Monday Morning Thoughts: Media Bias May Not Be What People Think


Fascinating article yesterday morning in the Atlantic on how Donald Trump has exposed the media’s diversity problem. I’m less interested in Trump here and more interested in some of the studies on journalists.

Of course for years, going back at least to Richard Nixon, the right has believed that the so-called “mainstream media” is biased to the left, making it more difficult for them to get their message out. Mr. Trump is playing that to the hilt, although many Bernie Sanders supporters believe that the media is ignoring the Sanders phenomena and is focused on Trump.

To me, more interesting is a 2013 study conducted by Indiana University professors Lars Willnat and David Weaver. For years, of course, the right has complained about the under-representation of Republicans in the media, but this study shows (as usual) that reality is far more complex than the partisans allow.

I am going to go down their list in the order they presented it, and then provide my overall analysis at the end.

First, while the number of female journalists has increased over time, it’s still a heavily male field. In 1971 nearly 80 percent of journalists were male, and that number fell to 66 percent in 1982, but has remained fairly flat since. In 2013 it was 62.5 percent male, the closest gap, but it is still a very sizable one.

The researchers note, “Compared to the U.S. civilian work force in 2012, U.S. journalists are considerably less likely to be women (37.5 percent vs. 46.9 percent) and even less likely than the overall U.S. managerial and professional work force, which included 51.5 percent women in 2012. Thus, retention of women in journalism is still a problem.”

Second, it’s very heavily white. In 2013, 8.5 percent of journalists were people of color, down from a peak in 2003 of 9.5 percent. That is up from the 5 percent in 1971. By way of comparison, 36.6 percent of the U.S. population were people of color. In other words, more than 90 percent of all journalists are white.

The researchers note that “a more appropriate comparison might be with the percentage of college degree holders who are minorities (27.9 percent according to the 2010 U.S. Census), considering that a four-year bachelor’s degree is now the minimum educational requirement for journalists working in the United Sates.”

Third, journalists are college graduates. People might be surprised to know that in 1971 only 58 percent were college graduates, and that number is now 92 percent.

Fourth, the partisan breakdown is interesting. The long held view has been of an industry dominated by Democrats and people who vote for Democrats. That may be masked by partisan identification, but the trend is still interesting.

When Richard Nixon was complaining about the Democratic media, the media in 1971 was 35 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican and 32 percent Independent. In 1992, when Clinton was elected, Democrats dominated 44 to 16 percent over their Republican counterparts, with another 34 percent Independent.

In 2013, by far the largest group are Independents – 50.2 percent of the media, an absolute majority, are Independent. Democrats have fallen to 28 percent. Republicans are just 7 percent.

One of the weaknesses of the survey is that they don’t control for ideology, but the trend is interesting.

Both the left and the right complain about the media, and, from these demographics, they may both be right.

The Atlantic, for example, interviewed Alex Williams, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies trends in journalism. He said journalists are “disproportionately white, male, middle-to-upper class, and college educated.” Mr. Williams said that most people see the media as having an “elitism problem in that journalists nearly always rely on the official stances of politicians and experts—which amplify the voices of the powerful.”

From the perspective of the Trump campaign, Mr. Williams believes that those citizens with “controversial opinions” or, I would say, views outside of the narrow partisan divide, feel that they are unheard. However, to the extent that Trump, or to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders, are leading presidential candidates, “journalists are being forced to talk about the viewpoints that Trump is bringing up—even though they have typically been avoided in the past because they are offensive and politically infeasible.”

I think the right and Trump supporters have a point here. The demographics of the media are white, upper-middle class, well-educated, and, in a way, elite. Therefore, they are out of step with the portion of the country that is the base of Republicans – white, less educated, poor, religious (though the survey didn’t take that thermometer) and conservative.

On the other hand, the left can mount, in some cases, the same critique. While journalists are probably closer in ideology to the left, the left these days is heavily women and heavily minority, and therefore huge segments of the left are just as disconnected from the mainstream and elite media as their right wing counterparts.

To the Black Lives Matter movement, to take a current example, the fact that journalists are 92 percent white is likely seen as a huge problem. To others, the 62 to 37 percent split in gender may be a huge problem as well.

Couple that division with the fact that too much of the left’s criticism of the media is not the bias of journalists, but rather the control of the vast majority of mainstream media by very few, large and powerful corporate interests, and you have very low levels of support for the traditional media sources on both sides of the divide.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Barack Palin

    Therefore, they are out of step with the portion of the country that is the base of Republicans – white, less educated, poor, religious (though the survey didn’t take that thermometer) and conservative.

    Are you just talking about the South here?  In 2012 Obama only carried 42% of white college educated graduates nationally.

    1. Dave Hart

      The decreasing percentage of journalists who identify as Republican makes a lot of sense.  Journalism is fundamentally a profession that deals with collecting facts and assembling those to make a story that is credible and verifiable.  No wonder fewer and fewer self-identified Republicans are journalists.


