'Self-censoring' journalists gave visual nod to GOP: study
Rachel Oswald
Published: Tuesday February 24, 2009

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Journalists, so concerned with being accused of having a liberal agenda, will at times overreact by self-censoring themselves, resulting in more favorable coverage of Republicans, a new analysis of television coverage finds.

A book by two Indiana University professors details their study of the three broadcast networks' -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- presidential campaign coverage from 1992 to 2004. According to the analysis, the coverage favored Republican candidates in each election.

"We don't think this is journalists conspiring to favor Republicans. 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," said Maria Elizabeth Grabe, an associate professor at IU, who along with Associate Professor Erik Bucy, wrote Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections. "It's self-censorship that journalists might be imposing on themselves."

Grabe and Bucy's book is the first major research project to analyze the visual coverage of presidential elections and how it influences public opinion, according to a press release on the book.

The authors examined 62 hours of network news coverage between Labor Day and Election Day over the four presidential elections. Among their findings were that candidates were steadily shown more visually in so-called image bites, while their verbal statements, or sound bites, shortened in average length.

Notably, cable news outlets, including CNN and Fox News, were not included in their research. The professors are now looking at 2008 election coverage.

More so than the networks, cable news outlets have received the most criticism of bias in their broadcasts with Fox News generally being accused of a conservative bias and MSNBC generally accused of a liberal bias.

"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," reads the release.

The authors examined one of the most negative forms of image bites, the "lip-flap shot," in which a reporter's narration is overlaid on video of the candidate talking. In their findings, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to be given the "lip-flap shot."

"This phenomenon, though relatively easy to find in news coverage of elections, is generally viewed as a violation of professional television news production standards that has detrimental consequences," said the authors. "Not only is 'lip-flap' unflattering for the candidate who appears . . . but it also distracts from the reporter's narration because viewers focus attention on making sense of what the lip flapper appears to be saying."

Also looked at was the "Goldilocks effect," which is who was given the last say in a piece and so better remembered by viewers. The authors found that Republicans were more likely to get the last word in every presidential election studied but the 2004 election.

Interestingly, the findings of Image Bite Politics contravene the results of a 2005 UCLA-led study which found that there was a liberal media bias. That study examined not only the networks but also newspapers, cable news, prominent blogs and public radio.

Of the 20 major media outlets studied by UCLA, 18 scored left-of-center, with CBS' "Evening News," The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ranking second, third and fourth most liberal behind the news pages of The Wall Street Journal. Only Fox News' "Special Report With Brit Hume" and The Washington Times scored right of the average U.S. voter, according to a UCLA press release on the study.

The UCLA study found that the most centrist outlets were the "News Hour With Jim Lehrer," CNN's "NewsNight With Aaron Brown" and ABC's "Good Morning America."

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