Why everyone thinks the media is biased against them

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During the American presidential election of 2004, there were a lot of news stories about the candidates to keep track of. John Kerry’s status as a war hero was questioned, in a story reported extensively in the media, by a political group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which declared him “unfit to serve.” Meanwhile, other reports challenged George W. Bush’s own service in the Texas Air National Guard, with controversy swirling in the media about why he lost flight status and whether he’d fulfilled his military service contract[1].

A Gallup poll[2] conducted in October 2004 found that 35 percent of respondents believed the media was biased in Kerry’s favor. Yet 26 percent of respondents felt the media was in fact biased in favor of Bush. Were they simply referring to different publications, or could both sides truly believe the media was biased against them?

The apparent contradiction is explained by a phenomenon known as “the hostile media effect.” The hostile media effect refers to the fact that when people on two opposing sides of a political issue view identical news coverage, both sides perceive that the coverage is biased against their side.

The fact that people on opposing sides perceive things differently was first demonstrated on a cool November afternoon in 1951, after a football game between Princeton and Dartmouth in Princeton’s Palmer Stadium[3]. The game was a rough one; one player broke his nose, another broke his leg, and both sides were issued a lot of penalties.

Afterward, written accounts from campus newspapers made it clear that students at the two schools had seen two very different versions of the same game. And when psychologists surveyed students from both schools, they found that while Princeton students viewed the game as “rough and dirty,” Dartmouth students were more likely to view the game as “clean and fair” or “rough and fair”[4].

Years later, psychologists showed that this kind of selective perception also applies to the way people interpret media—especially people with strong views on one or the other side of a political issue. In a study, participants were shown segments from American network news coverage of the events leading up to a 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Beirut by a Lebanese militia group—the so-called “Sabra and Shatila Massacre” later depicted in the documentary Waltz With Bashir.

Participants in the study were drawn from two populations with very different views—pro-Israeli student groups and pro-Arab student groups—as well as students with “mixed” or “neutral” feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The three groups were shown identical coverage of the massacre, then asked to quantify the number of positive and negative references to their own side.

The results showed that both the pro-Arab and pro-Israeli groups rated the coverage—and the journalists who created it—as being biased against their own side. Both pro-Arab and pro-Israeli partisan groups perceived more negative references to their own side than positive ones.

The researchers also found that the more participants knew about the issue, the more bias they perceived. Same with participants who were more emotionally involved in the issues[5].

Both groups also predicted that the coverage would sway nonpartisans against their side. They were wrong. In fact, students who’d rated themselves as neutral actually viewed the coverage as fairly balanced.

When people accuse the media of bias, the researchers concluded, it’s not just that they’re selfishly trying to obtain more positive coverage for their own side. It’s also that they’re actually perceiving the coverage differently.

In other words, when people disagree about politics, it’s not the case that they agree on the facts but have different values. It’s that their difference in values actually causes them to perceive the facts differently.

?References

1. Hitt, G. (2004, October 28). Media-bias charges rally republican base. The Wall Street Journal.
2. Media Research Center. Exhibit 2-7: Bias in the 2004 Presidential Campaign. (2009).
3. Kilpateick, F.P. (1952). Human behavior from the transactional point of view. Hanover, N.H.: Institute for Associated Research.
4. Hastorf, A.H., and Cantril, H. (1954). They saw a game: A case study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 129–134.
5. Vallone, R.P., Ross, L. and Lepper, M.R. (1985) The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.