New research finds Fox News exhibited a Kerry bias in 2004 election

[January 26, 2010]

A study that was just published in the scholarly journal Mass Communication and Society, which is edited at Illinois State University, suggests that structural bias was apparent on many of the major television networks during the 2004 presidential election in a direction that may surprise many.

Frederick Fico, professor of journalism at Michigan State University, and his co-authors of the article Broadcast and Cable Network News Coverage of the 2004 Presidential Election, compare news coverage of Presidential candidates John Kerry and George Bush on ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN. They find that Fox News showed more structural bias toward Democratic candidate John Kerry than any other network, and that its bias was stronger than that on other networks. This was true contrary to criticism cited by Fico in which former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite labels Fox News as a “far-rightwing organization.”

That means Kerry and his supporters received more air time on Fox and were more likely to receive primary placement in stories. The four determinants of structural bias were the number of supporters quoted or given a chance to speak, the candidate whose supporters spoke first, the time they spent speaking, and whether there were visuals of both candidates or only of one. Neither the tone of the quotes used nor talk and commentary were analyzed, but only packaged news stories and segments.

Bush, on the other hand, received favorable coverage from NBC and MSNBC.

CBS, which broke the story questioning Bush’s National Guard service attributed to a source that was later discredited, favored Kerry.

CNN’s structural bias leaned somewhat toward Kerry, while ABC’s bias is less clear, leaning toward Bush in some measures and Kerry in others.

Most journalists would emphasize the importance of remaining impartial, unbiased, and reporting only factual and accurate information when covering a story.  However, structural bias can show patterns of bias that are harder to measure objectively in areas like a reporter’s tone about a candidate.

According to Fico there is no question of the presence of bias in the newsroom. He describes it as something that is “inevitable and ever-present.” However, he feels the real question of news bias lies in how systematic or predictable networks are in presenting certain information.

In this research, Fico and his co-authors, Geri Alumit Zeldes from Michigan State, Serena Carpenter from Arizona State University, and Arvind Diddi from the State University of New York at Oswego, assess both the aggregate partisan structural balance of stories and of multi-story segments, determining whether they favored the Republican or the Democrat. The study examined stories aired from Labor Day to the November 2 Election Day of 2004. Both the National Guard stories and coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry were in the media during the period of analysis.

CONTACT: Frederick Fico, School of Journalism, Michigan State University,  fredfico@msu.edu, (517) 355-4489; Geri Alumit Zeldes, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona Sate University; Serena Carpenter, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University; Arvind Diddi, Department of Communication Studies, SUNY, Oswego.

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