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.