Watch where you paste those labels

It wasn’t reported in any Texas newspaper, but earlier this month, Stanford professor David Brady and economics student Jonathan Ma released another glaring report on media bias. Reviewing news stories over a 12-year period — from 1990 to 2002 — Brady and Ma found that The New York Times and The
Washington Post were far more likely to label a U.S. senator “conservative”
than “liberal.”

According to the Stanford study, the “conservative” label tagged U.S. senators three, four or five times as often as the “liberal” label was applied to the other side.

The researchers note that they are finding similar patterns in the ideological labeling of U.S. senators in other newspapers. Even The Wall Street Journal, which published Brady’s findings, described senators as conservative almost twice as often as it describes them as liberal.

Texas Media Watch has frequently uncovered similar labeling imbalances in the Texas press.

Texans for Public Justice, which spearheaded the campaign to block the
confirmation of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to a federal bench, has never been identified as a “liberal group” in a Texas news story under scrutiny.

But Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy was identified as conservative in every
press report studied in which it was named.

Labeling of individuals is also lopsided.

Gov. Rick Perry was identified as conservative in 481 news stories this year, while no Texas Democrat was routinely given the liberal label.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett was labeled as “liberal” in 61 news stories this year,
but most of those reports were from Washington, not Texas.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee was not identified as “liberal” in any news story this year, and U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson was called liberal only 20 times — again, mostly in national news reports.

All three congressional representatives have 93 percent liberal voting records.

By contrast, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was identified as
conservative in 2,816 state and national news reports.

Meanwhile, at the statehouse, even proud liberals like state Sens. Mario
Gallegos and Gonzalo Barrientos rarely got their left-leaning credentials in

The problem with this over-aggressive and one-sided labeling is that it creates
the impression that conservatives and their thinking are out of the
mainstream — a false view that is part of the myopia that afflicts the Texas

Too often, the Texas press doesn’t recognize the middle of the political

In an effort to help, Texas Media Watch regularly publishes the results of
nonpartisan opinion polls — not because the press should be governed by
majority rule but because we think the state’s big newspapers should know what
most people believe.

In recent months, we have reported Gallup polls that found that 56 percent of
Americans currently support the war in Iraq and almost 70 percent oppose
partial-birth abortion.

We also reported a Center for the Advancement of Women survey that revealed
that just over half of all American women now oppose all legal abortion.

Seventy-six percent of Texans favor the death penalty, according to the Texas
Poll, which also found, in a multiple-choice question, that only 7 percent told
pollsters that the Lone Star State should institute an income tax.

When the question was posed another way, more than half of all Texans still
said they oppose an income tax.

Although reasonable people can challenge all these positions, the polls
demonstrate that opposition to an income tax and legal abortion are not
conservative positions. They are the majority view, both in Texas and the
country as a whole. So is support for the death penalty and the war in Iraq.

Texas newspapers may want to use their editorial pages to lobby folks to change
their minds. But news reports that use a “conservative” modifier to mislead
readers into thinking the state’s political leaders are standing far out in
right field instead of holding the middle ground of Texas opinion are biased
and inaccurate.

Brady and Ma also found that reporters were modifying the modifiers.

Conservatives were often characterized negatively — unyielding conservative,
extreme conservative, belligerent conservative. But liberals, when identified
at all, got the benefit of the doubt — good old-fashioned liberal, old-school
liberal, respected liberal.

Still, despite the glowing word choices, liberals are more likely to complain
about being labeled.

When I reported on Texas politics, no politician ever complained to me about
being called conservative, but several called to object to being labeled
liberal — even if their voting records made their positions clear.

Brady’s findings leave the Texas press with two options: It can drop the use of
ideological modifiers altogether, or it can make sure that it employs the term
“liberal” as often as it uses the term “conservative.’

Continuing to label mainstream ideas and politicians as conservative while
trying to pass off liberal notions as middle of the road will only further
erode public confidence in the media.

Politicians can call themselves anything they want, but one of the most basic
responsibilities of a newspaper is accurate labeling.

Sherry Sylvester is the director of Texas Media Watch.