Bias in mainstream newspapers? Research shows it’s not as prevalent as you think.

January 29, 2021

Big papers are mostly bias-free when it comes to economic coverage. (Unsplash/Jon Tyson)

Mainstream newspapers cover economic developments mostly without ideological bias, according to a largest-of-its kind study of over 2 million articles published in outlets across the developed world, despite broad accusations and popular perceptions of the news media being biased. 

In an article published Jan. 11 in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, co-authors Mark A. Kayser of the Hertie School and Michael Peress of SUNY-Stony Brook found evidence that even amid signs of minor partisan bias in the tone and frequency of certain coverage of the economy, mainstream newspapers are tracking news about growth, unemployment and inflation mostly “faithfully.”

While newspapers often over-emphasize negative developments, “Most of the time in most countries, mainstream newspaper reporting on the economy is relatively accurate and ideologically unbiased,” they said.

That means newspapers are giving readers mostly solid information with which to judge economic performance and hold elected leaders accountable, in contrast to cable news and social media outlets more likely to serve up biased coverage. 

“We find very little evidence of partisan bias in the mainstream media in 16 countries and 32 newspapers,” Kayser told The Academic Times, noting that his and Peress’ research is an interesting complement to research showing “lots of evidence of partisan bias” coming from cable news and social media.

Biased coverage from those sources could explain the public’s distrust of the media, which Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer shows has mounted in recent years. While trust in social media dropped to 35%, traditional media saw a larger year-over-year decrease to just 53%.

In the U.S., Axios recently reported that 58% of respondents said they think that, "Most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.”

Kayser said that similar sentiments are common in many areas of the world, but until recently have been difficult to empirically investigate. In the case of newspapers, that’s both because of the sheer volume of text there is to analyze and more fundamentally because it’s hard to determine what counts as biased coverage of politics or society.

To get some sense of the general pattern of bias in media reporting, he said, it makes sense to focus on economics reporting, where it’s possible to compare the way newspapers are talking about trends against a relatively objective benchmark.

“How do you know what exactly is bias and how would you know if something is biased [if] there’s not an absolute thing to which you can compare it?” he asked. In the context of “reporting on the economy, there is a benchmark, there’s a real economy out there and you can compare the reporting on the economy to the actual economy.”

Prior research in this vein tended to focus primarily on English-speaking countries, limiting its insight into just how systematic partisan media bias is or isn’t across different societies. 

But with a multilingual research team and text analysis technology capable of processing articles at a previously unprecedented scale, Kayser and Peress could explore newspaper bias more systematically than ever before. They focused on 16 countries from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — including developed nations ranging from Australia and Japan to the U.K. and U.S. — and identified 1 right-leaning and 1 left-leaning mainstream newspaper from each location. 

To compare each newspaper’s reporting to objective economic indicators, the researchers gathered relevant data from the OECD and International Monetary Fund on growth, unemployment and inflation. They coded the millions of newspaper articles under study according to their tone and to the share of coverage devoted to each of the three indicators as compared to real economic outcomes.

The results revealed minimal bias in either the tone or the frequency of coverage in mainstream newspapers. While there was some evidence of partisan bias in the ways headlines about growth were worded, as well as in the amount of coverage that was dedicated to unemployment trends, the overall effects were small.

While there’s evidence of “moderate” negativity bias — the tendency to over-emphasize negative as opposed to positive economic developments — across the board among newspapers, it seemed not to be motivated by partisanship, according to Kayser.

“We find negativity bias, but we don’t find [much] partisan bias,” he said. “So the main message is, there’s no real partisan bias to write home about.”

Negativity bias likely has significant impacts on political incumbents in particular, Kayser added, pointing out that the tendency for the press to focus on what’s going wrong can contribute to increasingly negative evaluations of leaders currently in power.

“There’s speculation now that that’s probably the source of what we call the ‘cost of ruling,’” he said.

But he was surprised to find so little evidence of genuine partisan bias, particularly given the fever pitch of criticism the news media often takes for allegedly covering important events inaccurately.

“You’re kind of conditioned going into this [research] because you hear all the accusations and partisan debate,” he said. While he suspected it wouldn’t be overwhelming, “I was surprised at just how little bias there was.”

That’s important in a context where newspapers continue setting the agenda for the broader news ecosystem, according to Kayser. Even amid signs of declining readership, research indicates that mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post still have a major influence on what gets covered, and how.

But if that influence wanes, less reliable alternatives could fill the vacuum. 

“If it gets to the point where they lose that agenda-setting influence, and their readership is not so high, then that’s a new world in which partisan news would probably be more and more influential,” Kayser said.

The article “Does the Media Cover the Economy Accurately? An Analysis of Sixteen Developed Democracies,” published online on Jan. 11 in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, was co-authored by professor Mark A. Kayser of the Hertie School of Governance and associate professor Michael Peress of SUNY-Stony Brook.

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