Journalists Lean Left

America's journalists are far more liberal than America.

My offhand assertion in “Do Conservatives Get a Pass?” that “most political reporters are left-of-center” provoked an unexpected firestorm. While there’s a healthy debate as to whether and how political reporting is biased, it’s never been particularly controversial that the reporters from the elite media outlets are to the left of the population. Survey after survey after survey shows that.

Finding them on Google was harder than I thought, because the search rankings are dominated by ideological organizations whose sole purpose is to point out media bias. But this 2006 report (“Politics and Party Affiliation“) by the ultra-reliable Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism rounds up much of the literature:

This political snapshot of the media comes from the new edition of “The American Journalist in the 21st Century: US News People at the Dawn of a New Millenium,” the major academic study of the characteristics of American newsrooms. Published every 10 years since the 1970s, it is based on four decades of survey data, the latest a national telephone survey of 1,149 mainstream journalists conducted in 2002.

In the most recent survey, 40% of journalists described themselves as being on the left side of the political spectrum (31% said they were “a little to the left” and 9% “pretty far to the left”). But that number was down notably, seven percentage points from 1992, when 47% said they leaned leftward.

The percentage of “middle of the roaders” moved up slightly to 33% in 2002 from 30% in 1992. And the number of journalists identifying themselves leaning toward the political right also inched up to 25% from 22% a decade earlier (20% “a little to the right” and 5% “pretty far to the right”).

The findings, interestingly, stop a trend of newsrooms becoming more liberal that the authors detected between 1982 and 1992.

If newsrooms have moved slightly rightward, the research shows, however, that journalists are still more liberal than their audiences. According to 2002 Gallup data in “The American Journalist,” only 17% of the public characterized themselves as leaning leftward, and 41% identified themselves as tilting to the right. In other words, journalists are still more than twice as likely to lean leftward than the population overall.

When it came to the subject of party affiliation, 36% of the journalists said they were Democrats in 2002 compared with 44% in 1992. (That’s the lowest percentage of self-proclaimed Democrats since 1971.) The percentage of Independents dropped slightly from 1992 to 2002 and the ranks of Republicans grew incrementally from 16% to 18%. (There was actually a notable bump in the percentage journalists who named another political affiliation or declined to answer the question in 2002)

By comparison, the public’s party affiliation is evenly divided with 32% characterizing themselves as Democrats and Independents and 31% saying they belonged in the Republican ranks.

“There was a little shift to the right, not a great one,” says Indiana University journalism professor David Weaver, who co-authored the book with colleagues Randal A. Beam, Bonnie J. Brownlee, Paul S. Voakes, and G. Cleveland Wilhoit.

While there are many theories for the discrepancy in the politics of journalists versus the public, Weaver believes it has a great deal to do with the kind of people attracted to the media profession. “I think journalists in general tend to be social reformers,” he says, adding that he believes this reform impulse is basically liberal.

Ideological bias in the media obviously has been a major issue among conservatives for decades, and in recent years Republican party leaders have become increasingly willing to denounce the press for it. Lately, a growing number of liberals have become more vocal about what they perceive as a conservative media bias. In a survey released last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 73% of the Republicans questioned complained of press bias as did 53% of Democrats.

There is also some evidence of an ideological divide in media usage. Republicans, for example, are more likely to regularly tune into the Fox News Channel, and Democrats more likely to set the remote for CNN.

The research from Weaver and his colleagues echoes the findings of a Pew Research Center survey from 2004 revealing that while the majority of journalists described themselves as moderate, they were clearly to the left of the public. One example was that journalists were considerably more willing to say that society should accept homosexuality than the average citizen was.

“The American Journalist” also included several “wedge issue” questions and found journalists more likely to take liberal social positions than the public generally. For instance, journalists proved more supportive than the public of legal abortion under any circumstances (40% to 25%) and stricter laws regulating firearm sales (65% to 51%).

