Measuring Media Bias

An Examination of The Register-Guard’s School Coverage

One way the news media demonstrate bias is by what they report and what they leave out.

Another is the negative or positive content of articles that do make it to print. A vital role of the media is to be a watchdog and a check on power, but not enough attention is given to monitoring the fairness of our local media’s narrative.

I reviewed and indexed news articles about schools published in The Register-Guard from November 1, 2015, to October 31, 2016. I discovered a strong bias toward the South Eugene High School area. (No sports articles or community events announcements were included in my count.)

An unbiased media would give roughly equal coverage to the schools within its circulation area and would give equivalent time to both negative and positive stories. This, however, was not the case.

In the Springfield-Eugene metropolitan area, we have eight comprehensive public and private high schools, but 28 percent of the news articles in the RG center exclusively on South Eugene High School and its feeder schools. Specifically, 25 percent of the stories focused on South Eugene high, Roosevelt middle and Camas Ridge elementary schools, which together serve about 2,500 students — just 7 percent of the 36,500 students in our community.

Additionally, the stories about schools in South Eugene were predominantly positive. For every negative article printed about the South Eugene schools, 3.5 positive stories were published. Contrast that with Sheldon High School and its region, where for every positive story, 3.5 negative articles were published.

The ripples of this South Eugene-centric bias are felt throughout our community and may affect beliefs about the quality of education available at different schools. Because people in the community read a disproportionate number of stories that are overwhelmingly complimentary about South Eugene schools, they may be led to believe those schools are better. This perception can be detrimental to all schools and can foster inaccurate ideas about school opportunities and student body characteristics.

Trying to discern whether the media are initiating, perpetuating or merely reflecting bias in our community is challenging. Change will happen, though, only when media recognize their biases and work to correct for them. In this case, the RG may want to keep its own tally on its stories about schools, their students and teachers, and whether those stories convey a positive or negative image. We media consumers also have a responsibility to question whether the stories published represent an adequate sample of the whole story.