By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University
As individuals, we consume news many different ways. For generations, we consumed news via word of mouth. Later, we used the newspaper, radio, TV and cable TV. Now, much of our news arrives from the internet.
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Today, we still get our news from all of these sources. However, television and the internet are the most popular ways to access our news. But all of these sources have their own bias.
Bias of Media Outlets
Every media outlet has a bias; some news organizations put a great deal of effort into being in the center of the political spectrum while others have long stopped trying. AllSides is a nonpartisan website that rates media companies and individuals on how biased they are (note: they only rate the online content) and then has the public vote on if the bias is accurate or not.
AllSides also has a media bias chart that rates major media outlets and how they lean politically: center, lean-left, lean-right, left and right.
When you look at the left-leaning media outlets, you find many traditional news outlets such as NBC, ABC, CBS, The Atlantic, The New York Times (online) and CNN (online). In addition, well-known names such as Time, The Guardian, The Economist, POLITICO, NPR (opinion) and The Washington Post are left-leaning.
In the center of the political spectrum, there are a few media outlets that are able to stay relatively unbiased. AP and Reuters, two news companies that have existed for well over 100 years, are in the chart’s center. Also, NPR (online), the BBC, Bloomberg, The Hill, The Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal (online) are in the center.
For right-leaning media outlets, there are well-known companies such as Fox News (online), Reason, The Wall Street Journal (opinion) and the Washington Examiner.
If these news sources were the only media outlets, then the political landscape would be a reasonable place. We would have some liberal outlets balanced by some conservative outlets with some excellent journalism throughout the spectrum. However, there are more media outlets.
Left and Right News Outlets Filter the News through Their Own Perspective
Beyond left-leaning, centrist, and right-leaning media outlets, there are news outlets that are classified as left and right. These sites are not advocacy media sites – they refrain from strongly advocating for a specific point of view or cause – but are media sites that filter the news through their left or right perspective.
These news outlets on the left include The Daily Beast, HuffPost, MSNBC, The New Yorker, The New York Times (opinion), Slate and Vox. The right includes Fox News (opinion), Breitbart, the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), The Federalist, The National Review and The New York Post.
Are these media sites biased? Yes. Do they push out misinformation? Sometimes. Can you get quality information from them while getting a slant that furthers their political perspectives? Yes.
Should you get your news from only one of these places? No.
Are News Outlets in the Center Truly Unbiased?
The center of the political spectrum seems like a logical place to be for most media outlets. However, such a position is difficult to maintain, because people are inherently biased, journalists and writers are biased, and audience members are biased.
AllSides states that “a Center media bias rating does not always mean neutral, unbiased or reasonable, just as ‘far Left’ and ‘far Right’ do not always mean ‘extreme’ or ‘unreasonable.’ A Center bias rating simply means the source or writer rated does not predictably show opinions favoring either end of the political spectrum — conservative or liberal. Sometimes, a media outlet with a Center rating misses important perspectives, leaving out valid arguments from the left or right.”
Do People Prefer a Liberal Media?
When certain media sites or political personalities say that there is a liberal media, they are not wrong in their assertions. However, they are not completely correct, either.
In the AllSides Media Bias chart, there are more left and lean-left media companies on this chart than on the right, lean-right, or the center. AllSides states that they included media outlets based on their popularity, if those media outlets are included on other similar charts, and if those news outlets provide a unique perspective.
AllSides does not specifically say why there are 10 more left and left-leaning media outlets than other types of outlets. Perhaps the market (i.e. customer preference) demands it.
Comparing Media Outlets’ Popularity on Alexa
An interesting way to compare the media sites that are on the AllSides Media Bias chart is to look at their Alexa Internet rankings and their audience geography (the percent of traffic coming from the U.S.). Alexa traffic estimates “measure of how a website is doing relative to all other sites on the web over the past 3 months.” By using Alexa data, it is easy to see how the media sites compare to each other in online popularity and if these news sites are mainly catering to U.S. audiences.
