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Are Our Nation's Newspapers Biased?

SLANTED NEWS, by Arthur Edward Rowse Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. 139 pages. $3.95

By Caldwell Titcomb

In publishing Slanted News, the Beacon Press has performed a notable service for thoughtful Americans. This slim but meaty volume constitutes the first valid survey of the question of bias in our country's newspapers. (Its author, now a copy editor on the Boston evening Traveler, was formerly sports editor of the Harvard Crimson, graduated from the College in 1943, and took a master's degree from the Harvard Business School in 1946.)

This is not the first attempt at the problem. Nathan Blumberg's One-Party Press? appeared in 1954, but it was based on newspapers accounting for only 14% of the national circulation. And Blumberg, furthermore, badly misinterpreted his own statistics.

Arthur Rowse states early in his book that American newspapers have on the whole become fairer over the years in their news presentation. He believes that our papers have the highest standards of any in the world, epitomized in the "Canons of American Journalism" drawn up some years ago by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Still, as he goes on to show, we have no cause for rejoicing.

For the purpose of this survey, Rowse chose to concentrate on part of the 1952 Presidential campaign coverage.. He cites some important background statistics: according to Editor & Publisher's poll of the nation's newspapers, in terms of circulation 80 percent of the papers sold daily editorially backed Eisenhower, 11 percent supported Stevenson and 9 percent were uncommitted; of the weekly papers 75 percent favored Eisenhower, 20 percent Stevenson, with the others undecided.

Now much has been said about a "one-party press," frequently as the result of confused thinking. To some the term has meant the predominantly pro-Republican editorial stand in the nation's press; to others it has referred to allegedly biased handling of news coverage. Rowse is careful to emphasize the great difference between partisanship on the editorial page and partisanship in the news columns. It is the latter that provide the real test of a paper's objectivity.

The major portion of the book is devoted to a thorough examination of the period from September 18 to 28, 1952. This week and a half provided an excellent test of objectivity, for it saw the controversial furor over the Nixon and Stevenson campaign funds.

In evaluating a newspaper's performance, Rowse did much more than tally up the number of column inches a story received. He rightly states that length is one of the least important indications of bias. He asked a great many questions, such as: How soon after learning of a story did the paper print an account? Was it on the front page or an inside page? How prominently was it displayed? What was the size and wording of the headline? What was the tone and content of the story as it appeared? How were quotation marks used? Were there also front-page photographs, or cartoons; or first-page editorial, either so labeled or not?

Rowse here examines carefully the performances of 31 daily newspapers, plus one more in the appendix. He chose the 32 papers wisely, mainly on the basis of circulation, reputation and location; and he also tried to include a sampling of political views and ownership groups.

The papers surveyed, with their affiliated papers, accounted for about half of the total U.S. newspaper circulation. Of the top 32 papers in circulation, only six were omitted; and of these six, five were in chains already represented. The papers represented 15 of the 17 largest metropolitan areas, and included seven chains and five of the nation's 65 tabloids. Fourteen were evening papers, of which 11 editorially endorsed Eisenhower and three backed Stevenson; 18 were morning papers, all pro-Eisenhower.

Rowse also availed himself of Edward L. Bernays' 1952 survey of all daily publishers to pick the "ten best papers" in the country. The ten, listed in order, were New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Science Monitor, Louisville Courier-Journal, Kansas City Star, New York Herald-Tribune, Chicago Daily News, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and Milwaukee Journal. Rowse omitted only two of these, the Washington and Louisville papers, on the grounds that they were not in key electoral areas.

Most of Rowse's analysis focuses properly on front-page treatment. He illumines his discussion of each paper by reproducing a photograph of the whole front page of the first edition that carried the Nixon Fund story.

Of the 14 evening papers, only four put the Nixon story on page one at the earliest opportunity; four buried it inside the paper; and six did not run it the first day at all. But as soon as the Stevenson fund story broke, all the evening papers played it on the first page. Of the 18 morning papers, only eight front-paged the story in the next edition; seven ran it inside; and three omitted it completely.

Rowse found the charges of news bias to be valid--in selection, in display and in tone--on both political sides, but preponderantly in the pro-Republican direction. He concluded that, "with the possible exception of the New York Times, all papers--both Republican and Democratic--showed evidence of favoritism in their news columns in violation of their own accepted rules of conduct," and that "almost every example of favoritism in the news columns coincided with the paper's editorial feelings." This "would indicate that over 80 percent of the nation's newspaper readers may be getting their editorials with some Republican flavoring."

On the basis of Rowse's analysis it is possible to assign the newspapers he treated to various categories from fair to foul. The break-down would be pretty much as follows:

Most fair: The New York Times ("The New York Times is in a class by itself.")

Very fair: Baltimore Sun; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Generally fair, but slightly biased (the first two in the Democratic direction, the rest in the Republican): Milwaukee Journal (bias mainly in front-page cartoons); St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Chicago Sun-Times; Kansas City Star; Cleveland Plain Dealer; New York Herald Tribune; Portland Oregonian; Christian Science Monitor.

Moderately biased (both pro-Republican): New York World-Telegram and Sun; Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (which boasted of its fair political coverage).

Strongly biased (all but the first pro-Republican): New York Post; Buffalo Evening News; Chicago Herald-American; Minneapolis Star (whose publisher professed belief in news "without bias or slant or distortion or suppression"); Boston Post (whose major efforts during the period were the championing of Senator McCarthy and the denunciation of the Boston Public Library for housing Russian literature); Detroit Free Press (which at the end of the period said it was "proud of its long record of unbiased coverage of the news"); Indianapolis Star; Los Angeles Times; New York Daily Mirror; New York Daily News (whose president said a survey of bias would "do more harm than good"); San Francisco Chronicle (which claimed no bias in campaign coverage).

Very heavily biased (all pro-Republican): Boston Daily Record (New England's largest-selling daily); Des Moines Register; St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Most biased (pro-Republican): New York Journal-American ("No newspaper in this study showed more political favoritism in its news columns").

As regards newspaper chains, the survey yielded the following: the Block chain came off well; the Scripps-Howard rather poorly; the Knight, Pulliam and McCormick badly; the Cowles very badly; and the Hearst worst of all.

Local residents might be interested in the rating of the Boston papers. There were eight major dailies in Boston in 1952. Rowse analyzed three of these in detail, and commented in an early chapter on four others. From this, the order of merit would seem to be: the Christian Science Monitor; the morning and evening Globe; the evening Traveler; the Herald; the Post (now defunct); and lastly the Daily Record.

Rowse concludes his book with remarks on the problems of measuring bias. "The persons best qualified to evaluate newspaper fairness," he says, "are newspapermen themselves; yet they are unwilling to do this." He thinks that the next step is to set up regional panels of newspapermen who would meet periodically and rate each paper's performance.

The whole question is of vital importance and merits prompt action; for it affects every one of us.

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