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Most people consider some news sources ideologically biased. Many will say Fox is conservatively biased while other will complain of the liberal bias of CNN. But is that because those news sources are biased or because people perceive them as biased?

Research by Joel Turner at Western Kentucky University indicates that the perception of bias may not be based on the content of the news. Prior polls had shown that people tend to report that Fox has a strong conservative bias and that CNN has a strong liberal bias. To test this Turner took five news stories from both Fox and CNN. Then he had those stories re-recorded in a professional news studio using the original transcripts of the stories and a professional anchor. Each story was recorded three times, once it was verbally identified as being from Fox, once from CNN and once without any network association.

Participants were recruited to watch the news stories then answered questions about the stories and themselves. The interesting thing is how individuals perceived bias in the stories. When the stories (both Fox and CNN) were NOT attributed to a news network participants perceived them as unbiased. It did not matter whether the original story came from Fox or CNN, both were rated equally as unbiased. But when the stories were attributed to Fox they were seen as having a conservative bias. Again it is didn’t matter if the original story was from Fox or CNN. Finally when the stories were attributed to CNN they were perceived as having a liberal bias regardless of the original source of the story.

But it gets more interesting from here; the researcher looked at how the individual’s personal ideology interacted with their perception and found astonishing results. Ideology was measured on a 7 point scale from strong liberal (-3) to strong conservative (+3) with 0 representing ideological moderate. Ideological moderates perceived equal bias in both news sources, yet they perceived no bias when the stories did not indicate a news source. But when the perceived bias in the news source the ideology of the individual conflicted with each other then the individual perceived even greater bias in the news. Yet when the perceived bias in the news source was consistent with the individual’s ideology then they minimized the bias. This was so powerful that strong liberals perceived twice the amount of bias in Fox news as moderates while not seeing any bias in CNN. On the flip side strong conservatives saw twice the bias in CNN as moderates did while not perceiving any bias in Fox news.

This is quite amazing considering that when the stories were not attributed to any specific news source they were not seen as being biased. The simple fact that the anchor stated the news network led people to see bias in the reporting even if it wasn’t present.

Now I do have to state a caveat, none of the news stories selected came from pundits or talking heads of either network. They were actual news stories not editorials or news commentary or opinion pieces. The pundits on the different networks certainly show a great deal of bias on all sides of the spectrum. Instead this was about the news not opinions and it seems that when it comes to the news we see more bias than may be present in the news. So next time you see a story posted by Fox news or CNN or any other news source you think is biased stop yourself, take a look and think carefully if the actual story is biased before you judge it.

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