Study Finds Pro-Surveillance Bias in Major US Newspapers, But Inaccurately Describes Pro-Surveillance as 'Conservative'


According to a new study by the Columbia Journalism Review, major American newspapers have had a significant "pro-surveillance" bias in their coverage of the federal government's spying programs.

U.S. Government/Wikimedia Commons

The study's authors, Albert Wong and Valerie Belair-Gagnon, said in the report they wanted to explore whether the media has been biased in its post-Snowden coverage of government surveillance programs because biased reporting could influence public perceptions. To do this, they analyzed coverage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for either pro- or anti-surveillance bias.

The study summary explains:

We did a LexisNexis search of four of the largest US newspapers by circulation: The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. [In each newspaper, we examined the prevalence of] 30 traditionally pro- or anti-surveillance terms.

The results, which surprised Wong and Belair-Gagnon, show significant pro-surveillance bias in all of the papers:

In all four newspapers, key words generally used to justify increased surveillance, such as security or terrorism, were used much more frequently than terms that tend to invoke opposition to mass surveillance, such as privacy or liberty.

USA Today led the pack, using pro-surveillance terms 36 percent more frequently than anti-surveillance terms. The LA Times followed at 24 percent, while The New York Times was at 14.1 percent. Even the Washington Post, where Barton Gellman was the first US journalist to break the news of the NSA's surveillance, exhibited a net pro-surveillance bias in its coverage of 11.1 percent.

Addiitonally, the pro-surveillance bias they observed was generally covert, rather than overt, which the authors speculated would be make it more effective in swaying readers.

Ironically enough though, the study has clear biases of its own: The authors chose to equate the pro-/anti- surveillance dichotomy with modern political ideology. They said they wanted to "determine if there was an overall bias in either a pro- (traditionally conservative) or anti-surveillance (traditionally liberal) direction."

Why are they presenting surveillance as a left vs. right issue? Evidence clearly shows that opinions on NSA surveillance are not split along partisan lines. (The little bit that they are is in conservatives' favor.) Among the public, a July Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 70 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans believe the NSA's surveillance program intrudes on Americans' privacy rights. A June Pew Research Center poll found that liberals and conservatives are nearly identical in their views on spying programs. When this poll broke down the subsets of each ideology, it found that Tea Party Republicans are actually the most likely to disapprove of government collection of telephone and Internet data.

Among politicians, Democrats have no better track record than Republicans in opposing surveillance. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who the National Journal ranked last year as one of the country's most liberal politicians, has vigorously defended the NSA's spying as a lawful way to "protect America." President Obama responded to the leaks, not with embarrassment and a plan to stop the program, but with a whole-hearted defense of its necessity. 

So if the study's authors meant for conservative to denote authoritarianism and liberal to mean freedom, as many social scientists do, they may want to re-evaluate. Conservative views are no more pro-surveillance than liberal ones.