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'Liberal bias?' IU professors find network TV election coverage favors Republicans

A visual analysis of television presidential campaign coverage from 1992 to 2004 suggests that the three television broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- favored Republicans in each election, according to two Indiana University professors in a new book.

Image Bite Politics

Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections

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Their research runs counter to the popular conventional notion of a liberal bias in the media in favor of Democrats and against Republican candidates.

Maria Elizabeth Grabe and Erik Bucy, both associate professors in the Department of Telecommunications of IU's College of Arts and Sciences, report their findings in their book, Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections (Oxford University Press).

"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 Grabe, who also is a research associate in political science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. "It's self-censorship that journalists might be imposing on themselves."

Grabe and Bucy's book is the culmination of the first major research project analyzing the relatively unexplored territory of visual coverage in presidential elections and how that influences public opinion. Between 1992 and 2004, they found, candidates were steadily shown more visually, in what they call image bites, while their verbal statements, or sound bites, decreased in average length.

They examined 62 hours of broadcast network news coverage -- a total of 178 newscasts -- between Labor Day and Election Day over four U.S. presidential elections between 1992 and 2004. Cable news outlets, including CNN and Fox News, were not included in their research. The professors are now looking at 2008 election coverage.

The origins of accusations about media bias are often attributed to the administration of President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. However, President Harry Truman made similar claims about a "one-party press" favoring Republicans during the late closing days of his 1948 campaign. Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson made similar claims after his losses to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 and 1956 elections.

Betsi Grabe

Maria Elizabeth Grabe

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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. When they studied the time duration of these stories, no pattern of favoritism was evident.

But they did spot differences when they studied visual coverage, that is, with the volume turned down.

"Reporters do exercise control over production decisions," they write in their book. "The internal structure of news stories -- their placement in the newscast, editing techniques and manipulations related to camera angles, shot lengths, eyewitness perspectives and zoom movements -- is at the volition of news workers, free of the influence of image handlers."

Grabe and Bucy analyzed several such visual packaging techniques employed in television coverage, including one of the most negative forms of image bites, the "lip-flap shot" -- where the reporter's narration is overlaid on video of the candidate talking.

"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," they said. "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."

Another thing they looked at was the "Goldilocks effect" -- essentially who is given the last say in a piece and thus better remembered by viewers.

In their research, Democrats were more likely to be subjects of the "lip-flap" effect, while Republicans more often got the last word. GOP candidates were favored in terms of having the last say in all but the 2004 election. In 1992, the difference was distinctive with Republicans having the final say 57.9 percent of the time. In 1996, Republicans had eight times as many last-say opportunities as Democrats.

Other elements of visual bias are the shot length and angle. Extreme close-ups, where a face fills the screen, or long-shots, which offers a long-distance perspective, are seen as less conducive to establishing rapport between candidates and viewers.

"Republicans were seen least through the scrutinizing and unflattering perspective of an extreme close-up. This was the case overall and for all election years except 1996," they said. "Long shots . . . were move evident in coverage of Democrats than Republicans overall, but not at statistically significant levels."

The low angle camera shot, simulating looking up at a candidate, has been demonstrated to attribute power and dominance to candidates in experimental studies. The high angle shot does the opposite. It makes a candidate look weak and powerless.

Findings for camera angle clearly illustrate the Republican advantage. Overall, Republican candidates were covered in more low-angle and fewer high-angle shots than Democrats.

Grabe, who was a news producer at the South African Broadcasting Corp. and in American public television before going into academe, said, "Journalists are trained in journalism schools and in the industry not to use low and high camera angles. It is professional code, and we found violations of this in favor of Republicans on network news.

"It takes the same amount of time to rig a camera for a low-angle shot as for a more neutral eye-level shot. It doesn't take any extra effort to be professionally unbiased," she added. "There is evidence that the pattern favoring Republicans is stable across networks, because there are no statistically significant differences between them."

The professors also looked at daily public opinion tracking polls and linked them with visually biased coverage.

"When negative packaging over time spiked for a candidate, public opinion generally went down," Grabe said. "You can observe the same inverse trend. When detrimental packaging subsides, public opinion is at its highest point. In experimental research, these production features have been shown to have an impact -- now we have indications that they have broad impact on public opinion."

"Visuals are underappreciated in news coverage," Bucy added. "You can have a negative report. You can have the journalist being opinionated against the candidate. But if you're showing favorable visuals, that out-weighs the net effect on the viewer almost every single time."