact, in one study, participants were presented with the exact same information either in the form of a journalist's report or a student's essay6. When reading the context of a journalist's report, participants perceived the information to be biased in favor of the opposition, but when reading the same information in the context of a student's essay, they tended to see it as neutral or as supporting their own position (assimilation bias). So there must be something about the context of mass media that elicits the perception of bias that is inconsistent with the way in which we usually interpret information. And that means it's not going to be easy to find an explanation. But many researchers have been trying, and I'm going to try to summarize some of what they've found.
Serious psychological study of perceived media bias began in the mid-1980s with studies by Vallone, Ross, and Lepper7, and by Perloff8. In both studies, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian participants were presented with television news coverage of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and subsequent fighting. The pro-Israeli participants believed that the coverage was biased in favor of the Palestinians, and that it would make neutral observers feel less favorable towards their side, while the pro-Palestinians were convinced the coverage was biased in favor of the Israeli side, and that it would hurt their image in the eyes of neutral observers. This is despite the fact that when neutral observers did view the coverage, in Perloff's study, they failed to perceive any bias, and their opinions of the two sides stayed the same. Vallone et al. termed this the "Hostile Media Phenomenon," or "Hostile Media Effect" (HME from here on out). After the publication of these two studies, research on the HME took off.
Both the Vallone et al. and Perloff studies looked at one specific issue, and used as participants people who had strong opinions about that issue. Subsequent research has shown that even those who have only a moderate involvement in a particular issue will tend to show the HME, though at a lower rate, and that both strong and moderate partisans will show the HME for general (e.g., liberal vs. conservative) viewpoints in addition to specific issues9. As is often the case, though, for the first decade or so after the initial finding of the HME, researchers tended to focus merely on demonstrating that it exists in a particular domain, rather than trying to figure out why it exists. And research on the mechanisms and factors involved still hasn't gotten very far. But the literature does provide some hints.
First off, the nature of the information, and its presentation, seem to be important. Obviously, any political issue is game, but it appears that political issues that are presented as conflicts (e.g., between ethnicities, between social classes, etc.) are particularly prone to elicit the HME10. On top of this, there are clear social and individual factors involved. In an analysis of data from a nationwide survey, Eveland and Shah11 found that the following factors were associated with HME:
- Gender: Males are slightly more likely to perceive a hostile media bias than females.
- Income: as income goes up, perception of hostile media bias goes down.
- Political party: Republicans are much more likely to perceive a hostile media bias than Democrats.
- Strength of identification with a party: Strong partisans are somewhat more likely to perceive a hostile media bias than moderates.
- Political involvement: the more involved you are in politics, the more likely you are to perceive hostile media bias.
- What Eveland and Shah call "Safe Discussions": The more time you spend talking about politics with people who share your views, the more likely you are to perceive hostile media bias.
Of course, the question that interests me is, what cognitive (and affective) mechanisms are involved in the HME? The research on this question is incredibly muddled, so I'm not going to talk about it in any detail. Suffice it to say that for every cognitive mechanism hypothesized to be involved, there's a paper presenting data that indicates it's not. I suspect that motivated reasoning is involved, though no direct evidence for this currently exists. If it is involved, it would mean that people are probably selectively retrieving memories of media coverage when they're reasoning about media bias, and that their interpretation of specific instances is biased as well12. This doesn't explain why the HME seems to be specific to the media and, as in the Gunther and Schmitt paper cited above (footnote 6), disappears when the same information is placed in another context. This is probably a result of the beliefs about the media that trigger motivated reasoning in the first place, and these beliefs are probably the result of complex socio-cultural factors. In addition, Gunther and Schmitt argue that their data may indicate the influence of the "perceived reach of the information." This may be true, and would explain why people are quick to claim that the coverage will hurt their side's image in the view of others, but it says little about the mechanisms involved in this reasoning, or even why the "perceived reach" has an effect at all. I imagine that near future research will explore people's beliefs about the media bias, and how those who exhibit the HME reason about information presented by mass media, more thoroughly, and perhaps we'll soon have an answer to the mechanism questions. Until then, we'll have to be satisfied with what the literature has told us: lower middle class, strongly partisan Republicans who spend a lot of time hanging out with other Republicans probably think there's a liberal bias in the media. Duh!
