Newsroom conservatives are a rare breed

In national news outlets, only 7 percent of journalists call themselves conservative. Does that deepen a trust gap?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

If you'd like to check out an endangered species, don't bother with a trip to the zoo. Just drop by the newsroom of your favorite newspaper or TV station and ask to see the conservatives.

According to a new survey, only 12 percent of local reporters, editors, and media executives are self-described conservatives, while twice as many call themselves liberal. At national news organizations, the gap is even wider - 7 percent conservative vs. 34 percent liberal.

That gap, which has grown wider in the past decade, does not necessarily prove that America's mainstream journalism is biased, as conservatives have long complained. But the survey does confirm that US newsrooms do not mirror the political leanings of the nation at large.

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But in an election year, and an era of growing partisanship on the airwaves, the question of alleged media bias has currency. Some editors contend that at the very least, media outlets should acknowledge that ideologically unbalanced newsrooms are bad for journalism and, in a time of declining circulation and viewership, bad for business, too.

"We should acknowledge that maybe the biggest problem is that most of us think too much alike and come from the same backgrounds," says David Yarnold, editor of the opinion pages at The (San Jose) Mercury News. "Find the pro-lifers in a newsroom. That's harder than finding Waldo."

Many editors and news executives argue that the goal of balanced reporting can be reached, and generally is, through professional ethics. Even those who are alarmed by the survey don't necessarily advocate a political litmus test in hiring.

Still, the survey shows a sharp disconnect in viewpoint between the press and the public. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center found the gap between journalists and other Americans particularly wide on social issues. The sample of 547 journalists and executives in a wide range of print and broadcast organizations, found that 88 percent of those surveyed at national media outlets think society should accept homosexuality; about half the general public agrees. And while about 60 percent of Americans say morality and a belief in God are inexorably linked, only 6 percent of national journalists and executives surveyed believe that.

But if editors and recruiters are thinking more about ideological balance, newsrooms remain distracted by budget cutbacks and continued embarrassment over the another gap: a severe shortage of minorities relative to the general population. To make things more complicated, no one wants to put a "Bush or Kerry?" question on an application form, and some journalists assume conservatives simply aren't interested in joining their ranks.

Then there's the matter of changing attitudes in a profession that prides itself on the ability of reporters to set their personal views aside."Most journalists try to do a fair job and are quite careful to make sure that their personal point of view doesn't overwhelm the story," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman at National Public Radio. "In talk radio and cable television, the goal is to be opinionated. But the majority of journalists feel opinion gets in the way of doing good journalism."

Indeed, the Pew study doesn't prove that news stories themselves are biased - although it found that most national journalists think the media are giving President Bush a free ride.

Some analysts also note that publishers and station owners are anything but icons of the left. "Journalism in general in the United States tends to be fairly conventional and traditional. Even if [reporters] individually see themselves as liberal, the framework in which they work isn't necessarily a liberal structure," says Aly Colón, head of the diversity program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.

Still, many Americans say a liberal bias does exist. In a Gallup poll last fall, 45 percent of Americans said the news media are too liberal, while 14 percent said too conservative. (Some 20 percent of Americans now call themselves liberal, versus 33 percent who say they're conservative.)

Gallup also found TV news and daily papers near the bottom - on par with Congress and labor unions - in its ranking of public confidence in US institutions.

Mainstream US media outlets nowadays scrupulously try to avoid taking political stands outside editorial pages, unlike their newspaper ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries or their contemporary European cousins.

Even so, reporters exert plenty of influence over their coverage, and some critics say they can't help missing parts of the big picture if they look at things the same way. And the trend toward a liberal viewpoint appears, if anything, to be rising. In 1995, 22 percent of journalists told Pew they were liberal, and 5 percent conservative. Now it's 34 and 7 percent, respectively.

Journalists are often blind to their bias, says Bill Cotterell, political editor at the Tallahassee [Fla.] Democrat. "It starts when we decide to cover one story and not another, and decide some people are kooks and not worth calling," says Mr. Cotterell, a registered Democrat. "I get the feeling that [journalists] don't think they're biased unless they sit down, hold a meeting and take a vote to support this side and oppose the other."

What to do? Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, suggests that news organizations reach out to Christian colleges and woo people from other walks of life, like the military. "Just look around," he says.

Editors can also try to recruit reporters from different parts of the country and from a variety of backgrounds, says Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The [Portland] Oregonian. Mr. Yarnold, the San Jose opinion editor, adds that job interview questions can draw out whether applicants are ideologues or critical thinkers.

It may help that the news industry isn't a stranger to diversity campaigns. Through internships and other outreach programs, media outlets routinely make special efforts to hire minorities. The diversity efforts have had mixed success, however. According to a new survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, minorities hold only 13 percent of newsroom jobs at American newspapers surveyed, up from just 4 percent in 1978.

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