Similarly, there are repeated studies showing that journalists give far more money to Democrats than to Republicans. MSNBC’s Bill Dedman:

Msnbc.com identified 143 journalists who made political contributions from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign, according to the public records of the Federal Election Commission. Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 16 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties.

Now, there are all manner of arguments from the Left that this doesn’t demonstrate that the reporting itself is biased. Owners and decisionmakers at the mega-corporations that own much of the media are conservative, they say. And Fox News is biased enough to make up for all of the other outlets combined!

I don’t much care, really. But it’s just undeniable that the most influential political reporters–those who write for the New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and Time or report for ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN–are members of a bicoastal elite who view the world through very different lenses than Americans living in Flyover Country. It’s the nature of the job, the self-selection process, and peer pressure.

UPDATE: Some commenters are drawing different conclusions from the above data. What I see is this:

  • A much higher percentage of journalists see themselves as “Pretty far to the left” and a “little to the left” than non-journalists
  • A much lower percentage of journalists see themselves as a “little to the right” than non-journalists (although slightly more see themselves as “Pretty far to the right”).
  • Journalists seem to view “Middle of the road” to the left of where non-journalists do, as evidenced by their answers on social issues.

Considering that the context of my mentioning the ideology of journalists was that it clouds their ability to differentiate mainstream and extreme positions on the right, I’m pretty confident that the numbers bear me out.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    So it isn’t true that “journalists lean left.” A good slug are “middle of the road” (about a third), and then the remaining two thirds lean either left, or right. What’s total left-leaning? 40 percent? Leaving 30 percent to lean right?

    I’d say 30 + 40 + 30, equals 100

    So what we’ve got is a unequal tilt, but a solid MINORITY actually tilting left.

    Suck it 😉




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  2. john personna says:

    Oh, and what should happen to pop up next in my reader than this story:

    We find that, on average, newspapers are located almost exactly at the median voter in their home states. In California, where we have the most data, newspapers are probably slightly to the right of the median voter. We find no evidence that the US press exhibits a liberal bias.

    Interesting methodology, they compare opinions of the papers to the voting record of the matching region.




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  3. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: Journalists self-identify as left-of-center far more than do Americans and are much, much likely to self-identify as right-of-center. That puts them well to the left just on the basis of self-identification. Additionally–perhaps because they hang out with other lefties–positions they consider centrist are actually left-of-center views. So it’s a double whammy.

    Indeed, while I still consider myself a conservative because of how that term was defined when I was coming up, I’m center-left on a wide range of social issues and probably barely right-of-center on fiscal issues at this point. The center is a moving target and is moving right on many, but not all, issues.




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  4. john personna says:

    You are hanging a lot on 10%. 40% tilt left, and 30% tilt right.

    That’s actually pretty even, and it is less than even odds that any journalist you meet will be a leftist.

    It really boggles my mind. A minority of journalists tilt left, but you think this translates to journalists as a whole tilting left.

    Assume everyone wore their bias on their sleeve. What’s the chance that a particular story would be “center?” 30%. That it would be “right?” 30% That it would be “left?” 40%

    So while the left has an “edge” it is a small one, and cannot prove anything about the whole.




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  5. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    Additionally–perhaps because they hang out with other lefties–positions they consider centrist are actually left-of-center views.

    Heh, it’s a bad sign when you take refuge by questioning your own data.




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  6. Jay Tea says:

    Newsweek Editor Evan Thomas, on the PBS progarm Inside Washington, July 10, 2004, declared that media favoritism was worth at least 15 points in the polls for the Kerry/Edwards ticket.

    My own admission against interest: I own a copy of his book, Sea of Thunder: Four Naval Commanders and the last Sea War, and it’s a pretty good book on the Pacific campaign of World War II. I have trouble reconciling that the guy who wrote that also said the above, as well as “in a way, Obama’s standing above the country, above — above the world, a sort of god.” But it’s still a good book. Not a great one — he makes some technical errors, but he’s more focused on the men.

