Junk Science of Liberal Media Bias

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The Media Research Center is the conservative watchdog group that is the most influential intellectual authority behind the claims that the media "slant reports in favor of the liberal position on issues."

While there may in fact be instances where the media’s coverage is tainted by a political bias, the standard of scientifically validating this causal path goes beyond simply collecting "a mountain of evidence."

The MRC claims to have proven the existence of liberal media bias through "sound scientific research," but yet their scientific methodology relies solely upon inductive method of investigation while never using a more comprehensive Hypothetico-Deductive Method of scientific inquiry.

The MRC claims that their methodology "regularly documents the national media's ongoing liberal bias," but they rely solely upon data-driven analysis that is polluted with many pitfalls associated with inductive reasoning.

By failing to scientifically validate their claims through top-down, deductive means, then their liberal bias theory is really nothing more than a unsubstantiated hypothesis.

This post discusses the following topics:

There are very distinct differences between a scientific Hypothesis, Theory and Law.

From the Marriam-Webster online dictionary:

HYPOTHESIS implies insufficient evidence to provide more than a tentative explanation <a hypothesis explaining the extinction of the dinosaurs>.
THEORY implies a greater range of evidence and greater likelihood of truth <the theory of evolution>.
LAW implies a statement of order and relation in nature that has been found to be invariable under the same conditions <the law of gravitation>.

The Media Research Center’s rhetoric describes "liberal bias" as if they have established it to the level of a "law" or "theory." However, the MRC’s inductive scientific methodology has never evolved their claims beyond the level of establishing a hypothesis that the media’s coverage is tainted by a liberal bias.

The MRC likes to assert that they’ve already proven liberal bias by collecting "a mountain of evidence." Here is an example:

"The key to the MRC’s effectiveness is the ability to prove bias by using scientific studies and word-for-word quotes from the media." [emphasis added]

From the online CIA book"Psychology of Intelligence Analysis":

"Scientific method, for its part, requires that one seek to disprove hypotheses rather than confirm them.
In other words, a hypothesis can never be proved by the enumeration of even a large body of evidence consistent with that hypothesis, because the same body of evidence may also be consistent with other hypotheses. A hypothesis may be disproved, however, by citing a single item of evidence that is incompatible with it."

In order for the MRC to prove liberal bias, then their approach should be to search for evidence that disproves the liberal bias hypothesis. If negative evidence is found, then this confirms the null hypothesis. The liberal bias hypothesis is then re-evaluated, redefined and clarified as to better isolate the conditions under which liberal bias is most likely to occur (i.e. when there is strong opposition from the Democratic Congressional leadership on specific domestic issues).

Instead, the MRC combs through the nightly newscasts to cherry pick evidence that confirms their liberal bias hypothesis.

The MRC’s claim to have proven liberal bias implies that they think that they have validated their hypothesis to the point of elevating it to a sound theory. They would argue that they accomplished this by conducting "thorough, comprehensive, and ongoing analysis based on quantitative and qualitative research."

But the MRC primarily relies upon accumulating qualitative instances of liberal bias by analyzing a large number of news stories. The MRC will emphasize the number of stories that they combed through in order to give a false impression that they performed a quantitative analysis.

For example, here is an excerpt from a MRC study investigating ABC’s alleged anti-war and liberal bias:

"In a review of 234 stories on ABC’s World News Tonight from January 1 to March 7, the Media Research Center found that ABC News failed its promise to serve the American people as an independent and objective observer."

A review of this study shows that the MRC only provides qualitative instances of ABC’s alleged anti-war/liberal bias, and provides no quantitative analysis. The MRC also ignores all other sources of bias. There are plenty of other economic constraints, institutional constraints, sociological factors, and influences from the field of journalism that the MRC fails to take into account.

David Levy’s "Tools of Critical Thinking" describes the process of inductive reasoning:

"Scientists use inductive thinking when creating or building theories. Initially, the scientist collects enough data that a pattern begins to emerge. From this pattern, he or she induces the underlying principle that appears to account for the pattern. In this way, the scientist formulates an explanation (that is, a theory) on the basis of specific observations."

The MRC relies solely upon inductive reasoning to find what they claim to be an underlying pattern of liberal bias. But their methodology for validating this liberal bias hypothesis never moves beyond this inductive means, and subsequently falls into many of the pitfalls of this type of data-driven analysis.

One of the biggest flaws with MRC’s methodology is that their sampled data sets appear to be driven by a "Confirmation Bias" and "Belief Perseverance Effect" as described by Levy:

* "To selective seek out observations that are consistent with our prior beliefs."
* "To ignore or reject observations that are inconsistent with our beliefs."

The MRC only shows instances of when news coverage is slanted towards the liberal point of view while ignoring any other instances of when it’s slanted towards the conservative point of view.

This indicates a flawed sampling methodology as explained by three more of Levy’s pitfalls:

* "One of the most pervasive errors involves jumping hastily to a conclusion on the basis of an insufficient or unrepresentative sampling of data."
* "To draw upon data from our memory solely because it is vivid or salient."
* "To ignore important statistical information, such as sample size and prior probability"

In the end, "Ye Shall Find Only What Ye Shall Seek" as Levy describes it -- The MRC is only looking for a liberal bias, and naturally, this is the only thing that they’re going to find.

