The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Journalists may be liberal, but this doesn’t affect which candidates they choose to cover.

Here’s how we checked.

President Trump answers a question from PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor during a coronavirus task force briefing on March 29. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The media is President Trump’s favorite punching bag — even in a time of crisis. Trump — and his allies — frequently deride the media, both for how they cover his administration and which stories they choose to cover.

Indeed, the president has repeatedly claimed that the media selectively chooses to cover stories that make him — and Republicans more generally — look bad and ignore those that make him look good, while doing the opposite for Democrats.

But is Trump right? Is the media really biased against conservatives in which stories they choose to cover?

Social scientists have done a lot of research on how ideology affects how the media covers various stories. But they have done almost no research on whether ideological bias affects what stories get journalists’ attention and are actually covered.

Studying what we term “gate-keeping bias” — i.e., bias in which potential news stories journalists choose to cover and editors assign and publish or broadcast — is inherently tricky. Identifying the full range of stories that journalists could report on is hard. It could be that journalists are picking a representative sample of stories to cover and that information just happens to favor one party or another.

Studying this issue is important because the news media have a great deal of power in setting the agenda for public discussion and influencing what the public cares about and what issues they focus on.

We checked. We found no evidence of left/right bias in what U.S. political journalists for newspapers choose to cover.

How we did our research

Our new research set out to see whether Trump and his allies are right, and to test whether political reporters are ideologically biased toward liberals or Democrats.

To test this possibility, we did three things.

First, we sent a survey out to the more than 13,000 political journalists who write for the many newspapers in the United States. We found these journalists using the U.S. Newspaper List. Among the 13,000 on our original list, about 13 percent responded to our survey. This response rate is similar to other surveys of journalists that have been done in the past, perhaps even a bit higher. Our survey gave us a representative view of where journalists stand.

In the survey, we directly asked journalists about their own ideological leanings. Then we asked them to make decisions about hypothetical news stories about either a liberal or a conservative running for office, in what social scientists call a conjoint experiment design.

Second, we collected information on the types of people political newspaper journalists choose to follow on Twitter. This allowed us to map the full network of people with whom journalists interact through that medium.

Finally, we ran a real-world correspondence experiment of our respondents’ actual choices to either cover or not cover a potential news story. Correspondence experiments — which involve corresponding with the subject or subjects — help audit individuals’ behavior in the real world. This approach has been used to test for bias in hiring by sending out fictional resumes, housing by sending out housing applications, and so on.

We created an email account and from there, sent an email from a purported candidate running for that state’s legislature, asking the reporter to interview someone about the candidate’s campaign. We randomly assigned journalists to receive an email from either a liberal or conservative candidate.

Journalists are very liberal

In our survey data, we found that U.S. political journalists are overwhelmingly liberal. Of the journalists who responded to our survey, 78 percent said that they identified with or leaned toward a certain party/ideology. Of those who did say they identified with a political party, 8 in 10 said they were liberal/Democrats.

However, the survey data left us with two pretty big problems. First, about 1 in 4 of the journalists claimed to be independent. Given that most independent citizens actually lean toward one side or the other, where do the many “independent” journalists lean ideologically? Or are they truly independent? Second, about 1 in 3 of those who responded to the survey chose not to fill out the question on ideology.

To get past these hurdles and measure ideology for a broader pool of journalists, we collected information for all the journalists in our sample who were on Twitter and who those people choose to follow on that platform. We then used a statistical method that assesses the proportion of those followed who were liberal or conservative. This method is remarkably good at identifying individuals’ political leanings. We also found that this measure of how liberal journalists are correlated well with the responses of those who actually answered the ideology question on our survey.

Political journalists responded equally to liberal and conservative candidates’ requests for coverage

On average, the journalists in our samples are far to the left of the average Twitter user and even to the left of prominent liberal politicians like former president Barack Obama. So, does that influence what candidates they choose to cover or not cover?

In both our survey experiment and our correspondence experiment of journalist behavior in the real world, we found that journalists are just as likely to cover “conservative” candidates as they are to cover “liberal” candidates.

Political reporters were just as likely to respond to our state candidate’s request to be covered whether the candidate was portrayed as very conservative or very progressive. This didn’t differ between liberal and conservative journalists; journalists weren’t more likely to cover a candidate of their own ideology. Journalists also weren’t more likely to respond to conservative candidates in areas that voted overwhelmingly
for Trump in 2016.

In short, despite being overwhelmingly liberal themselves, journalists show a great deal of impartiality in the types of candidates that they choose to write about when a potential story is presented to them.

Why do (mostly liberal) journalists respond to conservative and liberal candidates equally? Many journalists are trained to be impartial in their coverage. Powerful norms of balanced coverage in the journalism profession appear to shape journalists’ decisions in what they choose to cover.

The TMC newsletter is changing shape! Sign up here to keep receiving our smart analysis.

Hans Hassell is an assistant professor of political science at Florida State University.

John Holbein is an assistant professor of public policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

Matthew Miles is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University-Idaho.