Leveraging Tragedy: Bias in the Media


On July 20th of 2012, Jim Holmes walked into the midnight premiere of the movie The Dark Knight Rises and killed 12 people, and wounding another 59 before being apprehended by local police (KUSA-TV, 2012).  As the event unfolded, media organizations across the nation and the globe mobilized and began extensive coverage of the shooting that continues to this day.   While much of the initial coverage focused on the factuality of the event, there were errors that some in the media considered evidence of bias.   Most notably, was the suggestion by Brian Ross of ABC News, that the shooter might have links to the Tea Party, a mistake that some suggest is evidence of liberal bias in the media (Goldberg, 2012; Irvine, 2012; Scott, 2012).  Furthermore, Scott (2012), a Fox News commentator, suggested liberal bias extended beyond ABCs factual blunder towards politicization of gun use, noting the “media coverage of the movie theater massacre in Colorado spark[ed] another one-sided debate on gun control” (p. 2).  After completing a critical evaluation of the media event that included a traditional content analysis, this author found that the charges of bias are likely justified, although not one-sided; rather, bias appears to be a de facto presence in news media, despite the western journalistic norm of objectivity.

Approach

In order to understand whether Scott’s (2012) charge of media bias did or did not have merit, this author critically evaluated the news coverage of the shooting against McQuail’s (2010) standard of objectivity.  In addition, a basic content analysis was conducted to determine the extent to which the subject of gun control was associated with the shooting story, analyzing the total number of articles on the theater shooting on mainstream print and broadcast media organization’s websites, comparing that with how many articles associated the theater shooting with either gun control.  Moreover, the number of articles that associated gun control with the shooting were compared with Kohut and Remez’s (2009) report identifying public perception of news network ideology to determine whether the perceived ideology was associated with the amount of coverage. Finally, this author commented on the potential sources of bias in the coverage.

Evaluation of Objectivity: The Brian Ross Incident

            During a Good Morning America segment on the theater shooting with George Stephanopolis, Brian Ross described significant information related to the shooting, indicating, “There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Colorado tea party site as well. Talking about him joining the tea party last year. Now, we don’t know if this the same Jim Holmes, but this is Jim Holmes, Aurora, Colorado” (Byers, 2012, p. 1).  Of course, it turned out later that a completely different Jim Holmes was responsible for the shooting.  To what degree did Brian Ross’s statement meet the standard of objectivity?  According to McQuail (2010), information quality reflects the broadly shared public interest in reliable information from trusted source “that matches the reality of experience” (p. 200).  Westerstahl (1983) described the main components of objectivity as factuality and impartiality.   While the information was clearly not factual, it may or may not have been impartial.  It appears that Ross may have jumped directly to an existing liberal narrative of the Tea Party as right-wing extremists without checking sources to verify the factuality of the claim, certainly an error in professional judgment.  Potential sources of bias include either Ross’s socialization and attitudes, or an organizational routine that took shortcuts in order to capture audience share.  In either case, the information presented was neither factual, nor impartial, and therefore does not meet the standard for objectivity. 

The Theater Shooting and the Guns Debate

            While there appears to be some validity to Scott’s (2012) charge of bias against Ross, Scott also suggested a broader bias by the media to use the theater shooting to have a “one-sided” debate regarding gun control, conceivably to influence the public to take action to limit guns in some way.  In order to critically examine the charge of bias, this author conducted a traditional content analysis based on Berelson’s (1952) definition using the following parameters:

Table 1

Content Analysis Parameters

Subject

Parameter

Universe or sample

Mainstream U.S. print and broadcast media websites

Category frame

Original articles in the last 30 days

Unit of analysis

Articles referring to “theater shooting” and articles referring to “theater shooting” AND “gun control”

Table 1. Parameters for traditional content analysis of media bias in theater shooting coverage.

The websites analyzed included the CBS News, ABC News, NBC News, CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, and the Washington Post.  Each source was categorized based on their public perception, where the public perception of the broadcast media was based on Kohut and Remez (2009).  The print media did not have a third party referent for public perception of bias, therefore this author categorized the print media based on internal views of liberal or conservative bias.  The results are outlined below:

Table 2

Data from content analysis

Source

Medium

Perceived Bias

# Articles on “theater shooting”

# Articles on “theater shooting” AND “gun control”

% of coverage with political interpretation

ABC

Broadcast

Liberal

335

214

63.88%

CBS

Broadcast

Liberal

87

25

28.74%

CNN

Broadcast

Liberal

687

88

12.81%

Fox

Broadcast

Conservative

50

5

10.00%

IBD

Print

Conservative

14

3

21.43%

MSNBC

Broadcast

Liberal

1040

15

1.44%

NY Times

Print

Liberal

78

7

8.97%

Washington Post

Print

Liberal

386

69

17.88%

WSJ

Print

Conservative

50

45

90.00%

Table 2.  Data collected during content analysis of theater shooting coverage.

