Shortly after I arrived at college as a freshman, I was in a “Reading the News” writing course, and decided to analyze the biases present in the Fox News and LA Times articles when President Bush took responsibility for the federal government’s failures in Hurricane Katrina. This is one of my better papers.
A study of foxnews.com & latimes.com
President George W. Bush recently shocked the country (or at least its liberals) when he personally accepted responsibility for the federal government’s failures (in search & rescue, refugee services, and mobilization of personnel) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its flooding of New Orleans. It was hailed as his first admission of failure (in 5 decidedly mixed years of presidency), a politically astute move, and another brainchild of political mastermind Karl Rove. But regardless of its motivation, his statement provides an interesting case study in the realities of media bias.
Both the Los Angeles Times and Fox News — in their online forms, latimes.com & foxnews.com — covered this story. The Times, as a major urban newspaper, should be fairly objective; Fox declares itself “Fair and Balanced” within its slogan. Even so, Fox is famously conservative. The LA Times, while quick to point out its Pulitzer Prizes and far more subtle, is considered definitely liberal. Each agency’s coverage reveals those political slants through diction, article location, sources quoted, overall tone, and topics covered. The direction and clearness of these slants determines, almost as much as location, the agency’s audience. But while Fox is known by everybody to be conservative, many readers of the LA Times consider themselves to be digesting a thoroughly objective paper. Sadly, an analysis of coverage reveals the opposite is sometimes true, and it is important that readers watch for bias in their news consumption if they wish to remain personally balanced.
In a print newspaper location is the simplest indicator of bias to analyze. While the Internet makes such placement tests harder to perform, a day after the story came out, latimes.com still had the article available in a prominent position on the homepage; in order to access the story on foxnews.com I had to follow a link to the Political section and then find the right story amid a myriad of works with small link sizes. The latimes.com appears more eager for readers to learn of the story than foxnews.com was. This argues for a relative anti-administration slant in latimes.com and a pro-administration bias in foxnews.com.
The most obvious part of a story is its headline. Online, the headline serves to attract readers to the story through links; in both print and online news headlines set the attitude carried throughout the rest of each article. The headline is also one of the most biased areas of a newspaper story, and an editor’s political views can often be accurately guessed just by perusing the headlines. foxnews.com’s story employs the headline “Bush: I’m Responsible for Some Katrina Failures;” the use of “responsib[ility]” implies proper action and maturity (even if after failure). The latimes.com headline is “Bush Accepts Blame for Slow Hurricane Response,” and “blame” has connotations of wrongdoing and non-repentance, along with its denotations of direct and exclusive fault, which are dredged up despite Bush’s action of accepting the fault. These headlines continue the biases observed in “placement” of each article, though the foxnews.com headline is a semi-quote of Bush and perhaps more fair.
The subheadings in each article continue the same trend as the headlines, as the latimes.com states “President acknowledges flaws at all levels of government” before prominently introducing, on a semi-related note, “Louisiana death toll reaches 423.” This makes the latimes.com seem interested in providing many negative connotations as quickly as possible. foxnews.com again takes the opposite tack, informing readers that “President Bush will address the country Thursday” and reminding them that Michael Brown (then-current head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)) has resigned (presumably under pressure). This paints a picture of Bush as decisive and hard-working in response to the emergency, and informs the reader that some blame has already been shared out. Each paper has already revealed a fairly strong bias in the headlines and subheadings. Of especially interesting note is that the supposedly extreme-right foxnews.com coverage is arguably less biased than that of latimes.com, at least thus far.
Immediately upon looking at the article bodies, one can see a large difference in size — foxnews.com’s article is roughly 500 words, as compared to the 1500 on latimes.com. This disparity is only a symptom of content, though: the two articles, despite their headlines, focus on radically different topics. While both articles start with the “news bites” from Bush’s speech, they take different approaches and diverge completely within three paragraphs. The foxnews.com article contains two quotes in three paragraphs and reveals (with unintentional irony) that the quotes were made during a joint press conference with Iraq’s president (whose own comments and issues are left unmentioned). The latimes.com points out that this is the first time Bush himself has accepted blame, but portrays him as trying to minimize it as much as possible (“Bush also insisted”,”said he wanted more cooperative…officials”). The latimes.com seems to be a far more politically biased paper in this area.