      1. Dave Hart

        Oh, we could both go down the list on so-called journalists or journalists who have blundered.  The study curiously did not provide data on the percentage of journalists who are Tea Partiers, either.  That could be folded into the “no party” affiliation.  My main point is that to be a fact-centered, self-identified Republican is by all accounts a diminishing breed, an Eisenhower Republican, a type that has been basically purged from the party but that does still exist although in diminishing numbers.

        1. Barack Palin

           My main point is that to be a fact-centered, self-identified Republican is by all accounts a diminishing breed

          I can agree that less people are identifying as GOP, they tend to gravitate towards being conservative leaning Independents.   But your “fact centered” comment is wrong and just snarky.

        2. Frankly

          I think when a liberal uses the term “facts” they are really talking about only those bits of information they are willing to accept in protection of and promotion of their ideological worldview.

      2. tribeUSA

        Mr. Hart–you make it sound like journalism is a grass-roots phenomena in modern america, where a few large corporations own most of the media. Most main-stream news stories today are a mixture of reportage and editorial slant. If a reporters slant does not line up with that of the editorial board, or if the reporter consistently pushes to include certain uncomfortable facts in his news stories; that reporter will not have a job for very long.

  2. Barack Palin

    There’s plenty of left leaning media bias.  It comes in many different forms.  You cite that Trump is getting the lion’s share of coverage.  What percentage of that coverage is positive?   I’ll bet not much.  Not covering stories  is also a sign of media bias.  Main stream media does not extensively investigate and cover stories that hurt Democrats.

    1. wdf1

      I don’t know of any Washington politician who thinks, “the media is on my side.”  The media has its own agenda (attracting attention, selling papers, gaining viewership, eyeballs to sell advertising), and I don’t see that it necessarily aligns with anyone’s political agenda. I think that Trump understands this aspect to the media, and plays on it by saying outrageous things, and the media covers it because it’s good for business.

      Haven’t read the Atlantic article, but I would be interested to see is a study of the political/ideological leanings of the management/ownership of the news media.


    2. hpierce

      Well, Trump is neither a “conservative”, nor is he an evangelical… he is a loud, mercurial, self-promoter… a “showman”… if the Republicans actually nominate a moderate-conservative candidate, I’d be inclined to vote for them… the only two I could NOT vote for are Trump and Cruz.  Pretty sure even O’Malley would beat either of them in a general election… what is this “death-wish” thing that the far right (or posturing that way) Republicans have?

      More and more, the independents/moderates are the growing group, at the expense of the two ends of the bell curve… you’d think the candidates/parties would wake up to that…

      David’s assessment/data that “the media” don’t identify with either party supports my contention…

      1. Frankly

        With all due respect hpierce, you really don’t get it.  The political left and the left-biased media has attempted to control the narrative with persecution of speech and ideas that don’t fit in the left ideological bucket.  If you would get out a bit and talk to people outside of the left and right liberal coast you would quickly begin to understand that this is one of the main sources of disgust and anger in the rest of the country.  Finally, someone is shouting down the politically-correct word gestapo.  Trump does not give a crap what the media cycles attempt to do to tear him down for having the stones to say what he is thinking.  He is breaking through that crust… which is frankly un-American and unconstitutional.   Regardless if he is a good Presidential candidate or not, he is doing all of us a favor breaking up this perfect speech cartel.  The left has created a monster that even the left cannot control.

        1. tribeUSA

          Frankly–this is my read on the situation as well; and major kudos to Trump for speaking out (and I hope he keeps it up; though his bankers may not give him as good terms on his future development deals–the banking/finance and media oligopolies each have members on each others governing boards; and are not independent entities).

          Yes Trump is an oligarch, but he is a maverick oligarch who appears to be bucking the globalist internationalist network; he’s not a Wall Street corporate-financial technocrat lackey like the anointed Jeb or Hillary, etc..

  3. 2cowherd

    I agree with wdf1-the media has its own agenda. And this agenda is the reason that Donald Trump has gotten so much media attention. Any educated voter knows he would be an extremely poor president. But-he is getting so much attention from the media that more rational candidates are struggling to have their voices heard.



    1. Frankly

      Any educated voter knows he would be an extremely poor president.

      You mean the same that voted for Barack Obama twice?

      As I have always said, some of the most ignorant people I know have the greatest number of years of education under their belt.

      What makes a great President?

      I will answer that.  For most voters is is someone that says all the things that makes them feel good about themselves.

      And this is the epitome of the worst type of ignorance… because it is often destructive.

      Most of us are wrong at least 50% of the time, so we should be attracted to the type of leader that tells us so.

      1. Tia Will


        Most of us are wrong at least 50% of the time, so we should be attracted to the type of leader that tells us so.”

        So should we support a candidate who never admits that he is wrong ? Trump’s move when confronted with error is to simply say that he never said it….even when the “it” is captured on tape. I do not believe for a moment that Trump is saying what he really believes. I think that he is saying exactly what he believes will gain him the most attention.

