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Monday, March 14, 2005

Is Fox the Only Biased Cable News Operation?

You might well think the answer to the question posed in the headline above this post is "yes" if all you read on the topic is the latest report of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists on "The State of the News Media."

You can click on the headline above this post to go to report's content analysis of cable news, comparing the prevalence of opinion in news reporting at Fox, MSNBC and CNN. The report also includes sections focusing on daily newspapers, broadcast news, radio news, online news and other categories.

The Project's report is already generating significant MSM attention, as The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz - who is also host of a CNN media discussion program - gets front page play in the Style section this morning with a piece on the report that is topped with these grafs:

"In covering the Iraq war last year, 73 percent of the stories on Fox News included the opinions of the anchors and journalists reporting them, a new study says.
"By contrast, 29 percent of the war reports on MSNBC and 2 percent of those on CNN included the journalists' own views.
"These findings -- the figures were similar for coverage of other stories -- "seem to challenge" Fox's slogan of "we report, you decide," says the Project for Excellence in Journalism."

Kurtz quoted a Fox executive saying the top-rated cable news operation doesn't censor its anchors and notes that viewers don't want "to look at a cookie-cutter, force-feeding of the same items hour after hour."

MSNBC declined to comment, according to Kurtz.

CNN spokesman Christa Robinson told Kurtz the study "reaffirms what anyone watching CNN already knows: CNN's reporting is driven by news, not opinion."

The Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists are two sides of the same coin, being headed by Tom Rosenstiehl, former media critic of The Los Angeles Times and chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek magazine. The Project is affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was formed in 1997. The Project's web site describes the organization's reason for being as follows:

"The Project was started because of widely held concern that this is a critical moment for journalism.
"Increasingly, the profession seems overwhelmed by the sheer size of the media, by hidebound habits, by infotainment, by the quest for sensation and gossip, by the imperatives of the stock market or by a pursuit of ever-fragmenting audiences that lead us ever-farther from home."

The Project is very much a MSM-oriented professional organization that seeks to defend and perpetuate traditional MSM approaches to news reporting. Put another way, the Project serves as something of an unofficial voice of the establishment media.

One of the main reasons the Project's report is likely to spark some controversy is the ambiguous nature of its criteria for defining the presence of opinion in news reports. While stressing the report's authors were not trying to measure "bias," they nevertheless did base their content analysis on:

"How many sources stories contained and how much the stories shared with the audience about those sources.
"The degree to which stories that involved controversy reflected more than one side of the story.
"Whether stories contained the journalists' own opinions, unattributed to any sourcing or reporting."

There is much to be said about the adequacy of the Project's approach here - especially with regard to whether bias and opinion are the same thing. In fact, I would argue that bias and opinion are virtually identical and thus measuring one is measuring the other.

To illustrate, let's look a news article that appears above the fold on the front page of Kurtz's Post by reporter Peter Slevin. The article was headlined by the Post copy desk with this crimped, one-column note: "Battle on teaching evolution sharpens."

More interesting is Slevin's lede, which is this:

"Propelled by a polished strategy crafted by activists on America's political right, a battle is intensifying across the nation over how students are taught about the origins of life. Policymakers in 19 states are weighing proposals that question the science of evolution."

Notice how the second sentence puts an interesting spin on an otherwise factual piece of information. The fact is that 19 states are considering proposals on teaching of evolution. The spin is that those proposals "question the science of evolution."

While I haven't read any of the 19 proposals and I doubt that Slevin has either, it seems likely he could just as accurately have written that sentence like this:

"Policymakers in 19 states are weighing proposals that require balanced teaching of evidence for and against evolution."

Or like this:

"Policymakers in 19 states are weighing proposals that require teachers to give equal time to evidence presented by scientists who support evolution and scientists who support the 'intelligent design' approach."

Or even like this:

"Policymakers in 19 states are weighing proposals that require teachers to disclose allegations by intelligent design proponents that evolution advocates have falsified at least some of their most widely used textbook examples."

Each of these alternative renderings presupposes a particular understanding of the evolution versus intelligent design controversy, just as Slevin's construction appears to presuppose yet another understanding. Given the prefacing sentence about the influence of political activists of the Right, Slevin appears to be framing the issue as political activists versus science, which happens to support evolution.

My point here is that reporting necessarily involves the journalist's philosophical, ideological, religious and other assumptions about the public policy issues being reported. I suspect Slevin would claim his lede is as objective as it could possibly be, but would he be as confident about the objectivity of the other approaches described above? Probably not, because they assume different things about the nature of the controversy than he appears to assume.

We're going to ask Slevin for a comment on this point. And it will be interesting to see if Kurtz has anything to add.

UPDATE: The Project's report also looked at the coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign by 16 daily newspapers, the four major nightly newscasts, the three network morning news shows, nine cable news programs and nine Web news sites. Among the conclusions: President Bush received significantly more negative coverage than did Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry. You can read a MyWay summary here and the full report here. Thanks to RatherBiased.com's Matthew Sheffield for pointing me to the MyWay story.