Associate professor Michael Wagner of the University of Wisconsin states on his web page for the institution in Madison that he has long sought to understand how well does democracy work. In a recent paper he co-wrote with Mike Gruszczynski of Austin Peay State University, Wagner sought to understand how news organizations contribute to democracy in providing information on policy and politicians. Their study found that conservative or “far-right” Republicans receive more coverage in newspaper articles and television segments than “far-left” Democrats.

Titled “Who Gets Covered? Ideological Extremity and News Coverage of Members of the U.S. Congress, 1993 to 2013,” the paper was published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 2017. The study’s abstract states:

“Does the news media cover ideological extremists more than moderates? We combine a measure of members of Congress’ ideological extremity with a content analysis of how often lawmakers appear in the New York Times from the 103rd to the 112th Congresses and on CBS and NBC’s evening newscasts in the 112th Congress. We show that ideological extremity is positively related to political news coverage for members of the House of Representatives. Generally, ideological extremity is not related to the likelihood of coverage for senators. Finally, we show that extreme Republicans are more likely to earn media attention than extreme Democrats.”

The period encompassed by the study stretched from January 1993 until January 2013. In sum, the authors analyzed 242,030 print articles and 1,680 broadcast news segments.

Members of Congress were scored according to an estimate of their ideology: a score of -1 indicates the legislator has the most liberal or leftist views and a score of 1 indicates the lawmaker has the most conservative views. A score of 0 marks a moderate. In the 113th Congress, for example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) got a score of −0.622 while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) got a score of 0.939.

The New York Times covered House lawmakers with outlier positions more than three times more frequently than those in the center. Party leaders in the House and committee chairs were also more likely to get coverage. NYT gave the conservative and liberal outliers in the Senate more than twice the level of coverage than those in the middle while being a leader or committee chair did not seem to have an impact on coverage. 

Broadcast media paid more attention to those members of the House with the most extreme views. NBC and CBS mentioned ideologically moderate senators and ideologically extreme senators at about the same rates. There was no difference in how much coverage they gave to male and female senators. Meanwhile, senators who headed legislative committees were mentioned less often than senators who did not. Senators who had served for multiple terms were more likely to be mentioned in broadcast news segments than less-experienced senators.

Generally speaking, far-right Republicans received more coverage than far-left Democrats, according to the report.

In an email response to Spero News, Professor Wagner said that he and the co-author used a scoring system called NOMINATE (Dynamic Weighted Nominal Three-step Estimation). The scoring system, wrote Wagner, uses a nominal three step estimation that takes into account all of the roll call votes cast by members of Congress. "So, the issues covered in our study are all issues on which Congress members are forced to take a specific position by voting for or against something (ex: a bill, an amendment). The issues are not cherry-picked by a particular domain such as gun rights or the definition of marriage, nor are they selected by rankings from different interest groups (though there are researchers who use methods that do this).”

In an extensive telephone interview, Wagner told Spero News that the fact that “far-right” Republicans receive the most media coverage may have at least three different explanations. As to whether his paper’s findings validate the notion that media outlets bear a prejudice against conservative politicians and policies, Wagner said: “That’s one of the possible outcomes one could reach reading this.” Thus the data may mean that media outlets that cover “extremist” politicians are doing so to suggest that they are out of step with the country or their party. Or it could mean that they are pointing out that the country’s lawmakers are more conservative than they used to be and here are the people who represent those views.” 

Wagner went on to say that this may represent what he called a “paradox of objectivity.” This is to say, Wagner affirmed, that if media is to “cover you fairly, we have to show you that there are people who are ideologically extreme and that there more of them than there used to be. On the other hand, it could be reporters pointing out the extremists in an effort to make them look out of step. Or it could just be that those are the ones who like to talk.”

In 1994, co-authors James H. Kuklinski and Lee Sigelman published a paper titled : When Objectivity is Not Objective: Network Television News Coverage of U.S. Senators and the "Paradox of Objectivity" in the Journal on Politics which sought to define the paradox. In their abstract, they wrote:

"Do the electronic media, the principal source of political information for many if not most American citizens, present biased accounts of national affairs? Our analyses of network coverage of U.S. senators during the 1970s and 1980s find that the networks follow objective routines, which normally ensure balanced reporting of political affairs. During times of seismic change in the political landscape, however, these very routines can produce what might be interpreted as biased coverage. The first four years of the Reagan administration, we show, is a striking example of this phenomenon. We label this the "paradox of objectivity," a phenomenon that greatly complicates the evaluation of news reporting."



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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