O Opinion

Is ‘the media’ biased against the right and does it matter?

As the dust from the US midterms settles, it’s clear that Trump's efforts to retain the Senate have been fruitful. Even, the more precariously positioned, Ted Cruz narrowly managed to be re-elected in Texas. In his acceptance speech, he described a hard-fought campaign where the “good people of Texas and the hard-working men and women” managed to prevail despite “Hollywood… [and] the national media coming in against the state”.

Such accusations of the ‘liberal media’ being bias against the ‘common man’ are familiar fare for those on the right and not just limited to Trump and his party.

In Germany, the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD), instrumental to destabilising the previously the rock-like reign of Angela Merkel, has also been accompanied by loud accusations that the mainstream media is against them. Supporters call this ‘AfD bashing’; whereas, others might argue such claims are merely conspiratorial paranoia.

Research by Fabian Falck and his team sheds light on the conundrum. Their work, presented at the Oxford Internet Institute’s IPP 2018 conference, utilised newly developed web scraping and text analysis techniques to analyse over 180,000 online German news articles.

An algorithm then rated the sentiment within articles as being positive or negative towards individual parties and politicians. From analysing articles posted between January 2017 and April 2018 – including the September 2017 German federal elections – the data shows, empirically, that the AfD is indeed portrayed in a negative manner by the majority of the mainstream German online news media. 

So what does this mean? There appears to be a number of implications; the first being that the AfD are somewhat justified in their perception of AfD bashing.

Secondly, it would suggest that the media, often felt to have powerful persuasive abilities, may not be as omnipotent as presumed. Despite this concerted avalanche of negative press, the AfD entered the parliament as the third largest party after the 2017 federal election – having previously held no seats at all.

While the prevailing negative sentiment from the majority of news outlets may have suppressive effects on some potential supporters, for a great many others the apparent injustice seems to galvanise their resolve.

Instead of crushing all support, this sense of a ‘hostile media’ has been seized upon by the far-right in Germany and across the Atlantic. Through positioning themselves as outspoken opposition to the ‘politically correct’ liberal consensus, such movements, in fact, seem to draw power from the perceptibly imbalanced coverage and pervasive negative portrayal in the mainstream news. This perceived injustice then plays into another 'us' and 'them' narrative designed to rally and motivate supporters to their cause.

As such, the media’s efforts to present the AfD in a negative light may have, paradoxically, strengthened the far-right further still. 

Many other interesting findings and graphics from Falck’s research, such as a map of German news organisations by their political biases, can be explored online at www.politicalcompass.de.

In addition, the researchers’ code and database are provided open-source and the authors encourage others to apply these techniques to different countries’ media systems. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if 'Lyin’ Ted' was right after all?

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