Media Bias in Presidential Election Coverage, 1948-2008: Evaluation via Formal Measurement.
Dave D'Alessio's book is a scholarly attempt to understand the slippery concept of media bias in the context of presidential election coverage that spans about six decades. The author performed a recta-analysis of nearly one hundred scholarly studies to come up with a comprehensive understanding of the concept. He starts out, however, by asking the relevant question: "Exactly what is media bias, and why should anyone care about it?" (p. 5). The subsequent material argues that media bias is a departure from objectivity that includes the concepts of factuality and impartiality. Yet the account goes on to say that an individual's perception of media bias is filtered through the prism of subjectivity, making it a complex concept to understand. The author emphasizes that the anecdotal evidence of perceived media bias should not be mistaken for the existence of actual bias. He rightfully argues that credible proof of the existence of bias is only possible when the bias is systematic and sustained. As for the question of whether or not anyone should care about media bias, the author points to empirical studies suggesting that biased news routines can influence public opinion and voting behavior.
The contents of the book are clearly organized in six chapters, with the first three offering the most insightful material. In Chapter 1, the author delves into the nature of media bias. Citing several seminal works in this field, he lays out the struggle between conceptual and operational definitions of the concept. He points out that partisan and ideological biases are often confused with one another because Democratic politicians are typically associated with liberal ideologies and Republican politicians with conservative ones. He further argues that journalism has taken upon itself the concepts of fairness and balance, which are intricately woven into the concept of media bias. Therefore, one way of determining whether a news outlet is biased or not is to examine the amount of fairness and balance in its coverage. He also points out that for the sake of ease and simplicity, bias should not be limited by operational definitions like proportional front-page coverage. In this way, the author lays out the complexities and challenges one faces in conceptually and operationally defining bias. Still, by including more literature and by examining additional attempts to operationalize the concept of media bias, he might have been able to add more depth to this chapter.
Chapter 2 elaborates on the forces acting on the news, contending that the essence of journalism ideology is drama--and that therein, there lies news. In this light, the author points to research that suggests that reporters' partisan biases are secondary to their professional orientation. He succinctly summarizes the chapter by emphasizing that news media organizations are "part of a complex socioeconomic matrix, creating not a single force to influence news reporting in one direction, but numerous forces creating an intricate vortex of biases" (pp. 37-38).
The heart of the book lies in Chapter 3, which deals with the challenges of measuring bias. The author again acknowledges that the perception of media bias is a subjective process and that it depends, in part, on the personal ideology of the observer. He argues that it is easy to find bias in media if one adopts the reasoning process called "confirmation bias" or "instance confirmation" (p. 41)--which is nothing more than finding specific elements in media products that uphold one's charge. The study of media bias can become slightly more challenging when one resorts to the "hostile media effect," which is basically "the tendency to see the media as hostile to your ideology regardless of either the nature of your ideology or the actual content of the news media report in question" (p. 43). D'Alessio argues that this effect leads to selective perception, which is another way of interpreting or misinterpreting the meaning of observations through preexisting beliefs and attitudes. Thus, the author emphasizes that it is unreasonable to conclude that particular news stories and media generally are biased, simply because people claim they are. While this argument is well reasoned, however, it is the precise reason why developing objective and replicable measures to examine media bias is so important.
The author also uses Chapter 3 to examine other theoretical approaches to studying media bias such as cognitive dissonance and persuasion. He points to three categories of content analysis as a method examining media bias: first, examining "volumetric" biases that are concerned with the amount of coverage; second, assessing the valence or tone of the coverage; and, third, assessing a "selection" bias of one party or candidate over another in campaign stories (pp. 47-48). For his own meta-analysis, the author uses the d' statistic, which "is simply the difference between two proportions" (p. 51). Even though this statistic is relatively simple, its effectiveness in examining the metadata is debatable. Including measurements of media bias from additional studies might have added more clarity and depth to this important chapter in the book.
In the book's latter chapters, the author sheds more light on media bias, clarifies some myths surrounding media coverage and summarizes the findings of the meta-analysis. The heart of the book's arguments, though, are in its earlier chapters. There, D'Alessio provides important perspective on a critical issue in presidential politics. While its arguments could offer more depth in places, Media Bias in Presidential Election Coverage, as a whole, presents one of our most comprehensive works on the subject.
State University of New York at Oswego
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|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 28, 2013|
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