The Media Elite
The Media Elite, written by S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda Lichter, details a social scientific study of the ideological commitments of elite journalists and the consequences of those commitments on both the reporting itself and on its reception by the public. The book states that because of the political opinions of journalists, the elite media has a liberal media bias. The conservative Media Research Center contends that The Media Elite is "the most widely quoted media study of the 1980s and remains a landmark today."
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The book is based on a survey, completed in 1980, of 238 journalists randomly selected from America's most influential news organizations: ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Content analysis and audience reception studies were used to determine if deviations between the views held by journalists and those held by the general public had any effect on the way the news gets reported and the resulting beliefs held by the public.
Some aspects of the methodology have been challenged, and the authors debated their critics in academic journals. Alleged problems with the methodology included: a low sample size; poor randomization; the failure to include media owners, managers, or editors in the samples; the inadequate use of proper polling techniques; the use of biased questions; point of view assertions by the studies authors that arbitrarily qualified some things as conservative or liberal; the failure to adequately measure the general public's attitudes; and poor statistical analysis of the results.
The survey revealed a group of individuals at once remarkably similar to one another in background, status, and beliefs and strikingly different from the general public. In 1980, this "media elite" was predominantly white (95 percent), male (79 percent), college-educated (93 percent), and well paid. Four out of five had been raised in relatively affluent business or professional families; two out of three came from states in the Northeast or industrial Midwest.
In terms of beliefs, one distinctive characteristic was a strongly secular outlook. In marked contrast to a 1977 Gallup poll of the general population in which 94 percent of respondents professed a religious faith, 50 percent of the elite journalists listed their religion as "none." And while 86 percent of respondents from the general population said their religious beliefs are very or fairly important to them (and 42 percent had attended a religious service in the preceding week), an identical 86 percent of elite journalists said they seldom or never go to church.
Concerning political beliefs: 54 percent of the journalists described their views as left of center, 29 percent as "middle of the road," and only 17 percent as right of center. The authors argue that this ratio of more than three liberal journalists for each conservative contrasts sharply with the distribution among the American public: every relevant poll conducted in the decade from 1975 to 1985 found conservatives outnumbering liberals in the electorate, often by a ratio of three to two or more.
Of course, partisan or ideological labels provide only a very rough indication of political orientation. Thus one of the great strengths of the Media Elite survey is that it also included several sets of more precise questions about political attitudes and behaviors. One set asked how the journalists had voted in each of the last four presidential elections (i.e., 1964–76). It produced what is now probably the most frequently quoted datum in the media bias debate: Among elite journalists who voted for a major party candidate, support for the more liberal Democratic contender ranged from 81 percent for George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, to 87 percent for Hubert Humphrey, to a high of 94 percent for Lyndon B. Johnson.
An additional set of questions elicited attitudes on 21 economic, political, and social issues. The responses showed little support for egalitarian socialist economics but strong endorsement of liberal social views in such areas as welfare, affirmative action, environmentalism, and, in particular, individual morality. For example, only 13 percent of the journalists agreed that large private corporations should be nationalized, while 86 percent endorsed the statement that "people with more ability should earn higher salaries." Similarly, fully 90 percent agreed that "it is a woman's right to decide whether or not to have an abortion," while only 25 percent agreed that homosexual sex is "wrong." Fewer than half (47 percent) agreed that adultery is wrong.
The authors also sought to provide insight into the future by conducting a separate survey of students at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, a principal training ground for prospective members of the media elite. They found that while the students were more diverse in race and gender than the existing elite they were even more homogeneous in background and beliefs. In particular, self-described liberals outnumbered conservatives 85 percent to 11 percent, a ratio of almost eight to one.
One specific issue the authors examined was nuclear power. Energy scientists, energy engineers, nuclear scientists, and science journalists were all surveyed – only 24% of journalists favored rapid nuclear development, compared with 69% of nuclear scientists, 70% of energy scientists, and 80% of the energy engineers. The content analysis showed that the overall coverage of nuclear power issues tended to overwhelmingly favor the views of the journalists ("at six out of seven media outlets, anti-nuclear stories outnumbered pro-nuclear pieces by a wide margin”). An analysis of the opinions expressed by scientists and engineers that were cited in media reports also overwhelmingly reflected the views of the journalists rather than the views of the scientists and engineers; media reporting suggested that the scientific community is sharply divided over the question of nuclear power, with a majority of scientists opposing the development of nuclear energy.
- Lichter, S. R. Rothman, S., & Lichter, L. (1986). The Media Elite: America's New Power- brokers. Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler.
- Smith, T. (6/21/1993). "The Media Elite revisited - relevance of 1986 book by Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter - Special Section: The Decline of American Journalism." The National Review
- Media Research Institute,Media Bias Basics.
- C. J. Helm; S. Rothman; S. R. Lichter. (1988). Is opposition to nuclear energy an ideological critique? The American Political Science Review, 82(3), 943-952