How biased are the media really?

Mark Kayser and Michael Peress crunch data on two million articles on economic issues, in a new study in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science.

Even before the era of “fake news”, the notion of partisan media bias had long been a rallying cry for both right and left, fomenting public mistrust of the media. But just how biased is the mainstream media really? And does news coverage provide voters with the information they need to hold governments accountable for things they care about – like the economy? 

In short, the answer is yes, according to a recent large-scale study evaluating mainstream newspaper coverage of the economy in six languages and in 16 developed countries by Mark Kayser, Hertie School Professor of Applied Methods and Comparative Politics, and Michael Peress, Associate Professor of Political Science at SUNY Stonybrook.

Those trying to understand the impact of the economy on election outcomes often focus on economic conditions. The economy is a big factor in voters’ decisions and many election studies look at how economic information influenced the vote. So to assess electoral accountability, it is important to understand whether there is bias built into this information. Kayser and Peress wanted to understand just how media bias might influence voters’ perception of the economy.

The researchers took more than two million articles in 32 newspapers – one left-leaning and one right-leaning for each country – and employed automated text analysis to find information related to three economic indicators. The data revealed that the tone of most mainstream newspapers is in line with economic developments, although coverage increases when there is negative economic news. 

“Data from this study, the first large-scale cross-national analysis of newspaper coverage of the economy, suggest that mainstream newspapers cover the economy, in both tone and frequency, with reasonable fidelity,” Kayser and Peress write in the article, "Does the Media Cover the Economy Accurately? An Analysis of Sixteen Developed Democracies", published in January 2021 in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science. “The only notable exception to this characterization is the tendency for newspapers to devote more coverage to negative economic outcomes.”

This is important because it’s not just a matter of whether bias exists in the mainstream media, but rather whether voters are being manipulated by ideological bias in the press. Is there partisan bias or does negative news simply make better headlines than positive news?

The authors did find minimal evidence for partisan bias in headlines referring to growth and in the frequency of unemployment coverage. And while they did observe bias toward negative coverage, as newspapers tend to write about bad news more often than good news, it was not partisan. Partisan bias in terms of frequency of coverage and tone “is mostly either weak or non-existent,” the authors said.