Biased News Coverage Can Lead to Less Independent Voting

October 8, 2013
By Jenny Li Fowler, HKS Communications

It appears media bias in political coverage is an age-old practice in the United States, and more exposure to partisan media has resulted in greater polarization in voting.
Matthew Baum, Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications, and co-author Tim Groeling of UCLA ask two main questions in their Working Paper, “Partisan News Before Fox.” How did the partisanship of newspapers affect news content, and does the decline of partisan newspapers help explain the rise of so-called split-ticket voting?
The authors did a content analysis of both the degree and influence of partisanship in two historical newspapers – the Los Angeles Timesfrom 1885-1986 (affiliated with the Republican Party until the 1960s, and subsequently affiliated with the Democratic Party) and the Democratic affiliated Atlanta Constitutionfrom 1869-1945 – to address the first question. They collected information on newspaper editorial stances from 1932-2004 to analyze the second question.
Senator obituaries were also a data source. “The party affiliations and dates of death of all senators are publicly archived, allowing us to know when such an event occurred, even if the newspaper in question chose not to cover it,” write the authors. “Each senator’s official senate biography should also provide us with a reasonably objective baseline against which to measure news coverage.”
“Newspaper content was heavily influenced by partisan affiliation,” says Baum. “For instance, when the L.A. Times’ partisan affiliation shifted in the 1960s, so too did the content of its coverage of partisan figures, in directions consonant with the paper's party affiliation.”
Furthermore, the authors write, “…we find a significant positive correlation between the proliferation of independent newspapers and split-ticket voting.”
“Our findings suggest that partisan media may enhance polarization by facilitating greater partisan sorting,” adds Baum. “In this instance, sorting implies consistency in voting along party lines in both Presidential and Congressional elections.”
“I think there are some implications concerning how the media influences political polarization in the current era,” argues Baum. “More polarized voting – that is, fewer voters willing to vote for an opposing party’s candidates – appears to be one of the culprits in enhancing gridlock in Washington. To the extent that we would like to reduce partisan polarization, one policy tool that policymakers have is media regulatory policy. A regulatory regime geared toward facilitating the competitiveness of broad-reaching, less niche oriented news outlets might indirectly help reduce partisan polarization in voting patterns, and perhaps subsequently with Washington policymaking.”
Matthew Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and professor of public policy. His research focuses on delineating the effects of domestic politics on international conflict and cooperation in general and American foreign policy in particular, as well as on the role of the mass media and public opinion in contemporary American politics.

Matthew Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications

Matthew Baum, Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and professor of public policy

“Our findings suggest that partisan media may enhance polarization by facilitating greater partisan sorting,” says Baum.

 


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