Infographic of the Day: Do the Mainstream Media Have a Conservative Bias?

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A breakdown of coverage suggests liberals are getting the short end of the stick, but there's less to it than meets the eye.

Updated, 6:24 p.m.

It's no secret that conservatives love to cry media bias. It's been a central tenet of much conservative thought and punditry for decades that reporters and major media organizations overwhelmingly tend to the left. But liberals are just as happy to turn the charge around, saying that even if reporters tend to vote Democratic, the actual tenor of coverage actually disadvantages progressive politicians.

The chart below from Fourth Estate -- the same folks who produced the horrifying infographic we ran in June about how men are quoted for more often than women on women's issues -- would seem to validate those concerns. Across the board, it shows that Obama has received more negative press than Mitt Romney and that Republicans are quoted more often than Democrats.

Rather than red or blue, you can color me skeptical. The ratios make sense -- Fox is very negative about Obama! MSNBC trashes Romney! NPR is ... boringly fair! -- but the general message seems overblown. Here are three reasons not to read too much into the chart:

  1. Obama has a track record as president to discuss. There's no apples-to-apples comparison between Romney, a former governor running for president, and Obama, with four years of deeds to critique. Given the state of the economy, et al, it's natural that there would be negative coverage.
  2. By the same token, Obama needs less oxygen in the media. He's got the famed bully pulpit; many of the conservative pundits who appear on the air are there to respond to things the president has done or said. If the president were Republican, the ratio would likely be different. I'm sure Obama would much rather have the presidential podium than a seat at the table for a surrogate.
  3. The primary distorted everything. Until April, Romney was just one of several Republican contenders for the nomination. That meant that there was more airtime devoted to letting Republicans debate their candidates -- pumping up the proportion of conservative voices on air. It also meant that the negative coverage was divided between Romney and a range of rivals. Always remember to read the fine print, kids! It's been pointed out to me that the data runs from May to July. Compared to Obama, voters are still just getting to know Romney, but the effect is much less.

That doesn't mean the chart isn't worth checking out, but without good comparative data it's unwise to read too much into it. (Via Jim Romenesko)

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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