The MRC claims to be using "sound scientific principles," but yet they fail to use a hypothetico-deductive method of scientific investigation that would allow them to overcome these pitfalls of inductive reasoning.

The MRC makes no effort to scientifically substantiate their liberal bias hypothesis beyond the point of claiming that the character of the news coverage is being driven by a politically bias.

By failing to use a theory-driven, deductive means of analysis, then the MRC fails to account for other viable explanations of the observed phenomena. There are other economic, political, cultural or sociological factors that could also provide a reasonable explanation for the data.

As a former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence explains:

"Alternative hypotheses need to be carefully considered -- especially those that cannot be disproved on the basis of available information. Heuer's concept of "Analysis of Competing Hypotheses" (ACH) is among his most important contributions to the development of an intelligence analysis methodology. At the core of ACH is the notion of competition among a series of plausible hypotheses to see which ones survive a gauntlet of testing for compatibility with available information. The surviving hypotheses--those that have not been disproved--are subjected to further testing."

Theory-driven deductive analysis provides a means to more accurately account for alternative explanations and other external economic, political, cultural or sociological factors.

The build-up to the war in Iraq provides a period of anomalous behavior for the media according to the liberal bias hypothesis.

The majority of the day-to-day beat coverage from the mainstream media was slanted towards the Executive Branch’s point of view on Iraq, and the President is conservative.

This Columbia Journalism Review article states that over 90% of the television stories originated from the Bush Administration during the build-up to the war in Iraq:

"According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the "official" truth."

Does this indicate that the media really suffer from a "Conservative Media Bias?" No. It just means that liberal bias hypothesis fails to accurately account and reasonably predict the behavior of the media in a representative number of situations. The MRC makes no attempt to discern between these different types of situations.

In this instance, there was an overwhelming pro-war bias to the news coverage because there was not a critical mass of liberal Congressional opposition to a foreign policy issue that involved secret intelligence.

Even though 126 Democrats from the House of Representatives voted against the war, there were 81 who voted for it, and a majority of Senate Democrats voted for the war (29 to 21). But most importantly, the Congressional Leadership from both parties supported the war and even co-sponsored the resolution to "Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq" -- S.J.Res. 45 [Daschle-Lott] and H.J.Res. 114 [Hastert-Gephardt].

So even though the most influential Congressional liberals supported the war in Iraq, the MRC still critiqued the pre-war news coverage based upon the assumption that the perceived anti-war bias of the selected anchors and correspondents was equivalent to a liberal bias.

Yet as indicated above, a representative sample of the television news networks would indicate that the news coverage had an overwhelmingly pro-war bias as evidenced by the media's adoption of the Bush Administration's framing of the issues.

I inductively analyzed five months of news coverage leading up to the war and observed that much of the coverage was being framed around the preparation, planning and timing of the war.

I hypothesized that the coverage was being driven by a perception by the media that the war in Iraq was inevitable. Therefore, it was widely viewed to be irrelevant to seriously investigate any contradictory evidence or viewpoints from the anti-war movement or from the International Community.

I tested this hypothesis on CBS White House Correspondent Bill Plante by asking him:

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: At what point did you realize that war was inevitable -- that they were determined to go to war?
BILL PLANTE: It seemed to me that war was almost inevitable as far back as the fall of 2002. It seemed all but inevitable at the beginning of 2003.

Plante latter conceded that the lack of coverage of skeptical viewpoints was due to the perceived inevitability of war:

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Even Hans Blix was saying that he may or may not have had them though. And even Scotty Ritter was saying we destroyed 90-95% of their capability. Even the CIA declassified documents from the Gulf War Syndrome was saying that a lot of this capability had been destroyed.
PLANTE: That's all true -- But if you take it as a given, as I've already suggested to you that we did, that the administration was hell-bent on going to war, then you could only point out the steps that were being taken down that path. Despite the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction found, and despite the fact that the international community disagreed.

I tested this Echo Chamber hypothesis on a number of other journalists and DC insiders, and I feel safe to say that the mainstream television journalists viewed war with Iraq as inevitable and therefore became an "Echo Chamber" to the Countdown towards war. I believe that this Echo Chamber hypothesis has a much higher rate of predicting the character of the five months of televisions news leading up to the war in Iraq than a supposed liberal media bias.

How does the Media Research Center treat this pre-war time period of stenographic reporting? By cherry picking unrepresentative and qualitative statements from Peter Jennings and the correspondents from ABC World News Tonight, and claiming that they are "harshly criticizing of the Bush administration and its policies" which MRC claims to have played a role in "undermining our government’s effectiveness in waging war."

The MRC is clearly driven by partisan political purposes, and is more concerned with advancing a conservative agenda than being an impartial and objective media watchdog group.

The MRC claims to be using scientifically sound methodology in establishing their liberal media bias theory, but their repeated use of flawed inductive methodology has never elevated their claims beyond the scientific status of an unsubstantiated hypothesis.

Proof of Liberal Bias in the Media