Is there political bias in the media?

By Bill WirtzLex KlerenMisch Pautsch

The aim of journalism is to report the facts without letting your personal biases get in the way. That does not prevent journalists and their employers from having their own political takes. We talked to colleagues and researchers to answer this sensitive question.

If a poll suggests that eight out of ten Luxembourgers support a certain policy, a journalist can report on these findings in two different ways. You can write "80% of respondents supported the policy" or "20% of those questioned are opposed to the policy". Both versions are objectively accurate, yet transmit a different approach to the story, and have the potential of inspiring varying emotions in the readers. In this particular case, the most neutral approach is probably to simply quote the press release of the polling institution, to avoid an accusation of political bias.

Media companies have gone to great lengths to protect themselves from the accusation of taking sides. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the news agency Reuters famously avoided using the word "terrorist" to describe those who perpetrated the attack. Stephen Jukes, then Head of Global News at Reuters said: "Throughout this difficult time we have strictly adhered to our 150-year-old tradition of factual, unbiased reporting and upheld our long-standing policy against the use of emotive terms, including the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’."

The use of adjectives can quickly trigger an adverse reaction from the readership, and put into question the objectivity of the writer. Is Luxembourg’s leading opposition party CSV centre-right, centre-left, or conservative? Are any political parties in the parliament "populist", and is it even fair to use a word that is so hotly disputed?

Trust in the media has been at the forefront of public debate since 2016, when aftermath of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the United States outlined a disconnect between the editorial priorities of the media and the realities of how voters decided. In a Eurobarometer poll in 2016 (Eurobarometer 452), 44% of respondents for the (then) EU28 considered the media unworthy of trust – in Luxembourg that number was a mere 27% (65% support, the rest is undecided). A significant figure nonetheless, because it makes one in five Luxembourgers cynical towards the authenticity of the information they get from domestic media sources.

To what extent is there any merit to the claim that there is a disconnect between the political views of newsrooms and that of the general population?

A look to Germany, which has analysed political orientation of journalists for a long period of time, makes sense: over a fourth of Luxembourgish residents regularly consume German media outlets.

German journalists skew left

Prof. Dr. Christian Hoffmann is a professor for Communication Management at Leipzig University's Institute of Communication and Media Studies, who has been studying the German media landscapes since 2004. He says that media analysis is as old as communication studies, with his institute in Leipzig being the oldest, after 100 years of studying the development of the media. "Based on the available data, between two-thirds and three-quarters of journalists in Germany are politically left of centre. This is based on polling done with journalists themselves, meaning information they provided themselves", explains Hoffmann. The questions of political orientation have been standard practice in Germany for a long time, and are considered the most accurate information. Compared to the United States, donations to political parties are not taken into account, nor are tools that analyse behaviour on social media: "Analysing filter bubbles can be interesting for the general public, but it does not tell you much for journalists. On Twitter, journalists will follow accounts from a broad range of political actors, that doesn’t mean they agree with them."

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