    J.




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  7. Hey Norm says:

    Where individual reporters lean is meaningless because it does not speak to content, and today’s journalists are by-and-large stenographers anyway.
    For instance the overwhelming majority of guests on the Sunday Morning Shows are Republican or so-called right leaning. It doesn’t matter what Amapours political leanings are when she is interviewing mostly Teavangelicals spouting talking points…and never ever being pressed on the veracity of said talking points.




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  8. john personna says:

    @Jay Tea:

    Newsweek Editor Evan Thomas, on the PBS progarm Inside Washington, July 10, 2004, declared that media favoritism was worth at least 15 points in the polls for the Kerry/Edwards ticket.

    Gotta love the unsupported assertions.




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  9. john personna says:

    BTW, let’s be clear about how the “media bias” bleat shows up in the wild. Usually, someone will report a story or stories, and the response will be “yeah, but ‘media bias'”

    That response would only make sense if a MAJORITY of journalists leaned left.

    That’s what’s happening here. The complainer isn’t making the right statistical analysis. They are misinterpreting this data as proof that most journalists are left-biased.




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  10. Hey Norm says:

    The proof is in the pudding…if journalists were so left-leaning how did we get Death Panels, or Climate Denialism, or Tax Cuts paying for themselves, or Iraq?
    No…So-called Republicans have been repeating the “liberal press” meme for so long it has become accepted fact in the face of the evidence at hand…like much of the propaganda they spout.




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  11. samwide says:

    If you’re interested in this kind of argument, head on over to the Volokh Conspiracy and watch Orin Kerr demolish Tim Groseclose’s attempt to prove left-wing bias in the press (Assumptions Built into the Proof of Media Bias). Fun to read. Oh, and

    Just to be extra clear, I don’t doubt that media bias exists. I see it all the time. I also think it’s plausible that the end result is right that journalists are mostly focused on informing but also somewhat focused on persuading. But there’s a critical difference between explaining data in a rigorous way and coming up with a long series of seemingly-arbitrary steps that end up with a plausible-sounding result. After spending some time studying it, my fear is that Groseclose’s reasoning seems more like the latter than the former. [op.cit.]

    As I said, fun to read.




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  12. jukeboxgrad says:

    james:

    reporters from the elite media outlets are to the left of the population

    Consider these two statements:

    A) most reporters at major media outlets are left-of-center or even Democratic-leaning.

    B) reporters from the elite media outlets are to the left of the population

    A is what you said before. B is what you’re saying now. Do you understand that B is a much weaker statement than A? The key difference is the absence of the word “most.” What you’re doing is called backpedaling. It would be better if you just admitted that your claim (A) is false, because you have conveniently provided proof that it’s false. You cited this:

    40% of journalists described themselves as being on the left side of the political spectrum

    Do you understand that “40%” is not “most?” You should.

    I realize that john has already made this point, but I’m saying it again because you’re not getting it.

    those who write for the New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and Time or report for ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN–are members of a bicoastal elite who view the world through very different lenses than Americans living in Flyover Country.

    This claim is so vague (“view the world through very different lenses”) that it’s worthless. How does one test, prove or falsify “view the world through very different lenses?”

    And you keep talking about “major media outlets” and “elite media outlets” and “those who write for the New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and Time or report for ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN” even though the studies you are citing don’t make that distinction. They are studies of journalists, period, not “major media outlets” or “elite media outlets.” So that part of your claim seems to be pure invention.

    Msnbc.com identified 143 journalists who made political contributions

    This is more junk polling. If that group is a tiny portion of all journalists, then the tilt within that group is almost completely meaningless.




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  13. JKB says:

    Just yesterday I read a good post on Bias by Megan McCardle. She pointed out that much bias isn’t overt and aggressive but a tendency to not to question facts or reports that support your own views and to really investigate those that don’t support your world view. So there is bias but not malicious in most, as opposed to the Journolist members who actively worked to bias their reporting.

