Pew Study: Journalists and Liberal Bias

A recent study by the Pew Center for the Public and the Press looked at the state of journalism, journalists and journalistic attitudes.

Details of the study can be found at the Pew Web site (See link in Web Resources below). It surveyed 547 journalists in broadcasting and print. It also looks at attitudes comparing journalists who work in local newsrooms and those who work for national media. The survey replicated a similar study done in 1995.

More Pessimistic

Overall, the poll shows that journalists are more pessimistic than ever about the state of the profession. Their confidence in their management is low and their fears are high about the commercial pressures on journalism.

This is a study that is bound to have some serious consequences for American journalism in large measure because of one aspect of the poll: the political leanings of the journalists who responded to the survey.

Confirmation for Conservatives

It found that a majority of American journalists say they are liberals. Not surprisingly this has been grist for conservatives because it confirms the impression that journalists are overwhelmingly liberal compared to the public in general.

This is only a small portion of the study. But it is likely to follow news organizations around for the rest of the political year like Marley's ghost. For some, Bush's rise or fall in November will be inextricably linked to this poll.

And that leads to some serious concerns about the Pew poll as well.

First, the poll never asks exactly how personal political attitudes impact on the ability of journalists to do their job. In that sense, I think the poll may be a disservice. It implies — but never explains how or if bias has an impact on journalism. The poll simply assumes — as conservatives constantly point out — that bias makes its way into the journalism.

What About Management Politics?

More importantly in my opinion, the poll never asks about the political leanings of the media owners, publishers and upper management of news organizations. It is arguable that their politics are more influential than their employees in choosing the direction of a news organization.

This poll seems to me to be an example of how to keep journalists on the defensive in an election year. That may not have been the intention of whoever commissioned this study. But it certainly will be an outcome — unintended or otherwise.

So if there is tough reporting around the Bush campaign, critics will say it must be because of the inherent liberal bias as cited in the Pew poll. If the media is tough on the Kerry campaign it may be viewed as an overcompensation to show that the media isn't as liberal as the Pew poll indicated.

Creeping Commercialism

The poll also points out the increasing concerns of journalists who see their ability to do their jobs in a professional way constantly undermined by encroaching commercialism.

This is a concern for all journalists, even for NPR — a not-for-profit media outlet.

For NPR, the sense of creeping commercialism remains an important concern for many listeners who resent the tone and the origins of some of the underwriting messages on public radio. Underwriting messages on NPR are as they have always been — a maximum of two minutes per hour. However listeners increasingly say they perceive the messages to be more about commercial ventures than before.

Inside NPR, some nervous journalists worry that competitive pressures may inadvertently dull the harder edge of journalistic inquiry.

'Muzzling Sheep'

I hope that Pew — a highly respected polling organization — would try again. A better poll would be to look more deeply into how journalistic checks and balances work: Do editors find that they are dealing with bias more than they used to? Do reporters and editors sense more or less pressure to deal with the campaigns in a certain way than they did in 2000? How does commercialism impact on the quality of reporting? Where does that pressure come from? Self-censorship or managerial fiat? Do readers, viewers and listeners sense a reticence on the part of journalists to go after the story in a post-Sept. 11 political environment? Are our European colleagues correct when they say that the American media has been cowed? (A British politician recently remarked that it wasn't necessary to muzzle Fleet Street: "You don't have to muzzle sheep.")

There is much that can be pointed to as examples of inherent bias in the media — including NPR.

The media — as a class — tends to be remarkably homogeneous. As an NPR editor pointed out to me recently, "How many of our journalists have ever operated a business?" The poll indirectly points to the need for more diversity in our newsrooms — both intellectual and cultural.

These are important questions that Pew could have asked, but didn't. My concern is whether this poll may create an environment of "prior restraint" by inhibiting journalists from asking the tougher questions.

The Adversarial Role of the Media

This poll may have been done correctly, but in this one aspect — questioning the professionalism of journalists — the result will be a disservice to American journalists and journalism. In order to avoid the "liberal bias" accusation, some journalists might feel there is safety in pack journalism and that is likely to have a chilling effect on tough, independent journalism.

The media and its management have an obligation to maintain a skeptical and adversarial role to whatever party is in power. This poll could discourage that by implying that journalists will always let their personal politics trump their professional obligations.

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

NPR Ombudsman

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