Indiana Profs Oddly Claim ABC, CBS, and NBC Slanted Toward GOP in Presidential Races from 1992 to 2004

The popular Poynter Institute weblog Romenesko highlighted a new study Tuesday insisting the TV networks favored the Republicans in presidential campaigns from 1992 to 2004, with this blurb:

"We don't think this is journalists conspiring to favor Republicans," says Indiana University's Maria Elizabeth Grabe, who wrote "Image Bite Politics" with Erik Bucy. "We think they're just so beat up and tired of being accused of a liberal bias that they unknowingly give Republicans the benefit in coverage."

The Indiana University professors came up with this bizarre result by studying the visuals of TV news, the "image bites." A glance at the press release shows the study's sample size was tiny:

They examined 62 hours of broadcast network news coverage -- a total of 178 newscasts -- between Labor Day and Election Day over four U.S. presidential elections between 1992 and 2004. Cable news outlets, including CNN and Fox News, were not included in their research. The professors are now looking at 2008 election coverage.

That's 62 hours of coverage over four election cycles, or less than 16 hours a cycle! Even within the last two months of an election cycle, the three networks would have 90 hours of evening newscasts (which would mean they're skipping more than 80 percent of the sample.) They also found a conservative bias -- by turning the volume down to zero!

Grabe and Bucy found the volume of news coverage focusing exclusively on each party -- one measure of media bias -- favored Republicans. Their research found there were more single-party stories about Republicans overall and in each election year except 1992. When they studied the time duration of these stories, no pattern of favoritism was evident. But they did spot differences when they studied visual coverage, that is, with the volume turned down.

They claimed that Republicans were more likely to be cited last in a story, and less likely to be subject to a "lip flap" shot, when reporter shows video of a candidate while the reporter talks over it. But they can't determine that with the sound off. Are these professors liberals with an agenda of countering the evidence of a liberal media bias? In this podcast, co-author Erik Bucy claims there was not a pronounced pro-Obama bias in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and if there was, it was simply because it was matching Obama's record of victories. (There's no notion that positive coverage can drive primary victories, and not the other way around?) He found it ironic Hillary would complain, even if it was effective:

Usually, this is an accusation leveled by the Republicans, of media bias, and of course, it's you know, the accusation is liberal media bias, but if you look for evidence of that, it's very difficult to find. So it tends to be more of a political strategy than an actual reality in a lot of news coverage.

Bucy added that Hillary benefited from the Saturday Night Live skit carrying the theme of a pro-Obama bias, even if "this is just a perception."The other co-author, Maria Elizabeth Grabe, has an interesting 2006 research project listed online in her curriculum vitae: a paper titled ""Bill O'Reilly's 'No Spin Zone': Using 1930s Propaganda Techniques and Constructing Villains, Victims, and The Virtuous." It says it was well-received at an international conference in Dresden, Germany. The paper is here, and compares O'Reilly to Father Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi radio host of the 1930s.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis