Why is the media so liberal

The heart of journalism beats on the left - so what?

by Helmut Hartung on February 16, 2021 in Current Topics, Archives, Social Policy, Journalism, Communication Studies, Media Ethics, Media Studies, Public Service Broadcasting

Prof. Dr. Christian Pieter Hoffmann, Professor of Communication Management at the University of Leipzig

For various reasons, occupational fields can attract disproportionately strong people with a certain political orientation

02/16/2021. From Prof. Dr. Christian Pieter Hoffmann, Professor of Communication Management at the University of Leipzig

In November 2020 the magazine “journalist” published an analysis of the socio-demographic characteristics of volunteers at ARD. More than half of the ARD volunteers active at the time had taken part in a survey which, among other things, ascertained the gender or migration background of young journalists. One element of the analysis, however, caused considerable public commotion: the question of party preference. A journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who is known as a conservative commentator shared the striking result on Twitter: According to the survey, almost 57.1 percent of ARD volunteers would vote for the Greens, another 23.4 percent for the left. Union and FDP together would only get 3.9 percent of the vote. The public reaction was as heated as it was predictable. Conservative voices shouted triumphantly: “Aha, we've always known it! The journalistic heart beats green-red-red! ". On the other hand, the methodology, representativeness and informative value of the study were called into question. A slip-up, according to the left-wing observers. Journalism's turn to the left is a conservative chimera. But why the fuss? The shift to the left in the professional field has long been known. Some arguments as to why it is also relevant.

Both the excitement of the debate and the positions expressed in it suggest that communication science, especially journalism research, has a problem of communication. Because nobody who is familiar with relevant occupational studies could have been seriously surprised by the results of the volunteer survey. The shift to the left in the journalistic profession is a finding that has been confirmed again and again for decades. Left shift, mind you, or “left bias”, understood here as a shift compared to the population average. To put it quite simply: On average, journalists are politically somewhat left of the social and political center.

In the following it should be argued that this political shift to the left in journalism is real and perfectly plausible. In addition, an argument should be offered according to which this shift to the left is also relevant, perhaps more relevant than often admitted in public and specialist debates, because it can also be reflected in the perception of a content-related bias in journalistic reporting. One conclusion from this would be that the insufficient recognition of a shift to the left in the professional field of journalism leads to the public and research unnecessarily dealing with battles that have long been fought instead of using empirically well-documented observation as the basis for further considerations.

The left bias in journalism is real - and plausible

A considerable number and variety of empirical analyzes in German and English-speaking countries come to the conclusion that the political attitudes of journalists are shifted somewhat to the left compared to the general population. Something, mind you, so not radical. This is shown by surveys that ascertain party preferences, political self-positioning on a left-right scale or attitudes to specific topics and concerns. This clear finding from survey studies is noteworthy insofar as traditional norms of objectivity in journalism presumably develop a social desirability that journalists should rather have their political positions report on as moderate. In fact, alternatives to surveys tend to be more left-wing bias, such as investigations into party donations or, particularly interesting and striking, analyzes of journalists' behavior on Twitter.

It has long been known that professional fields can, for various reasons, attract disproportionately strong people with a certain political orientation. This self-selection (opt-in) is often accompanied by increasing political homogenization of the professional field due to the departure of those who feel politically uncomfortable in the professional field (opt-out), as well as a preference of those working in the professional field to recruit politically consonant people (homophilia ).

Numerous occupational fields (as well as subjects) consequently show political biases in one direction or the other - that is, they predominantly attract people who tend to belong to the left or the conservative political camp. For example, various surveys show that the occupational fields of police officers and soldiers have a right-wing bias, so the members of these occupational fields are on average somewhat to the right of the (social) political center.

So what speaks for the fact that the professional field of journalism has a left bias instead of a right one?

  • If you look at the sociodemography of the occupational field, journalism consists predominantly of young, educated, urban, academically educated people. David Goodhart would say: classic “Anywhere”, ie members of a cosmopolitan, left-liberal milieu. Almost all of these properties have gained in importance in recent years. The economic crisis tends to make the professional field unattractive for older (lateral) entrants, precarious employment relationships tend to let older professionals leave, for example by switching to PR. The professional field has recently become heavily academic. Journalists usually have a degree in the humanities or social sciences. The withering away of local journalism leads to a concentration in the metropolises. The opinion polls teach us that younger citizens are politically to the left of older people, academics to the left of non-academics, and urban residents to the left of rural residents.
  • The criticism of the powerful is a journalistic professional norm that is met with great approval - around a third consider it to be very or even "extremely" important. Such norms, as the Moral Foundations Theory shows, correspond to left political attitudes.
  • The economic crisis in journalism suggests that material motives tend not to encourage entry into this professional field. Material motives, however, are more important for conservative people in choosing a career, while left-wing people get more satisfaction from political activism. A materially less attractive occupational field with an impetus to improve the world should therefore be more attractive for left-wing career starters than for conservative ones.
  • In relevant US research, communication science is regarded as a politically particularly homogeneous left-wing discipline - even in a comparison of the social sciences and humanities, which are politically clearly left-wing. The situation in Germany may differ, but probably not fundamentally. This is not to say that there is a kind of indoctrination of the students taking place here, but the fact does illustrate a political self-selection in the subject.

All of these circumstances lead to the realization: It would be enormously surprising and contradict various strands of research if the professional field of journalism did not show any left bias. In addition, the above arguments suggest that this left-wing bias has intensified in recent years and decades and that journalism is both politically more left-wing and more activist than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

The left bias in journalism is relevant

While the statements on the existence and plausibility of left bias in the journalistic professional field are likely to be capable of consensus, also in communication science, the third step of the present argument is likely to trigger a lot more contradiction. Is it relevant that journalists are on average a bit to the left of the center of society politically? So does the political composition of the professional field translate into its performance (reporting) and, in turn, its perception by the audience? In fact, the empirical basis for this third assumption is thinner than that for the previous ones.

Some arguments speak against the relevance of the left bias:

  • It is known that journalists with greater organizational responsibility have fewer left-wing attitudes. Editors-in-chief are also a bit left of center on average, but less so than their subordinates. This could imply that the most influential journalists, or those who train the next generation, mitigate the influence of more left-wing attitudes in the professional field on journalistic performance.
  • Publishers, on the other hand, are likely to be anchored in the political center in many cases, some even to the right of it. So do they also have a moderating effect on the journalistic output?
  • The audience is, a tautological statement, on average in the political center or somewhat to the right of the professional field. Since journalists want to reach as large an audience as possible, a moderating effect could also arise here: They could adapt their reporting to a certain extent to the attitudes of their readers.
  • Investigations (mostly content analysis) of journalistic output find it difficult to identify a distinctive left-wing bias. This is also due to the enormous complexity of the bias concept: Is the bias to be found in the selection of topics, their neglect, their naming, commentary, formulation or illustration? Or a little in everything?

However, counter-arguments can be used to counter these arguments, which are also popular in the field:

  • Even journalists of higher seniority are somewhat left of the political center. They may therefore have a tempering effect, but probably not completely prevent a bias. Current cases, such as the staff turmoil at the New York Times, illustrate how a politically more activist young journalism generation quite explicitly casts off norms that traditionally act as moderating, such as objectivity or listening to “both sides”. Current cognitive psychological research also suggests that working people find it difficult to keep their attitudes out of professional decisions, even when strong professional norms require it. That this also applies to journalists has repeatedly been argued and empirically proven.
  • It is by no means clear that publishers, on average, are actually not to be found on the left of the political center. The debate on this is largely based on anecdotal evidence. Above all, however, there are well-established norms that could moderate a political “penetration” by publishers on the editorial team and journalistic output. A few years ago, an internal survey at the publishing house Axel Springer, which is considered to be conservative, made people sit up and take notice, according to which the journalists working there had an overwhelming majority of red-green voting preferences.
  • Political phases in professional fields can be very persistent, regardless of the preferences of the customers. All the more, the more politically homogeneous the professional field is (here also: the more consonant the reporting), because then the audience lacks alternative options. Self-selection effects and homophilia in the professional field also make it difficult to establish alternatives, as illustrated by failed attempts to offer a conservative mass medium (most recently, for example, the “Basler Zeitung” in Switzerland). In the case of public service broadcasting, there is a lack of market-based correction mechanisms. In fact, data from Switzerland show that journalists in public broadcasting are somewhat to the left of their colleagues working in private media.
  • Current research on the dissemination of disinformation shows that it often serves a social purpose: the recipients disseminate content primarily to signal that they belong to a group. This effect is likely to sound familiar to journalism researchers, as the tendency towards colleague orientation in the professional field has often been discussed in the relevant literature. The more politically homogeneous the occupational field, however, the more likely it is that this co-orientation, this desire for attention and belonging, will lead to political biases in the dissemination of information.
  • There is a noticeable gap between the communication science difficulty of finding a left bias in the journalistic output and the perception of the public. A very provocative question in this context would be: Does the political location of the discipline possibly have an influence on your research results? Keyword: blind spots. In any case, this is indicated by the fact that analyzes from other disciplines and partly automated analyzes identify a left-wing reporting bias much more clearly than some content analyzes in communication studies. Or is the difficulty simply in the systematic elicitation of such a complex phenomenon as a content bias, which at least includes reporting and commenting, agenda setting (including failure to report), framing and priming, subtle linguistic cues and illustration? Content analysis surveys, which necessarily focus on very specific aspects of the reporting, may come to the premature conclusion that there is no (too great) bias, although this is clearly recognizable in the overall context of the reporting received by the audience.

This leads directly to a significant argument for the relevance of the political left bias in the journalistic professional field: the perception of one's performance.

An independent think tank in the USA called “Ad Fontes Media” recently hired a number of politically heterogeneous analysts to carry out a political positioning of various media brands based on content analyzes of a selection of their reports. The striking result: the analysts locate almost all mass media brands to the left of the political center: CNN, ABC, NBC, BBC, Washington Post, New York Times, NPR and many more. This corresponds to analyzes that focus on audience perception as well as analyzes that locate political sources based on audience interactions in social media. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, supporters of the Democrats express their trust in numerous media brands, while supporters of the Republicans, on the other hand, mostly trust only one: Fox News.

These findings are significant because their very unanimous positioning of almost all mass media offers on the left of the center is based on their output, not on the political orientation of the journalists employed there (input). They therefore represent a (further) strong indication that the assumption that left-wing bias in the professional field does not affect journalistic output is not very plausible. Particularly impressive in the US context is the ongoing survey by the Gallup survey institute on media trust differentiated by party preference. Accordingly, the confidence of those on the right has been lower for decades than that of those on the left, with increasing distance. However, this politically asymmetrical attitude towards journalistic media is not an American phenomenon. Eurobarometer data also show that respondents who are more right of the political center in Germany have significantly less confidence in “the press” than those who are more left-wing. The same applies to TV and radio. It is important to remember that trust in media is positively related to their perceived ideological closeness. So if right-wing politicians have a deep trust in “the press”, this is a strong indicator that they perceive “the press” as politically hostile. Conversely, a higher level of trust to the left of the political center speaks for a higher perceived political consonance of the media content.

More differentiated analyzes, for example by the Allensbach Institute for Demoscopy, show that the public's dissatisfaction with media reporting is very much focused on those issues that are more important to right-wing citizens, such as migration, the euro rescue or Brexit. According to the Mainz long-term study in media trust, trust in reporting on the AfD is also weak in Germany. According to the analysis, media cynicism is more widespread on the political right than on the political left.In view of the abundance of empirical evidence on the shift to the left in the journalistic profession, can it really be a coincidence that the right-of-center section of the public is less satisfied with the performance of journalistic media than the left-wing? And vice versa: that precisely that part of the audience that is politically closest to the median of journalists has the highest media trust? Are all those analyzes wrong that find a left bias in mass media reporting? Or is it not much more plausible that the political orientation of the practitioners shines through in the reporting, and thus just satisfies part of the audience more than another?

Incidentally, similar phenomena can also be observed on the left edge of the political spectrum, i.e. in that part of the audience that is politically clearly to the left of the journalistic median. Only: the number of people in this spectrum is considerably smaller than that of the citizens who are politically to the right of the journalistic center. Therefore, public dissatisfaction on the (far) left is likely to have a significantly lower political and media economic impact and be less audible.

Implications for Research and Practice

If we assume that the left bias in the professional field of journalism is actually real, plausible and relevant - i.e. recognizable in the journalistic output and perceived by the audience. What does this mean for communication science research on so many of the phenomena that are currently driving us?

  • Alternative media: study after study shows that the political right, in Germany for example supporters of the AfD, use alternative media - often of questionable quality. This corresponds to the dominant position of Fox News in the media consumption of conservative Republicans in the USA. Can this really come as a surprise if those on the right politically are more likely to be dissatisfied with the established mass media offerings? Rupert Murdoch founded Fox News expressly because he perceived dissatisfaction with the existing media offering among conservatives. And the success proves him right. As the journalism researcher Jeff Jarvis, who is by no means suspicious of conservatism, wrote succinctly: “Establishment mainstream media are liberal. The vast majority of journalists are liberal. Journalism schools are liberal. Our failure to be honest and open about that is a key cause of the distrust that has overtaken news media, particularly from the right. " In other words: the use of “alternative media” and the associated susceptibility to “fake news” on the political right can be understood as a consequence of unsatisfied demand for politically consonant media content on the right.
  • Disinformation / “Fake News”: Numerous studies also show that right-wing politicians are more willing to believe and spread “fake news”. Both, in turn, can be easily explained under the above-mentioned premise: All media users are inclined to believe politically consonant content. Politically more left-wing people find this content sufficiently often in the mass media, politically more right-wing people less often and therefore look for alternative sources that are often of inferior quality, i.e. politically consonant but hardly reliable. The dissemination of such “fake news” in turn represents a form of “corrective action”. The perceived unfairness of a large part of the journalistic reporting is (over) compensated by the dissemination of counter-narrative - on the right rather than on the left.
  • Criticism of public service broadcasting: Why does public service broadcasting come under fire predominantly from the right, for example in the context of the recent debate about an increase in fees? Liberals and conservatives may simply have an aversion to compulsory levies and an excessive public sector, which are symbolized by public service broadcasting, certainly. But: Could it also be because journalists in public service broadcasting are still a little to the left of the journalistic center (and report) and the content of these media therefore upset the conservative audience disproportionately - especially since they are used to finance this content are forced?
  • Polarization: Public debates are becoming increasingly heated and hateful. In this context, a lack of media trust or even media cynicism contribute to the disintegration of public discourse and to increasing lack of understanding between the political camps. In the USA, with its two-party system, this development is more clearly recognizable as a polarization than in Europe. But corresponding phenomena can also be observed in this country. What does it mean in this context when the journalistic professional field becomes more and more academic, ideologically more homogeneous and more activist? Isn't it foreseeable that this will further reduce media confidence on the political right and further spur the success of qualitatively questionable “alternative media”? Can the further disintegration of the public discourse really be stopped if this significant influencing factor is further faded out or negated?


It should by no means be argued here that “left journalists” are an explanation, let alone the one, for all developments that challenge public discourse in the age of digitization. And: The distinction between “left” and “right” is often very clumsy, especially in a multi-party system. But to come back to the reactions to the aforementioned survey among ARD volunteers: It should very well be argued that the public and academic debate about the role of journalism could be more factual, clearer and more convincing if one such a basic statement as a political bias in the professional field does not have to be dealt with again and again. The professional field itself, but also communication science research, could make a more valuable contribution to the analysis and overcoming of some dysfunctions of the (digital) public discourse if the reluctance to an empirical finding that is not surprising in itself were abandoned. In this context, the revitalized focus of practice and research on diversity in the journalistic professional field gives rise to hope. One suggestion here would be, instead of focusing only on demographic diversity, not to lose sight of political diversity. Across the Atlantic, interesting academic initiatives are emerging that emphasize the importance of viewpoint diversity in observing and explaining the world. And what is true of research is undoubtedly true of journalism as well.


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This post was first on the "European Journalism Observatory (EJO)" portal published at https://de.ejo-online.eu/.

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