News coverage of the conflict in El Salvador has tended to be more critical of the Salvadoran government than of the leftist guerrillas -- but that tendency is now under sharp attack.
The New York-based Freedom House, in an analysis of the coverage, says that reporting of the subject has been marred by ''political bias, ideology, poor sources, and deliberate misinformation.''
Moreover, the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization says that while stories on El Salvador datelined Washington are fairly straightforward, those written from the scene are often ''simplistic,'' tend ''toward propaganda,'' and often ignore complex issues such as land reform.
The Freedom House report calls for greater efforts by US journalists to understand and report on the complexities of the El Salvador issue. Land reform, in the view of the report, has not received much coverage ''partly because of the undramatic nature of the programs and partly because they do not coincide with the portrayal of the government as right wing and repressive.''
Further, the Freedom House report charges that the US press:
* Has overplayed the role of the Frente Democratico Revolucionario (FDR), the political arm of the leftist guerrillas, inflating ''the image of Guillermo Ungo into a leader with a popular following within his country.'' In point of fact, the FDR is the conduit for press comments from the guerrillas, whose leaders have chosen not to make themselves available to the US press.
* Portrays the dead ''not as war casualties but as victims of human-rights violations'' and further does not indicate that often those killed were ''people . . . actively involved with the guerrillas.'' Although Amnesty International and other human-rights organizations make these distinctions, the press more often than not fails to do so.
* Reports massacres, killings, and disappearances without giving ''any indication of who might be responsible or, worse, blaming right-wing forces in such a way that, though they might have no connection to the government, the government is nonetheless seen as the culprit.'' In addition, these presentations are not balanced ''with coverage of leftist terrorism.''
The Freedom House report is certain to please the government of Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte and the Reagan administration. Both are under sharp editorial attack in the US press -- the Duarte government for its alleged human-rights violations and the Reagan administration for its support of the Duarte government.
But the report is not a whitewash of the Duarte government. It recognizes that, while there are reformist-minded military men in El Salvador, there are other elements within the military, or close to it, that are bent on resisting change.
What the report asks for essentially is a more even-handed treatment of the story than it has received so far.
In this connection, the report, which was written by Bruce McColm, who heads Freedom House's Caribbean Basin Program, says the Latin American press ''has covered the situation on the ground more thoroughly than its North American counterpart (and) is more balanced and more realistic about communist influence.''
Washington and US policy have come in for a share of criticism in this Latin coverage -- this criticism resting ''not on any sensational findings in the country, but rather on the military rhetoric employed by State Department spokesmen explaining American policy.''
The Freedom House report argues also that little of El Salvador's history is known or understood by the reporters.
And the report states that too few of the newsmen, especially from the television press, ''were people who spoke Spanish.''