    Rather than calling a Lefty journalist a Lefty, it might be better to work toward provoking them to overcome their bias in reporting with more open-minded investigation. To avoid having their “professionalism” displayed for all to see by bloggers.




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  14. Jay Tea says:

    @john personna: What’s your complaint, john? That I didn’t use Thomas’ own words? Fine. Here you go.

    MR. THOMAS: There’s one other base here, the media. Let’s talk a little media bias here. The media, I think, wants Kerry to win and I think they’re going to portray Kerry and Edwards I’m talking about the establishment media, not Fox. They’re going to portray Kerry and Edwards as being young and dynamic and optimistic and there’s going to be this glow about them, collective glow, the two of them, that’s going to be worth maybe 15 points.

    J.




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  15. john personna says:

    @JKB:

    Rather than calling a Lefty journalist a Lefty, it might be better to work toward provoking them to overcome their bias in reporting with more open-minded investigation. To avoid having their “professionalism” displayed for all to see by bloggers.

    Heh, but you can see the irony in the top-article and thread, right?




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  16. john personna says:

    @Jay Tea:

    My “complaint” was simple. An ” unsupported assertion” is when someone just says something is true, without constructing a proof or explaining their thinking.

    For this to be “supported” we’d have to see that he didn’t pull “15 points” out of his butt, but got it from some sort of real study.

    I doubt there could be such a study, because the event he is describing is a one-off. There was, and will be, only one Kerry/Edwards election cycle in the history of the world. No one could model it or test it beforehand.




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  17. superdestrohyer says:

    Most reports live in NYC or DC where there are few if any Republicans. DC voted for Obama at over 90%. Manhattan voted for Obama at over 80%. Most reports can go all day and never speak to any Republican. A Republican report can probably go all day and never meet another Republican.

    That is why the media is so liberal. First, virtually all non-white reports are very liberal. Second, there many companies from BET to MTV News to PBS that will never hire a Republican. On PBS the conservative voice worked in the Clinton White House.

    The Death Panels talk came out of talk radio and the MSM tried to avoid talking about it. Do you think that NPR has ever discussed rationing in healthcare?




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  18. john personna says:
  19. john personna says:

    BTW superdestroyer, each chain of your progression is actually false. Most reporters do not live in “NYC or DC” … hell, those are both commuter cities anyway, from the standpoint of the powerful and influential.




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  20. jukeboxgrad says:
  21. steve says:

    @JayTea-OT, but if you liked that book, I hope you read Last Stand Of The Tin Can Sailors by Hornfischer. Great WWII naval book.

    Steve




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  22. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: Polls of how average voters self identify prove nothing except that the average voter doesn’t understand left-liberal/right-conservative. Polling on issues shows average Americans to be way left of where they say they are. You do show some glimmer of recognition that the Republican party has moved to a place where anyone who believes in facts and reason is to the left of them. Let’s be honest, you still identify as a conservative Republican to fit into the journalistic market niche you find yourself in.




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  23. Rob in CT says:

    By the way, I think it’s pretty clear the media wasn’t worth 15 points for Kerry/Edwards (or anything really). That Newsweek guy was delusional.




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  24. Rob in CT says:

    The self-identification thing is awfully squishy, also. For everyone. First off, most people have a natural inclination to self-identify as moderate or conservative. Moderate b/c people have a natural tendency to see their own views as sensible and, thus, they must be moderate (see also: Jay Tea thinks he’s a moderate). Conservative because of a decades-long campaign by the Right to smear the word “Liberal” which has been very successful. Also because can be taken to mean a desire to maintain the status quo, which lots of people are inclined to want to do. That this doesn’t match up well with current political Conservatism (which mostly, though certainly not exclusively, is about changing the status quo) doesn’t appear to matter.

    When people are polled on issue positions, they turn out to be far more liberal than the self-identification suggests (not that this makes the population a group of raging liberals – just that they look an awful lot less Conservative than just the self-ID data suggests). So what’s up?




