• Justin McBrayer

How Left-Leaning Framing can Bias the News

Nearly everyone concedes that many corporate news organizations are biased towards the political left. It’s beyond argument that places like The New York Times, Mother Jones, and MSNBC each present the world through liberal-colored glasses. What’s less-understood is exactly how the news is tilted in one political direction.

The standard explanation is that left-leaning news organizations report facts that support leftist political ideologies and ignore facts that support rightist political ideologies. Right-leaning news organizations do the opposite. Thus, the suggestion is that left and right media simply report different sets of facts, and that’s what makes one to the right and one to the left. Each are saying different things.

That's certainly part of the explanation. But as the rose-colored glasses analogy suggests, that’s not the whole story. When two people look at the same landscape through different colored glasses, they see the same objects, but they are colored in different ways. Similarly, right and left media can report the same facts and yet color them in different ways. Even when they say the same things, left and right media can say them in different ways to leave their audiences with different impressions.

Many corporate news organizations FRAME their stories in ways that promote a liberal understanding of the facts. It is this framing, in addition to the politically motivated selection of stories, that contributes to a leftist bias to the reporting. To make this point, let me briefly explain the psychological effects of framing and then provide a couple of examples of framing in liberal media outlets.

When Tom Sawyer convinces his friends that whitewashing the fence is not a chore but a privilege, he changes the way they think about the activity. He frames it in a way that makes it seems attractive rather than punitive. This illustrates what cognitive psychologists call a framing effect: how we present an issue affects how others think about it, too.

One of the classic experiments to demonstrate a framing effect presented participants with the following dilemma. Suppose you are a medical doctor tasked with choosing a vaccine for a sick population of 600 people. Drug A will save exactly 200 of them but no more. Drug B’s outcome is uncertain, but there is a 1/3 chance that all villagers are saved and a 2/3 chance that all will die. What would you do? Most respondents go with Drug A. It’s a guaranteed lock that you’ll save 200 lives.

Here’s where framing effects come in. Suppose we had described the first drug in different terms. We note that Drug A will kill exactly 400 people but no more while Drug B’s outcome remains uncertain with a 1/3 chance of saving everyone and a 2/3 chance of killing everyone. In that case, most respondents go with Drug B. On that option, they reason, you have a chance of saving everyone whereas the first drug condemns 400 people to their death.

That set of decisions makes no logical sense. It’s the very same dilemma in both cases. But when we describe Drug A as saving lives, people overwhelmingly prefer it. And when we describe Drug as costing lives, people don’t. Same choice, difference lense. Framing matters.

Liberal media organizations deploy this sort of framing all the time (as do conservative ones, but this post is about liberal sources). Here are two examples from the abortion debate. First, the Associated Press stylebook requires journalists to describe prochoice activists as “supporters of abortion rights” and prolife activists as either “opponents of abortions rights” or “members of an anti-abortion group.” In other words, the prochoice position is framed in a pro or rights-friendly way, and the prolife position is framed as an anti or opponent way.

This maps directly onto the framing in the classic drug case where one and the same drug can be described as either life-saving or life-ending with radically different audience responses. In parallel, one's response to the abortion dilemma is framed as either rights-preserving or rights-violating. Is a bill that restricts late-term abortions one that violates women's rights or defends the rights of the unborn? Either moniker is a frame, and the framing matters. That's why it’s obviously unfair for left-leaning media to frame the abortion debate in terms that are friendly to the prochoice position.

Second, liberal news organizations often describe late-term abortions with non-descript or sanitized labels whereas conservative news organizations often use more graphic language. For example, in discussions of a recent federal bill outlawing late-term abortions, conservative organizations used the term ‘partial-birth abortion’ whereas their liberal counterparts preferred terminology like ‘an alternative abortion procedure’.

Here again, the label functions as a frame, and framing matters. Labeling the issue in terms of a partial-birth abortion makes an audience more sympathetic to the prolife cause--it sounds terribly to partially deliver a human child only to kill it. Sanitizing the label doesn't have the same effect. So the more liberal the news source, the less likely the reader is to see the term 'partial-birth abortion' (for evidence that the terms really are used this way, see Left Turn by Tim Groseclose).

In sum, consumers of news must guard against both false stories and true ones framed with a political spin. News bias is not just about misinformation or nondisclosure. It’s also about framing stories to manipulate the political worldview of an audience.

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