Over the last week, a few people have been asking me for my take on media coverage regarding Israel and Gaza. Is there media bias? Ironically, I assigned a study on this very topic in my class this week. When I made the syllabus months ago, I had no idea another controversial Israeli military operation would be in the news. A generation later, Vallone, Ross and Lepper’s classic study is instructive for understanding how audiences perceive media bias.
The study is based on media coverage of the Beirut Massacre from 1982. Like most controversial military operations, accounts differ and it is impossible to fully say what happened. What most parties agree to is that at least 700 civilian refugees were murdered by a Lebanese Christian militia, and the Israeli military bore at least some responsibility for not stopping the killings in territory they occupied at the time. However, Vallone and his co-authors felt there were so many factual disputes in 1985 that they could not score a 16 question “objective” questionnaire to test study participants’ knowledge of the incident.
Instead, the study focuses on how participants make sense of news content. Vallone, Ross and Lepper had a novel study design. They recruited groups of self-identified pro-Israeli students, pro-Arab students, and neutral students. (Today, we would probably recruit a pro-Palestinian group instead of a pro-Arab group.) Every study participant was shown the exact same 36 minutes of television news coverage, then asked a short set of survey questions about the portrayal of Israel. Here’s how the 3 groups evaluated the media’s treatment of Israel on a 1-9 scale, with 1 being opposition and 9 being support:
Each survey question followed the same pattern, which Vallone, Ross and Lepper called the “hostile media phenomenon.” Pro-Israel viewers saw the news coverage as biased against them. Pro-Arab viewers looked at the exact same news stories and reached the opposite conclusion. Neutral audiences are somewhere in the middle. We shouldn’t interpret neutral viewers skewing towards “media bias against Israel” as a strong sign of biased coverage. It could also mean “neutrals” were more sympathetic to Israel than Arabs at the start of the study.
People tend to see the news as biased against them. As I explained to my students, there is a key difference between perceptions of media bias and “actual” media bias. “Actual” bias is inevitable whenever we tell stories, because we can’t describe everything going on in the world and we can’t perfectly represent others’ perceptions of the world. These biases are easiest to observe in story selection, because we can start with an objective set of possible stories and compare it to an objective set of stories that actually get published.
Perceptions of bias are more relative. In order to label some set of news coverage as “biased,” we need to have some conception in our heads of a “less biased” alternative. People who feel very informed on an issue and take a particular side seem to have an easier time imagining alternatives. Vallone, Ross and Lepper found viewers who described themselves as highly informed and supporting one side saw more bias in the news than less informed people supporting that side. (Today, these groups may be the people who only consume partisan news.) Meanwhile, people describing themselves as well-informed neutrals saw the least media bias of any group.
For journalists, these survey results are hardly surprising. Many veteran reporters are actually reassured by accusations of bias, as long as those slings and arrows come from all directions. Leaving the most active and partisan readers unhappy is often a sign that a reporter did a good job of maintaining their independence. When only one side complains about coverage of a controversial issue, that could be a warning that journalists tilted too far to cater to the other side.