by Austan Goolsbee, Professor of Economics - University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, New York Times, December 8, 2006
In a December 7, 2006 article on the New York Times website, University of Chicago Graduate School of Business professor Austan Goolsbee shared findings from a study by two of his University of Chicago colleagues. The study found evidence that newspapers' business interests - their desire to grow readership and maximize sales - drive the use of ideologically-slanted language in stories moreso than any political leanings held by newspaper ownership or newspaper staff.
When [most people] perceive partisan slant in the news itself, they typically interpret it as evidence of underlying bias by reporters or media owners...
...New research by two University of Chicago economists, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, entitled “What Drives Media Slant? Evidence From U.S. Daily Newspapers” (www.nber.org/papers/w12707.pdf)...showed that the main driver of any [partisan] slant [in news coverage] was the newspaper's audience, not bias by the newspaper's owner.
A comparison of circulation data (per capita) to the ratio of Republican to Democratic campaign contributions by ZIP code showed that circulation was strongly related to whether the newspaper matched the readers’ own ideology.
The authors calculated the ideal partisan slant for each paper, if all it cared about was getting readers, and they found that it looked almost precisely like the one for the actual newspaper. As Dr. Shapiro put it in an interview, “The data suggest that newspapers are targeting their political slant to their customers’ demand and choosing the amount of slant that will maximize their sales.”
Goolsbee concludes that although politicians from both sides of the political spectrum accuse news media of partisan leanings, the data suggests that papers are just reflecting what their readers want to hear. Essentially, the views of owners and reporters do not affect news coverage.