The amazingly dissimilar coverage simply diverges farther as you move through the article. foxnews.com rather appropriately moves on to specific plans for fixing the problem, as told by FEMA’s acting head R. David Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, but lingers there only briefly. What’s more politically interesting and expressive of some sort of bias is the fairly quick turn towards terrorist preparation from Hurricane Katrina relief — these two topics have little to do with each other (except how resource allocation for one hurts the other) and the transition is an obvious ploy to any cynic. Both Chertoff and Bush have two quotes each in which they warn that the world has not stopped moving because of Katrina and we must continue to be prepared in other areas. The article ends on a decidedly ominous note as Chertoff is quoted “[O]ne of the things I said was we’re racing the clock. Unfortunately, the hurricane beat us;” in context it has much the same emotional effect as warnings about another terrorist attack.
The latimes.com, on the other hand, very rapidly moves into analysis of what went – and what is still going – wrong with Katrina. FEMA made several critical errors, “bureaucratic infighting raged,” and nursing home owners are getting charged with negligent homicides. The article’s first half is decidedly negative, though in the tenth paragraph lightens up as “there [are] more heartening signs of revival.” That happy attitude lasts only three or four paragraphs before nosediving in the face of a section on emergency preparedness in case of a terrorist attack or another natural disaster. More reports on confusion follow, employing such negative words and phrases as “floundering,” “lashed out,” “chaotic,” and “hamstrung.” There are also serious reports of “bureaucratic infighting” — state officials have been unable to contract with recovery agencies because they required financial approval from FEMA, for instance. This coverage clearly has a far more negative content than that from foxnews.com; on the flip side, the latimes.com coverage also stays near Katrina for more of the article.
While both foxnews.com’s worries about terrorism and the latimes.com’s information on failures within New Orleans are worth discussing, neither of them is directly related to a story about the President’s (finally!) accepting responsibility. They were included to add greater interest and emotion to the story, but the selection of each subject matter seems to be a clear matter of bias (generally in terms of administration policy) on the part of the editor or reporter. While foxnews.com is unabashedly (if not openly) conservative, the latimes.com pretends to neutrality — but if its editors are all liberal, this may simply mean its own bias is more subtle and therefore more insidious.
The last things worth noting are the bylines at the bottom of the foxnews.com page and the top of the latimes.com. “Fox News Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report;” “By Nicholas Riccardi, Ashley Powers and Josh Meyer, Times Staff Writers.” foxnews.com seems to have obtained much (or even most) of its article from a wire service; the Times thought that what it had to say was worth the time and expense of its own reporters. Of more direct interest is the Associated Press’ presumed obligation to provide neutral reporting to its hugely varied subscribers, while the Times had to satisfy only its own morals and the demands of readers and advertisers. This means that the base of the foxnews.com article was probably neutral and the observed bias was introduced in a re-write or edit, implying deliberate bias. The latimes.com piece, on the other hand, was probably made in an attempt at neutrality, but by a team composed almost exclusively of liberals.
Both foxnews.com and latimes.com have their own bias which can be determined through careful analysis of their articles. foxnews.com is unduly interested in terrorism; the latimes.com is certainly far more negative with regard to President Bush. In this article, foxnews.com seems to be targeted at those interested mostly in homeland security, while latimes.com is intended for people with an anti-Bush bias or strong interests in Hurricane Katrina policy. Yet while the foxnews.com bias is obvious, the latimes.com bias is at least as strong and all the more dangerous for its subtlety.
- Herridge, Catherine. “Bush: I’m Responsible for Some Katrina Failures.” FoxNews.com. Sept. 13th, 2005. 20th Sept. 2005
- Riccardi, Nicholas; Powers, Ashley; Meyer, Josh. “Bush Accepts Blame for Slow Hurricane Response.” LATimes.com. Sept. 14th, 2005. 20 Sept. 2005