Saturday, March 19, 2005

Bias at the Minnesota Daily?

In the 2004-2005 school year's premiere issue of the Minnesota Daily, Opinions Editor Timothy Burnett addressed some criticisms toward the Daily regarding a perceived liberal bias:

"Readers’ letters and other submissions frequently complain of a bias at The Minnesota Daily... [W]e seek to facilitate the best discussion possible, judging submissions based on writing quality and position espoused (both in terms of uniqueness and prescience)... What readers can and should demand is a balanced discussion which gives publishable viewpoints opportunities to make their cases."

Upon reading this, I decided to determine (as analytically as possible) whether there exists a consistent bias in the Opinions section of the Minnesota Daily. I cataloged all opinion pieces published in the Daily from September of 2004 through February of 2005; this includes letters to the Editor, editorials, staff-written opinion columns, U-Wire opinion columns, and reader submissions. The data studied does not include editorial cartoons and the quote shown on the Opinions page each day. Because neither the cartoon nor the quote are archived on the Daily's website, they were excluded from this study because their sociopolitical stance could not be easily verified.

In order to categorize each opinion piece, three designations were used: neutral, liberal, and conservative. A neutral designation was given to a piece that was either sociopolitically balanced or one that did not address an issue that is commonly divided between liberals and conservatives. For example, an opinion piece in favor of a new stadium for the Gopher football team would be given a neutral designation.

A liberal designation was given to any opinion piece that, for the majority of the piece, espoused a traditionally liberal social or political viewpoint. For example, columns advocating gay marriage or abortion would be given a liberal designation.

A conservative designation was given to any opinion piece that, for the majority of the piece, pushed a traditionally conservative social or political viewpoint. For example, columns against gun control or for the war in Iraq would be given a conservative designation.

When considering article count as an indicator of bias, one must also take into account the number of words in each article. For it is possible that there may be more liberal articles than conservative articles, but the average length of the conservative articles is longer than the average liberal article length, which could result in more total words for conservatives, even though there were more liberal articles published.

With the Presidential election having taken place this past year, the question of a possible bias was more important than ever. Many letters were published decrying the choice of Darren Bernard for his decidedly anti-liberal columns; conversely, many conservatives felt that the liberal viewpoints were given more print space. Given that the Daily publicly and decisively endorsed John Kerry (in "We Choose Kerry," on October 28, the Editorial board wrote, "Given each candidate’s ideology, methods and character, it’s crystal clear Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry is the person to lead going forward."), it seemed increasingly important to ensure that the Daily actually did allow for a "balanced discussion." So, is there a liberal bias in the Minnesota Daily? The answer may surprise you!

But probably not. Between September of 2004 and February of 2005, the Minnesota Daily published 790 written opinion pieces. Out of these 790, 462 (58%) of the opinion pieces were categorized as neutral - neither liberal nor conservative (chart). Discarding these, 227 (69%) of the remaining pieces were designated as liberal and 101 (31%) as conservative (chart), making it apparently obvious where the Daily stands.

Nevertheless, it could be possible that many of the liberal pieces published were very short and that many of the conservative pieces published were quite lengthy, which would account for the vast discrepancy between the number of published pieces for the two viewpoints. In the 790 opinion pieces examined, there were a total of 221,892 words printed. Discarding the neutral articles (135,469 words or 61%) (chart), liberal articles accounted for 54,616 (63%) of the words printed, while conservative pieces accounted for 31,807 (37%) (chart). Thus, the average length of a liberal opinion piece was 240.6 words, and the average conservative article length was 314.9 words. So while it is true that the conservative articles were, on average, longer than the liberal articles, the difference is not large enough to account for the 9:4 ratio of liberal to conservative articles.

From these statistics, it is obvious that the Minnesota Daily has, over the last six months, given a larger and louder voice to the sociopolitically liberal sector. So when Opinions editor Tim Burnett wrote, "What readers can and should demand is a balanced discussion which gives publishable viewpoints opportunities to make their cases," it appears the only viewpoints he was referencing were those that are either pro-liberal or anti-conservative.

Extra chart: Article Designations by month.