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MediaWatch: March 1989

Vol. Three No. 3

Study: Looking for the Liberal Label

Washington political insiders may be able to identify the ideological orientation of any group mentioned in that morning's newspapers. But readers across the country who find their news in national magazines and in reports distributed by major newspapers rely on the labels applied by reporters. Labels enable the reader to consider the ideological views of newsmakers' opinions and weigh them with a grain of salt. By contrast, the absence of labels can give a perception of objectivity and reliability.

To learn whether reporters with major pring outlets apply ideological tags in a balanced manner, MediaWatch used Nexis news data retrieval system to survey every 1987 and 1988 news story mentioning three groups each on the right and the left. The MediaWatch Study included The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report. MediaWatch analysts counted only ideological tags attached by reporters.

The results show an astonishing contrast in the treatment of liberal and conservative organizations. Reporters labeled the conservative Heritage Foundation more than 35 times as often as the liberal Brookings Institution. The conservative Concerned Women of America got tagged almost 20 times more frequently than the liberal National Organization for Women. On judicial issues Ralph Neas, the liberal head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights attracted less than a tenth of the labels attached to the conservative Patrick McGuigan of the Free Congress Foundation.

In total, the MediaWatch Study found the three conservative groups were tagged an average of 58 percent of the time while the liberals were labeled merely two percent of the time. To put it another way, the liberal groups escaped identification in 49 of 50 mentions.

Think Tanks: Heritage and Brookings: Perhaps the national media's favorite source of expert opinion, the Brookings Institution was labeled just 10 times in 737 news stories (1.4%). Five of those labels came from 152 Los Angeles Times stories. The Washington Post applied a label merely 3 times in 200 stories (1.5%). In 270 of 271 mentions (99.6%), The New York Times failed to label Brookings. Time magazine applied a label once in 39 stories, while U.S. News (45) and Newsweek (30) never did.

By dramatic contrast, Heritage was accurately described as "conservative" or a similar term in 217 of 370 stories (58.6%). The Los Angeles Times attached a conservative label the most, 71 times in 79 stories (89.9%). Time was second with 13 labels in 19 stories (68.4%), followed by The New York Times (74 out of 126, or 58.7%), U.S. News and World Report (7 out of 14, or 50%), and the Post (51 out of 129, for 39.5%). Newsweek refrained from issuing a label in all three mentions of the think tank, but did describe Heritage as an "ideological guerrilla outfit" which could advance "politically outlandish proposals." Time writers Richard Hornik and Michael Duffy best demonstrated the double standard in a December 5, 1988 story: "Neither Bush nor the nation will risk serious damage if he ignores the recommendations of groups ranging from the archconservative Heritage Foundation to the Brookings Institution."

Women's Groups: National Organization for Women (NOW) and Concerned Women of America (CWA): The liberal NOW also escaped categorization, labeled a mere 10 times in 421 stories (2.4%). The Los Angeles Times issued six labels in 166 stories, five "liberal" and one "mainstream." In 124 stories, the New York Times never once placed a liberal label on NOW. Out of 100 stories in the Post, two included the term "liberal." Among magazines, Time used no labels in 10 stories, while Newsweek in 9 and U.S. News in 8 applied "liberal" once each.

On the other hand, CWA got labeled 25 times in just 61 news accounts (41%). The Los Angeles Times issued the lions share of labels, describing CWA as "conservative" five times, "right-wing" on four occasions, and "New Right" once. In six labels over 16 stories in The New York Times, three were "conservative," two were "strongly conservative," and one was "New Right." In 17 Post stories, all eight labels were "conservative." Though NOW claims 160,000 members CWA about 600,000, it's worth noting reporters mentioned the liberal group four times more often.

Judicial Experts: Patrick McGuigan and Ralph Neas: The Bork fight made McGuigan and Neas often-quoted sources, but reporters were far from balanced in adding ideological tags to each. Less than four percent of pieces referring to Neas, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) described him as "liberal." McGuigan of the Free Congress Foundation, however, was identified as conservative nearly 75% of the time.

The New York Times in 39 stories and the Post in 50 reports never called Neas "liberal." In fact, both papers referred to him as "Republican" on one occasion. The Los Angeles Times identified Neas as "liberal" just once in 23 stories. U.S. News called Neas "liberal" once in 5 stories, Time labeled the LCCR "liberal" once in four stories, and Newsweek avoided any labels whatsoever in 4 pieces.

Yet, in 42 stories mentioning McGuigan, either he or Free Congress was labeled conservative, 15 times more frequently than Neas or LCCR. The Los Angeles Times added a "conservative" label in all six mentions. U.S. News did the same, four times in four stories. The Post, which never saw a need to label Neas, labeled McGuigan 15 times in 19 stories. Newsweek's only mention referred to him as part of the "religious right."

This imbalance demonstrates that reporters are unable to issue ideological labels in a rational manner. If reporters call conservative groups "conservative" then it's only logical that they label liberal groups "liberal." Until they do, reporters will continue to distort the public's perception of sources quoted in "news" stories.