        1. Barack Palin

          Yes Tia Will, candidates never say things to help them get elected, do they?

          I seem to remember that Obama was against gay marriage.

          I know, he evolved.  Maybe Trump will “evolve” too.

        2. Frankly

          I think you are wrong.  One of the things that voters love about Trump is that he owns up to what he says and does.   See someone talking the truth about him and he will nod his head and say “that’s true”, and then when it is not true he will say: “no, that’s a lie”.

          This is one of the things that has flabbergasted the political correctness word gestapo… Trump says what he believes even when it does not conform to the liberal media speech code rules.

          I disagree with you that Trump is lying.  I think Trump is saying what he believes, but he is emphasizing the things that will get him elected.  He has also been clear about his position on abortion and gay marriage unlike your political leaders who flip flop like dying fish to keep their base happy, and since their base is the type that craves being made happy more than truth itself, flip and flop they do.

  4. Frankly

    I think the right and Trump supporters have a point here. The demographics of the media are white, upper-middle class, well-educated, and, in a way, elite. Therefore, they are out of step with the portion of the country that is the base of Republicans – white, less educated, poor, religious (though the survey didn’t take that thermometer) and conservative.

    Funny, but this is elitist and offensive the way that it is written.  They type of thing that causes the same dislike of the left-leaning media.

    We are talking about the the middle-class, working-class.  And they are certainly not all Republicans.  In fact, Trump has a significant number of Democrat and independent supporters.  Sanders less so, but a few more conservative voters are supporting him.  So did Reagan.

    But of course the main media is biased liberal Democrat and ideologically left.  The inflating factor missing from this survey is the entertainment and infotainment part of the media.  For example, SNL destroyed Sarah Palin while walking gingerly on Biden humor… and talk about a missed opportunity for humor!  Just name a day-time or late night talk show that wasn’t or isn’t headed by a lefty.  Unless you changed the channel to Fox News, and maybe Jay Leno, you would get a steady diet of lefty-thinking monologues, news and satire.

    The ONLY media category that is biased right is radio-talk.  And the left keep trying to find ways to shut that down.

    The last thing missing from discussion on political and ideological bias is our college campuses.

    When you add this stuff up, the popularity of Trump and Sanders is really a bubble of disgust over what has happened to political discourse in this country.  It is one of the reasons that I started blogging on this and other sources… to pull back the narrative to something more balanced, more American and less liberal-group-think old Europe.

    There are a lot of moving pieces in the social and political narrative that are at conflict today.  However, it all distills down to a base feeling that the elites in both parties are like leeches that are sucking out all the life-blood of opportunity out of this country.  Elite liberals – the government-class – are looting it through taxation while they push an extreme alarmist environmental and social agenda that is anti-industrialism and anti-job.   Elite conservatives – the big business class are – usually in partnership with big government – outsourcing and automating away the working-class jobs while pursuing just stockholder returns (which ironically are heavy in public pension fund investors).

    The problematic great growing divide in this country isn’t between the rich and the poor.  The rich and poor have always existed and will always exist.  It is a battle between the new elite upper-class, and the working-class.   The media is infested with the former.   Trump is supported by the latter.  The rise of Trump and Sanders is the beginning of the coming war between these two demographics.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “We are talking about the the middle-class, working-class.  And they are certainly not all Republicans. ”

      if you read david’s clarification, he made it clear he was referring to the southern conservative base, not all republicans.  in fact, as you well know there is a real split between the traditional republican bases and the conservative wing supporting trump.

      the point that is being raised here is that there are reason why both the left and the right have issues with the media, the article demonstrates that demographically.  it does leave out the more traditional beef that the left has with corporate media.  it’s also interesting that david uses “mainstream” the label de jure for the right rather than corporate, the label de jure for the left.

      1. Frankly

        My candidates are Fiorina and Rubio.  So from that perspective, yes, the GOP is moving away.  But Barack Obama might as well be the President of Mars based on what I think is right and good for our country.   Either Trump or Cruz would be a much better choice for this country than has been Obama, and would be Clinton or Sanders, IMO.

        But what has happened is an awakening of the voters that have been crapped on since Reagan.  So the popularity of Trump and to a lesser degree, Cruz, I think is a good thing for the GOP and for the country in general.

        1. Barack Palin

          I like Fiorina, could settle for Rubio,  either would beat Clinton or Sanders.

          If it ends up being Trump I’ll still vote for him just to hopefully keep another Democrat from further destroying the country.

          Hillary is getting close to being indicted, unless of course she has cut a deal with the White House.

        2. Frankly

          This will be great Democrat political theater.   The Obamas do not like the Clintons and the feeling going the other way is mutual.  Will Obama stick his neck out and risk destroying what little positive legacy he will have by “pardoning” Hillary?

          Who knows.

          If A.G. Loretta Lynch refuses to accept the FBI recommendation to indict, a political war will break out and it will probably cause even more political damage to the Democrat Party.

          Dems better get ready for their first admitted socialist candidate.

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