Monday, March 03, 2008

Media Bias = Public Bias?

The slant the media places on a story is often of concern to politicians, news analysts and academics. The perception is that a negative slant on a story about any individual, celebrity or politician, or brand, be it a Whitehall department, public service or high street emporium, translates into a negative impression of that individual or brand among the public. While such media effects can be contested wholly, and can be changed by experience or rejected by an audience (so they can be transient), there is a logic to the media effects argument. If an individual has little experiential knowledge, or the media is talking about a world that is closed to public scrutiny, where else can the public get their information from but the media. Hence, if this is true, any impression gained of the players will be formed by the media comment on them. This seems particularly logical for politicians. Because the are engaged in permanent campaigning and so always spin the positives of their actions, but the public cannot perform any checks on their claims, they allow the media to inform them of the facts; this allows political editors and journalists great power in shaping perceptions.

Friend and colleague David Phillips has developed a tool for comparative analysis of bias in media coverage, currently this looks at Google News feeds and is a fascinating tool when looking at election contests or straight fights between two leaders. It certainly can offer insights into the reporting of politicians.

Looking at Britain only, and comparing coverage of Cameron and Brown, Cameron gets neutral coverage. So there is little bias either way suggesting that there is more information than comment. Brown, however, receives more slanted coverage, 75% of which is negative. Therefore when both leaders feature in an article, Cameron is reported on whereas Brown receives negative commentary. In contrast when Cameron and Clegg feature side-by-side, Cameron receives positive commentary while Clegg is treated neutrally. More interestingly when Brown and Clegg are both covered, bias is mixed. The right wing press are critical of both on Europe but tend to favour Clegg over Brown. The left-wing and Scottish press overwhelmingly favour Clegg but Brown is given some positive comments from quality papers such as the Times in a straight fight with Clegg.

What does this tell us, well the tool can be refined and perhaps a three way analysis would be more useful. But, if this is indicative of the average bias towards the respective leaders, and there is some link to public perceptions of them, can this explain why Cameron, in a poll today, is seen as the best prime minister (by a narrow margin) that the Conservatives seem to have popularity sown up, but that the Liberal Democrats and Clegg are holding firm. In other words, do these straight fights replicate thinking on the leaders and between Brown and Cameron, both in the media and public opinion, Cameron wins but Clegg has some positive associations for those who reject both? If you accept the media effects thesis then this may well be evidence of an actual effect.

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