Let me end with a note on what inspired this post. First, there's that dizzingly surreal show on Fox News on Sunday evenings (I forget which one it is), during which a panel of mainstream media journalists, on a mainstream media TV network, talk about how biased the mainstream media is. Then there's the comments section of this post at The Volokh Conspiracy, in which the "liberal media" meme is tossed about with abandon. You won't find anything you haven't already seen, there, but the two combined made me want to talk about the HME. I don't think posting about it will change anyone's mind, really, as responses by those who believe the media to be biased to the research showing that it isn't are generally the same. Most of the time, the response I hear is something like this: "I don't care what the research says, because all I have to do is turn on the TV to see the bias with my own eyes." Others make at least a feeble effort to criticize the research, usually by saying the research itself must be biased, claiming that most people employed by mainstream media outlets are registered Democrats (a fact that might lead you to predict bias, but which is not itself an indication of bias), or citing the fatally flawed Groseclose and Milyo study linked in footnote five. But none of that speaks to the fact that over a period of more than 40 years, the Groseclose and Milyo study is the only major one to find systematic bias in the mainstream media, or to the empirical research on HME, in which people clearly perceive bias even when balance has been purposefuly included in the stimuli, and perceive it only when it's in the context of media coverage.
Of course, even when I'm not frustrated with "biased media" nonsense in blog comments and on Fox News, I still find the HME interesting, and empirical research on it important. I'm interested in it, and motivated reasoning in general, because I wonder about the role of schematic processes. But the research is also important because, more and more, the belief in media bias is having serious affects on our political process, and the media itself. The media, responding to claims of bias, seems to be taking extra pains to avoid looking biased by giving voice to opinions that have no real factual merit as contrasts to facts and opinions that are concentrated on one side of the political spectrum (e.g., in the evolution vs. Intelligent Design debate). Politicians, particularly on the political right, take advantage of the increasing distrust of a media perceived as biased, by blaming failures on the media, and dismissing negative claims those in the media make about them or their policies. So discovering, and countering, the processes and mechanisms involved in the HME will have very real practical implications.
1E.g., Woodard, J.D. (1994). Coverage of elections on evening television news shows: 1972-1992. In A.H. Miller & B.E. Gronbeck (Eds.), Presidential Campaigns and American Self Images. Boulder, CO: Westview; Mantler, G., & Whiteman, D. (1995). Attention to candidates and issues in newspaper coverage of 1992 presidential campaign. Newspaper Research Journal, 169(3), 14-28; Domke, D., Fan, D.P, Fibison, M., Shah, D.V., Smith,S.S., & Watts, M.D. (1997). News media, candidates and issues, and public opinion in the 1996 presidential campaign. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 74, 718-737; Shah, D.V., Watts, M.D., Domke, D., Fan, D.P., & Fibison, M. (1999). News coverage, economic cues, and the public's presidential preferences: 1984-1995. Journal of Politics, 61, 914-943; Waldman, P., & Devitt, J. (1998). Newspaper photographs and the 1996 presidential election: The question of bias. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 75, 302-311.
2D'Alessio, D., & Allen, M. (2000). Media bias in presidential elections: A meta-analysis. Journal of Communication, 50(4), 133-156.
3Eveland, W.P., Shah, D.V. (2003). The impact of individual and interpersonal factors on perceived news media bias. Political Psychology, 24(1), 101-117.
4See the Gallup Poll detailed here.
5I ignore this study by Groseclose and Milyo for the obvious reason that its methodology is not only worthless, but downright nonsensical.
6Gunther, A.C., Schmitt, K. (2004). Mapping boundaries of the hostile media effect. The Journal of Communication, 54(1), 55.
7Vallone, R.P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M.R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.
8Perloff, R.M. (1989). Ego-involvement and the third person effect of televised news coverage. Communication Research, 16, 236-262.
9E.g., Dalton R. J., Beck, P. A., & Huckfeldt, R. (1998). Partisan cues and the media: Information flows in the 1992 presidential election. American Political Science Review, 92(1), 111-26.
10Price, V. (1989). Social identification and public opinion: Effects of communicating group conflict. Public Opinion Quarterly, 53, 197-224.
11Eveland Jr., W. P., & Shah, D. V. (2003). The impact of individual and interpersonal factors on perceived news media bias. Political Psychology, 24(1), 101-117.
12Schmitt, K. M., Gunther, A. C., & Liebhart, J. L. (2004). Why partisans see mass media as biased. Communication Research, 31(6), 623-641.