The information in Table 2 was analyzed to determine the degree to which the story was covered by mainstream media along liberal and conservative lines and the degree to which the story was interpreted by the media in a broader political context.  The analysis was limited insofar as did not include a qualitative interpretation as to the direction of the bias.  The results are outlined below:

Table 3

Results of content analysis

Subject

Perceived Bias

Total # of Articles

Median # articles

% of coverage with political interpretation

Bias towards selection Liberal

2613

435.5

  Conservative

114

38.0

Tendency towards politicization Liberal

418

69.7

16.0%

  Conservative

53

17.7

46.5%

Table 3.  Analysis of selection bias and tendency towards politicization of theater shooting coverage along conservative and liberal lines.

 

Discussion

It is clear that media organizations perceived as liberal by the public provided far more coverage of the story than did their conservative counterparts.  Equally clear, is that media organizations perceived as conservative were far likelier to provide a political interpretation of the story for their audience, in the broader context of the gun control narrative.  While the shooting was a key event, the public significance of the shooting triggered mediahype, where extensive coverage of the event and subsequent manufactured events created a media frenzy that media organizations were likely able to monetize.  Indeed, The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press (2012) found that the shooting overwhelmingly held audience interest over other stories, lending credence to the idea that the coverage of the tragedy was a commercial boon to most media organizations, perhaps a cause for the extensive coverage.

Given the economic potential of coverage, why then did the conservative press cover the story far less than the liberal press?  Perhaps the story did not fit into existing conservative narratives on gun rights?  Given the lack of a qualitative analysis, it is impossible to tell.  Equally so, the story may have served the liberal media both commercially, and in terms of their political narrative on the importance of gun control, both powerful influences to select and politicize the story.  Accordingly, both liberal and conservative organizations appear to be biased in their selection and presentation of the story.

Conclusion

Charges of media bias are commonplace and may very well be accurate in some cases, given that bias is likely structural, given the wide variety of forces influencing media.  Scott’s (2012) charge of bias on the part of the liberal media is supported by this author’s analysis, although it was not one-sided as was suggested.  Rather, bias appeared to be a persistent presence in both liberal and conservative media organizations, or a fact of life in professional news organizations, despite their professed norms of objectivity.

 

 

References

Berelson, B. (1952). Content analysis in communication research. Glencoe, Ill.,: Free Press.

Byers, D. (2012, July 20, 2012). ABC draws possible Tea Party connection with alleged Aurora shooter  Retrieved August 5, 2012, from http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2012/07/aurora-abc-draws-possible-tea-party-connection-129568.html

Goldberg, J. (2012, July 24, 2012). Goldberg: TV reporter’s mistake is proof of media bias  Retrieved August 5, 2012, from http://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/Goldberg-TV-reporter-s-mistake-is-proof-of-media-3731943.php

Irvine, D. (2012). ABC Ties Colorado Shooter to Tea Party—Apologizes Later.  Retrieved from http://www.aim.org/don-irvine-blog/abc-ties-colorado-shooter-to-tea-party-apologizes-later/

Kohut, A., & Remez, M. (2009). Fox News Viewed as Most Ideological Network. Washington DC: The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press.

KUSA-TV. (2012, July 22, 2012). Suspect named James Holmes in custody, 12 dead in Aurora movie theater shooting, 58 wounded  Retrieved August 5, 2012, from http://www.9news.com/rss/story.aspx?storyid=278707

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Scott, J. (Writer). (2012). Fox News Watch: How the media covered the Colorado massacre: Fox News Network.

The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. (2012, August 1, 2012). Colorado Rampage Tops News Interest for July  Retrieved August 5, 2012, from http://www.people-press.org/2012/08/01/colorado-rampage-tops-news-interest-for-july/

Westerstahl, J. (1983). Objective news reporting. Communication Research, 10(3), 403-424.

 

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2 Comments on “Leveraging Tragedy: Bias in the Media”

  1. Tom Tonkin says:

    Richard, this is an excellent content analysis study. Good job.


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