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  25. Jay Tea says:

    @steve: I haven’t read that specific book, but the story is one of legend. One author put their entire “book” on the web for free — http://www.bosamar.com/.

    I don’t think a movie could do the tale justice.

    J.




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  26. steve says:

    I think that James is largely correct here. Regardless of how people self report, the press leans a bit to the left (most studies of independents show that self reported independents do have political leanings), but the story does not end there. When conservative writers who work at major media sites talk about this, they nearly all note that it is not the actual content they write that leans left, it is what they choose to cover. Additionally, one point not covered in these reports is outright advocacy journalism. The wife watches CNBC a lot. The right leaning people there, think Kudlow, engage in what I think is clearly advocacy journalism. Has anyone seen studies looking at advocacy journalism?

    Steve




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  27. john personna says:

    @steve:

    most studies of independents show that self reported independents do have political leanings

    I think there is also some difference between the things those studies show, and the “take away” often attributed to them. IIRC, they purport that if you are “coming at this from the right” then a position that may be “centrist” in the current landscape gets “downgraded” because you are “really” right. Silly. It’s actually a way to wave away the current position, especially given that someone else holding the same position can be “really” left.

    Also: If we are going to be suspicious of self-reporting, we need to be doubly suspicious of “personal” media analysis. Like “Mr. 15 percent” above, people can come to these “feelings” and think them true.




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  28. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    In related news: The sun rises in the east, the earth spins around the sun and smoking crack is bad for one’s health.




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  29. liberty60 says:

    I think it is interesting that the litmus test issues in the article seem to be social issues not economic ones.
    I would agree (based on nothing more than my own observations-YMMV) that most reporters tend to be more socially liberal than the majority.
    But I have also noticed that they tend to identify with the economic interests of the RepublicansM
    For instance, while the vast majority of America is worried about jobs, the DC media has accepted unquestioningly the idea that the most pressing issue is budget and tax cutting.

    I also think it bears noting that “journalist” covers a lot of territory- journalism is a lot like theater- you have a handful of A list stars who become the face of it, while the other 98% live a very different existance yet are unseen and unheard.
    The A listers that we are mostly talking about generally live in the same neighborhoods, send their kids to the same schools, and shop at the same stores as the Beltway politicos they cover- so it shouldn’t be surprising their economic agenda is the same.




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  30. jan says:

    This was another well-sourced thread I enjoyed reading. However, even though the statistics may illustrate some media bias slanted towards the left, I think the nuances and subtleties of the MSM are far more skewed than statistical analysis will show.

    The milieu that most main stream journalists live in is saturated with social injustice content. Even the schools attended are top-heavy in left-of-center professors resulting in a left-of-center indoctrination of sorts. So, journalists tend to enter their careers with a POV that is not middle ground or centrist by any means.

    It reminds me of Pauline Kael’s much publicized comment conveyed in a NYT’s interview: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

    What can be taken from such a comment is that oftentimes journalists live in a world where their associations are confined to like-minded people giving them the illusion that their POV is the majority, rather than just a small slice.

    The Canadian Free Press wrote some examples of what they cited as “Major Network Bias,” back in 2/21/11. And, The American Thinker, a conservative, thoughtful site, wrote a good piece last March saying that NPR’s liberal renditions are due to a lack of awareness, and just not being able to see their own bias.

    In their own eyes, they are not liberal. They’re just right. They look around and see their circle of educated, Panera-eating, Wal-Mart-bashing cohorts. They talk to others in their set, others who see identifying themselves as Democrats to be as unnecessary as to identify themselves as human. After all, what else would they be? They belong to the same clubs and organizations, shop at the same stores and farmers’ markets, and work in the same sheltered workplaces. They know that George Soros and James Carville are angels, while David Koch and Karl Rove are devils. Like Steve Inskeep, they know that NPR must be unbiased, since a good number of conservatives listen to it.

