I have been puzzling over a difference between the news media in the U.K. and U.S. Having not come to a satisfactory answer in my own mind, I hereby throw the subject to the Internet hive mind for analysis and debate.

News media outlets can be divided into two types. The first type has a particular political point of view and makes no bones about it. The second type has a particular political point of view but denies it. If your reaction to this statement is along the lines of “But I watch the news on channel X and it has no political slant at all!”, the correct conclusion is not that channel X news has no political views, but that its political views are close enough to your own that you don’t notice them as such.

In the U.K., a number of the national newspapers were started by political parties and continue a nakedly partisan tradition. “Accusing” the Guardian of tilting pro-Labour would be as silly as “accusing” the late Senator Kennedy of being a liberal. Ditto doing a “hard-hitting expose” about the Tory leanings of the Telegraph. Those two fine national newspapers each have a political viewpoint and are proud of it.

In the U.S. however, national news media figures go into a panic when accused of partisanship. The only outlets that proudly trumpet a political perspective are small circulation magazines (e.g., The Nation, National Review). National newspapers, radio and TV shows scramble to be thought of as unbiased, balanced and apolitical.

One might try to explain this cultural difference by positing that U.K. journalists and media consumers were simply raised with different expectations of the media’s role (e.g., they grew up reading newspapers like the Manchester Guardian or Morning Star). If the broadly shared ideal in the U.K. is for news media to choose a political side, journalists would aspire to that role and news consumers, having their cultural expectations met, would like it.

The problem with this argument is that the U.K. also has news outlets which have a political viewpoint but will not admit it. The BBC and The Sun are prime examples (again, if you have the impulse to defend either as having no political slant…that just means their slant aligns with yours). So the critical difference between the national news media of the U.S. versus the U.K. is not that the latter lacks political viewpoint-denying outlets, but that the former lacks national news outlets that proudly nail their political colours to the mast.


[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys