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Perception of News Media Bias

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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There are two theories that exemplify how perception of bias is situated in the minds of news consumers: Hostile Media Phenomenon and Eye of the Beholder.

According to Hostile Media Phenomenon (1985), people tend to view balanced coverage as hostile to their own point of view. To study this, researchers exposed subjects to balanced coverage of the Beirut Massacre. Pro-Palestian students thought the report was massively Pro-Israeli; Pro-Israeli students found it Pro-Palestenian in a big way. These two groups viewed the same coverage and found it hostile. There are three explanations for this finding, all of which have nothing to do with the content everything to do with prior views:

  1. How fairness is evaluated is imperative. This is because Pro-Palestinian students considered Israel's perspective totally illegitimate. Seeing it presented alongside a Pro-Palestinian perspective was considered complete unfair. According to Pro-Israeli students, the Pro-Palestinian view was complete illegitimate and so seeing it alongside perceived Pro-Palestinian coverage was entirely unfair.

  2. People remember negative references much more than positive references.

  3. People incorporate the persuasiveness of media into their perception. For example, a biased person would consider a report unfair if it is believed to persuade somebody ambivalent to an opposing view.

According to Baum and Gussin's Eye of the Beholder proposal, people will discriminate against a report based on whether they think it will be biased. The media is increasingly fragmented since there is an ever-growing number of news outlets. A liberal can readily get liberal news only, and a conservative can easily get conservative news. For context, originally there were only three television networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. Global assessments of "the media" make less sense. There is so much diversity -- NYT, Huffington Post, FOX, etc -- that identifying what is "the media" is very tricky.

To test whether people discriminate amongst news outlets, they were given identical news coverage but with different logos on the page: those from CNN, FOX, or KNWZ. The coverage was absolutely identical in each case, but the researchers were putting a CNN, Fox or make-believe KNWZ logo to see if people were pre-biased.

Baum and Gussin found that prior beliefs about the ideological orientation of specific media outlets shape perception of bias. For example, regarding the 2004 presidential election, news coverage with: a liberal media outlet logo was found to favor John Kerry; a conservative media outlet logo was found to favor George Bush; an unheard-of media outlet logo was found to be balanced. It is crucial to establish difference between content and prior dispositions in establishing bias.