Is the media liberally biased?

As long as I can remember in my 40 years on Earth, conservatives have claimed that the "mainstream media" is liberally biased and cannot be trusted to be objective. This has spawned a sprawling conservative media ecosystem - Daily Wire, Daily Caller, Brietbart, Fox News, Pluralist, The Federalist, etc. - which views itself as a bulwark against the onslaught of liberal media.

There's a really big problem with that claim, though - there's really not much evidence for it outside of peoples' own perception. You probably would not be surprised to learn that most of what is viewed as "biased" depends strongly on one's political leanings.

Worse, it's essentially an unfalsifiable claim. During the 2016 elections, Snopes was widely derided as a "liberal" news source despite the fact that it's simply a fact-checking website that cites all of its sources in every article. Conservatives even think Wikipedia is liberally biased, and I'm sure you've all heard of Conservapedia (if you haven't, I apologize for introducing something that will make you dumber as you read it). Essentially, anything which reports news unfavorable to conservatives can be regarded as "liberally biased." And any data which challenges the claim will itself be accused of liberal bias.

Let's take some data published by the University of Michigan. Since conservatives view universities as liberal institutions, we can already predict that this data would be disregarded as liberally biased. But we can at least try to hone in on some of the important takeaways, like this:
A key finding from the Pew survey is that conservatives have a higher level of distrust overall of news sources and consume a much narrower range of news sources. Liberal audiences trust and consume a broader range of news sources. 
Therefore, there are more news sources that are rated or perceived as center-left/slight left leaning (especially mainstream sources); there are fewer news sources that are center-right. This represents the popular conservative discourse that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (and potential hostile media effect).
The view of liberal bias in the media is self-fulfilling and self-defeating: as conservatives feel more alienated by the media, they narrow their sources of information and become more deeply ensconced within the conservative media ecosystem, which continually pushes the narrative that "the media" is liberally biased.

My personal take, as one who consistently scores center-left on political affiliation assessments, is that all media is inherently biased because media is created by human beings. It's impossible to totally disconnect one's political leanings from news coverage, and journalists aren't infallible. I also reject terms like "the media," as it seems to imply that the media is a single conglomerate rather than a loose and often divergent network.

However, I also believe that the conservative ecosystem is more biased than more mainstream sources. Conservative news sources regularly frame themselves as being unbiased, like Fox News' old slogan "Fair and Balanced" or even the far-right Facebook page "Unbiased America." By framing themselves as countering a perceived media bias, they are framing themselves as more reliable purveyors of truth. But this is exactly how conservatives become more deeply entrenched in a narrow news ecosystem - it feeds the assumption that anything outside of the conservative media ecosystem is untrustworthy.

Anecdotally, that's reflected in how my liberal and conservative friends react to news. If I present an article from, say, the Daily Wire, my liberal friends will generally point out that the argument straw-mans some liberal position, or perhaps focuses on the wrong things (like today's article that focuses on Chrissy Teigen's response to Trump's tweet about her - the article mostly talks about Teigen being a "democratic activist" and details her criticisms of Trump, rather than addressing the bizarre fact that a sitting president is name-calling celebrities on Twitter).

The other day I posted a CNN article saying that Trump is behind in polls against every major democratic challenger. This was met with a chorus of skepticism and "fake news" claims from conservative friends of mine, who have embraced Trump's claim that CNN is liberally biased (again, a claim that cannot be proved or disproved). I had to post an identical poll from Fox News to convince them, and it was notable that the data was buried in a document on Fox News' website rather than reported as headline news. Media bias, indeed.

Over the last couple of years, I watched a friend of mine go from centrist to hard-right, and it is almost entirely attributable (or at least evident in) the narrowing scope of media he consumes and discusses. In his centrist days, he regularly posted from a variety of sources and engaged in discussion with people of various views; but as he's become more conservative, most of his posts now come from the same handful of hard-right outlets and he's no longer interested in discussing his views with those who have differing outlooks. He's bought into the myth, hook line and sinker, that the mainstream media is liberally biased and can't be trusted. That narrowed his scope of media consumption, and his views gradually shifted to reflect that. It's an unfortunate turn, but exactly what to expect when someone starts buying into the false narrative that the media is liberally biased.


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