Each American political season seems to bring with it a new round of scandals. Though critics of the media often complain about frivolousness and overkill, the content of the scandals often demands serious and significant coverage. However, judgments by news editors and reporters do influence the volume and treatment.
A 2011 study from Harvard University and the University of Pavia published in The Journal of Politics, “Newspaper Coverage of Political Scandals,” used data from 32 political scandals and 200 newspapers over the past decade to determine any bias that newspapers with apparent political leanings employed in their coverage. The study did not distinguish between types of scandals — for example, financial versus sex scandals — nor did it take into account the prominence of the politician in question. The key measurement for bias is the volume of news coverage devoted to a scandal, something the researchers termed “agenda-setting.”
The findings include:
- Partisan-leaning editorial pages are strongly correlated with biases in the amount of reportorial coverage of scandals. Democratic-leaning newspapers devote significantly more attention to scandals involving Republican politicians than scandals involving Democrats, and Republican-leaning newspapers do the opposite. This apparent bias holds for scandals both local and national in origin.
- On average, a news organization with a higher degree of editorial endorsements for one political party will devote 26% more reportorial news coverage to a scandal involving a member of the opposite party.
- The partisan nature of the readership itself — when newspapers are read in a primarily Democratic or Republican area — only seems to have an effect on local scandals. Republican- or Democratic-leaning media give more coverage to scandals of the opposite party only when the politician is from the same state or congressional district where the newspaper is sold. This correlation between a partisan readership and news attention does not hold for out-of-state or national-level scandals.
- Evidence suggests that newspapers with larger circulations “systematically give more space to scandals, irrespective of the political affiliation of those involved.”
The study’s authors caution that the findings merely prove correlations, and the results do not prove that ideology always drive news coverage decisions. However, they conclude that newspapers cover political scandals “in systematically biased ways [that] appear to depend on the partisan positions of their publishers, editors and readers.”