    This is how they saw and consequently treated Juan Williams, when he was given his walking papers. The higher ups there arbitrarily decided that he said something politically incorrect about Muslims, and so he was gone.

    Bernie Goldberg’s book, Bias, is another well-researched analysis of his own journalistic experiences with network media. Of course he will be immediately discredited because he now works for FOX.

    Yet another example of media bias, IMO, is our current DOJ, under Eric Holder: his handling, or mishandling, of the Black Panthers voting intimidation; Khalid Sheik Mohammed prosecution, ultimately delaying his trial 10 years; the ATF gun-running embarrassment to Mexico (and cover-up); and even the current Gibson Guitar prosecution. With our green-energy jobs going under losing jobs, here we have Eric’s Holder’s DOJ putting their thumb on this American Icon, which provides American employment, when the DOJ is letting a competing company, Fender (a democratic donor), go about it’s business constructing guitars out of the same disputed wood. So, how publicized are these stories? IMO, they are muted in the MSM and mainly discussed and deservedly lambasted on the Internet and radio. This would certainly not be the case if it was an R presidency with an R run DOJ, as the MSM would be having these stories front and center on their pages, day in and day out, like they did with Abu Ghaib.




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  31. steve says:

    American Thinker? Thoughtful? When did that start? More seriously, I dont know anyone on the left who thinks Carville or Soros is an angel. The people I know on the left shop at WalMart. They own guns and a bunch of them served in the military.

    Having grown up in the Midwest, and now living in the red part of PA, I see some of the same things, only in the reverse. People think Koch and Rove are good guys, though I have never heard them called angels, they think they are obviously right and the NYC/DC elites are all wrong.

    As an aside, the wife has family in Philadelphia. I got to hear and read more about the Black Panther case than I wanted. The cop in the family wishes that the national press would leave this alone. The local cops know what a joke the New Black Panthers are, and do not consider them a threat. Having read the details, I agree with him.

    Steve




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  32. jan says:

    @steve:

    American Thinker? Thoughtful? When did that start? More seriously, I dont know anyone on the left who thinks Carville or Soros is an angel.

    The American Thinker is just that. It thinks in American terms, not social progressive ones, which creates an allergic reaction to many when reading it. However, it’s conservative perspective doesn’t take away from how thoughtful, well-researched or written their ideas are presented.

    The “angels’ comment, as you probably are well-aware, was an ironical exaggeration — creative license, if you will, when writing an article criticizing the elite press that is sure to create a mud-slingling response from the left. One only questions the all-knowing MSM at their own peril of being called dumb and/or a publication without any merit.

    Also, when does the left ever criticize Carville or Soros as they do Rove or the Koch Brothers? After all both Carville and Rove are political operatives for their particular parties. And both Soros and Koch are rich. However, the Koch Brothers are not investing in drugs or attempting to take over the world as much as Soros seems to be attempting to do, especially with his SOS project which failed in the 2010 midterms.




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  33. Moosebreath says:

    “It thinks in American terms, not social progressive ones,”

    Good to know you think social progressives aren’t Americans, jan.




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  34. Ted Joy says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve looked at the Pew study you’re talking about but when I did a couple of things stuck out for me.

    First, when you get into the guts of the thing and see how the journalists report their stances on various issues — whether they describe themselves as liberal or not — the positions they espouse are significantly more to the left than that of the American people as a whole.

    Secondly, Pew also breaks their data down into — at least — two groups of journalists: locals and nationals.

    The locals are the folks who, basically, report on school board meetings, local politics, area sports, fires, floods, windstorms, crime and local society’s doings. These people are more to the left than the communities that they cover but not by a whole awful lot.

    The nationals are the folks who journalize for things like the TV and cable nets, national newspapers and mags, and, of course, the wire services. These people are very significantly to the left of most Americans.

    The reason their political/social/economic/cultural leanings is important is because their work is distributed throughout the country as a whole and, to a very great degree, sets the terms of the national dialogue.




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