Monthly Archives: September 2011

Politics and TV News: Commonly Used Bias Techniques

As I have dutifully trudged through TV news transcripts as part of creating my surveys, I have noticed certain bias techniques — some intuitive, and others subtle — that are employed with regularity by popular TV news channels.  My focus has been on political analysis segments wherein a news anchor/moderator is joined by one-or-more contributors, positioned as subject matter experts.

The most prevalent techniques are as follows:

  • False Balancing –TV viewers have been conditioned to expect news anchors to conduct interviews with contributing experts who present contrasting points of view. Interestingly, these expert contributors are occasionally unbalanced, and actually are on the same side the “debated” issue.

A variant on this theme occurs when complementary views are presented by experts from opposite camps. A Democratic congressman may be critical of aspects of “Obama-care” when interviewed side-by-side with a Republican senator whose disapproval applies to other areas. Both are critical, just in different ways.

On the surface, these experts represent groups who are traditionally in opposition, but their opinions are surprisingly aligned in this example. The notion that positions on a particular subject are not known in advance strains credibility. Still, that fact may be lost on passive TV viewers, who believe they have ingested a short-but- complete review of an issue when presented in this format, especially when the contributors are otherwise natural enemies.

Credit should go where credit is due, so I must recognize The Pessimistic Viewer’s September 12 blog ( for identifying and labeling this particular bias mechanism.

  • Time Management – This is an intuitively obvious slanting technique; the more time devoted to a particular perspective, the more weight it is given by the audience. Timing was initially my primary target for evaluating media bias, thinking it to be objective and readily quantifiable. In practice, however, it turned out to be much more difficult to do, primarily because of technique #3.
  • Flakking – In real-time, recording the specific speaking time of any particular contributor is inordinately difficult because of “flakking” — aggressive interruptions of contributors’ statements that are in conflict with those being favored on the program.
  •  Framing  & Finishing  – Even in the pseudo-debate construct of the popular anchor-plus-expert news format, the moderator has control of how an issue is initially framed (“Is the Gang of 6 Deficit Reduction Plan Bad for America?”) along with the manner in which the segment is closed. Even if the anchor does not personally deliver a closing statement, the last word generally has more impact than others, and the moderator can readily determine who gets it.
  • Anchor Affirmations – Television viewers have been conditioned to expect the news anchor/moderator, while possessing their own informed opinions, to exercise a certain amount of journalistic detachment and fairness. Implicitly, they are the ultimate arbiter.

Regardless of the historical role of the anchor/moderator, in this era of advocate journalism, strong opinions are easily discernible, and readily recognized as such by even the most passive viewer. Still, I often encountered more subtle endorsements which may slip passed a viewer’s internal bias filter. Simply have the moderator inject a, “Right,” or “Yes,” as a follow-on comment gives the preceding statement additional weight.

  • Pronoun Putdowns – Similar to moderator affirmations, news anchor can send a subtle-but-unmistakable message by the way they refer to involved parties. Groups holding conflicting views with the discussion leader are often referred to as “they” or “them.” Similarly, if a title-bearing politician, such as a Senator, is referred to as “he” or “him,” it comes across as a refusal to recognize rank-and-status, and conveys an implicit lack of respect.

In closing, some may see these slanting techniques as a normal part of Op-Ed programming.  While that is fair criticism to some degree, passive TV viewers may not make a conscious distinction between objective news and editorials.  The concept of framing applies here, but in a different context — Are these programs framed as Op-Ed segments, or overshadowed by pervasive, embedded marketing messages — “Cable News Network”  …  Fox News, Fair and Balanced” … “MSNBC, the Place for Politics” … “The No-Spin Zone?”

I welcome your comments on the matter.

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Quantifying the Impact of TV News Bias – Example #1

The following example represents my core method of quantifying the impact of media bias, using only program segments from the top 3 cable news networks in this particular example. The underlying “Raw Bias Index” data I am using is in fact quite coarse, so consider this an alpha trial put forth for review and discussion.

Much debate has been devoted to assessing whether there is a liberal or conservative media bias. Qualitatively, a case can be made for both, but quantifying the effective bias is a more complex endeavor.

In my recent studies of television news programming, it occurred to me that the quantity of liberal TV outlets seemed greater than conservative channels, but their “share-of-voice” may still be lesser. The true impact of a particular TV news program can only be determined by considering both bias and reach.

In order to add a viewership variable, I used the Nielsen Cable News Ratings from September 8, first calculating the average rating of the 6 largest cable news networks for the entire day. (Source: TV by the Numbers – Zap2It website. )

 NOTE: “P2+”= Viewers over the age of 2.

I then calculated a “Viewership Weighting” factor for each of the post-Presidential address programs from CNN, Fox, and MSNBC that I had previously created a Raw Bias Index for (see Sept. 11 post below), and com combined them to create a “Raw Impact Index.”

Needless to say, prime time news is viewed much more extensively than its daytime cousins, hence the large viewership weighting factors. Still, one can readily see in this crude example that viewership, not the number of TV outlets, is key to determining the overall impact of news bias.


PLEASE NOTE that this is but an example, and is not meant in any way to be an accurate-or-comprehensive measure of TV news bias today.


Is this methodology simplistic? You bet. I fully expect critiques from those more experienced in media measurement and proficient with survey science. Regardless, simpler is often times better.

As always, I remain open to feedback, and encourage you to leave yours in the comments section.

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Media Bias Measurement – Prelude

Have you noticed that political news is more about spin and emotional-triggering than facts and fairness?

Me too.

For years, I’ve been troubled by political news bias. Having worked briefly at a media measurement company, I began to wonder whether bias could be measured. I scoured the internet, looking for a method-or-model for quantitatively dimensioning bias. I could find none, so I developed my own.

While I believe that the core system is sound, further development is dependent on the input and guidance of others. If nothing else, I hope to learn from the process, and share that learning as broadly as possible.

Please visit this site again soon. It is obviously under construction, but I will be posting surveys in the coming days and weeks, based on transcripts of popular news programs, that will desperately need respondents. All data will be aggregated and anonymized. Your privacy will be diligently protected.

If nothing else, this will be an interesting experiment. But if this works, we might change the media landscape.

Go big or go home, right?

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