Expert Commentary

Bias in reporting of international conflict and war: Research on the Libyan Civil War

2015 study from Harvard and the University of Michigan showing how coverage of the Libyan Civil War varied based on news outlets' countries of origin and political regime type.

The way reporters and editors characterize armed conflicts can have consequences: It helps shape public opinion and set the agenda, thereby creating political pressure and influencing policymakers. Researchers have long examined issues of reporting “bias” — the systematic over- or under-reporting of events — and how “norms of newsworthiness” shape story framing, angles, language and selection of facts.

“Slant” is sometimes attributed to the ownership of news organizations, but recent research has suggested the more powerful explanation is that news outlets are responsive to the preferences of their audiences, which prefer like-minded news. Deeply embedded incentive structures, often operating almost unconsciously, influence how reporters and editors anticipate the demands of their audience and the marketplace. At its most basic and clichéd, this is found in the old news idea about the chief criterion for hyping a story: “If it bleeds, it leads.” There are also “narrative logic” traps that reporters sometimes fall into, sorting actors into “bad guys” and “good guys” and dramatizing events through individuals, even though larger forces are often at work. Research suggests that such factors help produce predictable patterns of biased news coverage. This evidence should prompt news media members to be, at the very least, more self-aware of the structures in which they operate.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Peace Research, “Filtering Revolution: Reporting Bias in International Newspaper Coverage of the Libyan Civil War,” analyzes a dataset spanning 113 countries and comprising 213,406 articles from 2,252 newspapers published between December 18, 2010 (when the Arab Spring began with protests in Tunisia) and the days immediately following the capture and death of Muammar Gadaffi, through October 23, 2011. The authors, Matthew A. Baum of Harvard Kennedy School and Yuri M. Zhukov of the University of Michigan, focus on how the political system in which news media operate — specifically, whether reporters are in democracies or autocracies — also shapes the tenor of stories and the frequency with which they cover topics.

The study’s findings include:

  • Overall, “while media in democracies are in most cases independent from government influence, they have their own institutional biases — such as newsworthiness criteria that emphasize novelty, conflict, proximity, and drama — that tend to result in conflict coverage favoring anti-regime forces. Meanwhile, the self-preservation motive of authoritarian governments that seek to influence or control their countries’ media favors coverage that underscores the legitimacy and inevitability of the status quo.”
  • When the number of anti-Gadaffi regime protests in Libya increased significantly, the chances that newspapers in non-democracies published a story on the conflict diminished by 38%. By contrast, in democracies, spikes in protests were correlated with a 14% increase in the probability of publication. Likewise, when rebel-led violence resulted in the deaths of civilians, the chances that a news outlet in a non-democracy would cover the Libyan conflict rose by 47%; whereas a spike in civilian deaths because of rebel activity did not appear to change the volume of news media coverage in democracies.
  • The data indicate that “media in non-democracies evidenced a clear pro-incumbency bias in their news coverage, while their counterparts in democracies demonstrated an opposing, pro-challenger bias.” This could be seen in areas such as “coverage of government-inflicted civilian casualties and anti-regime protests (more coverage by democracies; less by non-democracies), and coverage of rebel-inflicted civilian casualties (more coverage by non-democracies; less by democracies).”
  • The researchers allow that one “potential objection to the above is that almost every country that militarily intervened in the Libyan Civil War was a member of NATO, and hence a democracy. The tendency of media in democratic states to overlook rebel crimes, while emphasizing popular protests and government atrocities, may reflect alliance commitments and rally-round-the-flag effects more than regime type.”

“To the extent democratic pro-challenger biases result in systematically greater international support for intervening in civil conflicts,” Baum and Zhukov conclude, “such coverage could raise the pressure on leaders to do so, potentially altering the outcomes of such conflicts.”


Keywords: Middle East, news, war, conflict, journalism bias, motivated reasoning

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