February 5, 2000

The Tough Job of Communicating with Voters

Political Bias in the Media

Fewer See Political Bias

Overall, the public sees less political bias in news coverage today than it did a decade ago. Although a solid majority — 69% — of Americans see news coverage as containing at least a fair amount of political bias, that percentage has decreased from 76% in 1989. At the same time, however, the percentage of people saying news coverage contains a great deal of bias has increased seven points from 25% in 1989 to the current 32%.

In addition, while news coverage is seen as containing political bias, it is not necessarily viewed as favoring either party. When asked which political party news organizations are biased toward in this year’s presidential election, a plurality (48%) say there is no partisan bias. However, those who see a great deal of political bias are much more likely to perceive a Democratic bias in presidential coverage than a Republican bias (34% vs. 16%).

Rather than one party being favored more than another, the public may be concerned about other forms of bias that can skew political coverage. In a September 1999 Pew Research Center survey, for example, 45% said that news organizations are too tough on female presidential candidates and 40% considered the media too hard on those far behind in the race. In the same poll, 42% said close scrutiny by news organizations is not worth it because too many good people are discouraged from running for president, up from 32% in 1987.

Republicans, especially those with close ties to the party, consider the media more politically biased than do Democrats. Four-in-ten Republicans see a great deal of political bias in news coverage, whereas only 27% of Democrats agree. And 54% of Republicans who have donated money to political candidates see a high degree of bias in news coverage; 30% of Democrats who have made campaign contributions agree. Among activist Republicans — registered voters who have attended a political party or meeting — half notice a great deal of bias, compared to 27% of activist Democrats.

When asked about coverage of the presidential campaign, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that the media favors the opposite party. Among all Republicans, 37% see a Democratic bias, as do 46% of the GOP who disapprove of Bill Clinton. By contrast, 19% of Democrats see a GOP bias in news coverage. Independents divide fairly evenly: 16% see a bias toward Democrats, while 13% say the slant is Republican.

Blacks tend to see more Republican bias than whites. Almost a quarter (24%) of blacks say the media favors Republicans, compared to 12% of whites. A majority (52%) of blacks, however, say there’s no partisan bias.

C-SPAN Most Objective

When asked to rate the objectivity of a wide range of news sources, C-SPAN comes out on top, while daily newspapers are viewed as the most biased. More than a third (35%) of Americans say C-SPAN is completely objective, the highest percentage of any source tested. In contrast, only 18% consider their daily newspapers to be completely objective.

Even among those who see a great deal of bias in overall news coverage, 31% consider C-SPAN to be completely objective. But only 13% of this group considers their daily newspaper to be completely objective.

Judgments of objectivity and bias vary somewhat according to party affiliation. For example, 31% of Democrats say morning television shows such as the Today Show and Good Morning America are completely objective, compared to 19% of Republicans.

Among those who say newspapers are very biased, four-in-ten are Democrats and 28% are Republicans. However, of those who see nightly network news as very biased, 38% are Republicans while 29% are Democrats.

Men tend to see bias more than women. Fully 60% of those who perceive nightly network news as very biased are men, compared to 40% who are women. Of those who say cable news is very biased, 57% are men and 43% are women.

Few Swayed by Endorsements

The vast majority of Americans say that endorsements by celebrities, local newspapers, religious leaders, or union officials would not influence their votes. Although Colin Powell is the most influential of the 17 individuals or institutions tested, 62% say his endorsement would make no difference in their choice of a presidential candidate.

The impact of an endorsement, however, varies significantly among demographic groups. For instance, 39% of men age 50 and older say an endorsement by Powell would make them more likely to vote for that candidate, compared to 24% of women in the same age group. And 35% of senior citizens say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Jimmy Carter; only 13% of those under age 30 agree.

The amount of influence endorsements have also depends on a person’s partisanship. Fully 33% of Republicans say Powell’s support of a presidential candidate would make them more likely to vote for that person compared to 20% of Democrats. About a third (32%) of Democrats would be influenced by Carter’s endorsement compared to only 17% of Republicans.

Some personalities or entities tested have a negative influence on people’s voting choices. For example, 5% say they would be more likely to vote for someone endorsed by Newt Gingrich but 24% would be less inclined to vote for Gingrich’s choice; 67% say Gingrich’s endorsement would make no difference in their support of a presidential candidate.