In the following chart, the top five media sites were used based on Alexa rankings per bias; left (of 14), left-lean (of 13), center (of 9), lean-right (of 5) and right (of 12). There were a few media sites that had two entries on the chart with the least biased of these media outlets used except for The Wall Street Journal (opinion) was used to ensure that there were five media sites in in the lean-right category.
Chart 1: Average Alexa Rank for the U.S. and Percentage of US Customers
*Alexa data was retrieved on January 28, 2020 (Alexa Internet rankings slightly change every day).
To get a feel for how companies are ranked on Alexa Internet, Google is ranked number one (1), Wikipedia 14, Instagram 20, LinkedIn is 60, Psychology Today is 450 and the Smithsonian Institute is ranked 1,539.
The first observation using Alexa Internet data is that lean-left media sites have the best overall ranking compared to the other media biases at 78.2. This is followed by the center at 175.4, the right at 229.8, the left at 430.6 and lean-right at 1,085. If you use the combined criteria, the ranking is center, left-combined and right-combined.
So what does all this information tell us? Here are a few possibilities:
- Lean-left is the most popular category by 2x over the center and 3x over the right.
- The least popular sites on Alexa are left and lean-right.
- Using the combined categories, the center is 68% more popular than left-combined and almost 4x more popular than the right-combined.
Reviewing Cable News Ratings for Media Sources
In addition to the Alexa Internet rankings, another way to look at how these media companies fare is to look at Cable News channel ratings. This comparison is limited because there are only a few media outlets that also have cable news channels.
In 2019, for instance, Fox News had 2,501 viewers (in thousands), MSNBC had 1,741, CNN had 965 and Headline News (HLN) had 274. Fox News by far won the ratings race of the major 24-hour news channels.
But if you combine the left media companies, then the left had a combined 2,980 to 2,501 viewers than the right. Note: One American News Network does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings, so it cannot be included in this analysis.
How Do Media Outlets Fare with US Customers?
It’s also possible to look at the percentage of U.S. customers of these media sites. The center – such as the BBC, AP, and Reuters — has on average around 50% of U.S. customers.
Lean-left has around 55.72% with CNN (online), The New York Times (online) and The Washington Post. If you look at the left, lean-right and right, these media outlets have super-majorities (60%+) of U.S. customers with the lean-right at 74%, meaning most of their audience lives in the U.S.
The Influence of Customers and the Free Market
After looking over the AllSides Media Bias chart, Alexa Internet data and cable news ratings, there are many possibilities:
- Is the media more liberal than conservative? According to the Alexa rankings, the American public wants a news media that is more “left” more than “right.” In my opinion, this is the free market at work.
- Do customers influence media companies? Yes, and this influence would be interesting to further explore. Clearly, more lean-left and center media companies have more international customers than lean-right, right, and left media companies, which have a higher percentage of domestic customers. How does this influence the reporting and bias of these media outlets? How much does the international audience influence the Alexa rankings?
- Is there a liberal media conspiracy? If some pundits include the center on the “left,” then there would be an overwhelming “liberal media.” However, including the center in this argument is disingenuous and would be disinformation (viewing news as black and white or simplistically binary). In addition, let’s say you excluded media sites that receive government funding such as the BBC (substantial funding) and NPR (very little). The Center’s Alexa Internet average would change to 601.6, coming in fourth behind lean-left, right and left. The order of the combined averages (not changing anything on the “left” or “right”) would not change.
Why It’s Wise to Obtain Your News from Different Sources
At the end of the day, media bias is as complex as the humans who write the news and the audience members who consume it. In the U.S., media companies are not state-run, so they rise and fall based on the free market (mostly).
Do not get all of your news from one media company. Instead, get it from several places that span the political spectrum.
Finally, do not assume what you read at any media site is completely balanced, was closely fact-checked, or cares about you and your needs. Always focus on your own information literacy by doing your own research and make your own well-thought-out decisions.
About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.
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