News Bias: How Little Cues Sway Voters and Elections

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What is a good media bias example? How do nonverbal cues reveal news bias on television?

We’ll cover one news bias example in which newscasters’ nonverbal signals revealed how they really felt about the candidates during the 1984 presidential campaign. We’ll also look at how these unconscious facial expressions swayed viewer votes.

Unconscious News Bias Example

An experiment performed during the 1984 presidential campaign between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale revealed how news anchors’ slight facial expressions could bias viewers’ opinions and votes. Researchers gathered recordings of three news anchors’ faces while they reported on each of the two candidates. Then they played the clips for people on mute, and asked participants to use a 21-point scale to rate how positive or negative the anchors’ facial expressions looked. As we’ll see, this revealed news bias.

The first two anchors — Dan Rather on CBS and Tom Brokaw on NBC — scored right in the middle, meaning they had a neutral expression when talking about either candidate. The third anchor, Peter Jennings on ABC, scored about two points higher than neutral when reporting on Mondale and six points above neutral when talking about Reagan. 

  • Participants in the experiment also scored the anchors’ facial expressions while watching muted clips of reports on both objectively sad and happy topics. This control test proved that Jennings did not merely have a more positive expression all the time. (In fact, the opposite was true.)

News Bias and the Viewer

News bias doesn’t just reveal something about the anchors; news bias biases the viewer, too. After the election, the researchers found that ABC viewers around the country voted in higher numbers for Reagan than CBS and NBC viewers. When asked about their preference, these pro-Reagan ABC viewers had no conscious recognition of Jennings’s subtle biased facial expressions; instead, viewers insisted they preferred Reagan’s policies. Researchers also found that ABC’s story selection was more hostile toward Reagan, meaning the nonverbal cues from Jennings’s facial expressions actually overpowered more explicit editorial bias

This experiment raises three important points about nonverbal communication and news bias or media bias. 

  1. Small actions make a big impact. The subtlety of Jennings’s facial expressions may not have even registered for viewers — and probably only for the research participants because they were asked to rate the expressions on such a detailed scale — but it was enough to apparently sway their opinions and votes. If Jennings had given a more blatant verbal endorsement of Reagan, it might not have been as effective because viewers could consciously process this message and potentially disagree. But without recognizing the bias, their defenses were down and they were more susceptible to its influence. 
  2. Nonverbal communication is as — or more — impactful than verbal messages. As mentioned, ABC was deemed to be more hostile toward Reagan in its story selection than the other news networks. This means that Jennings’s subtle facial expressions were enough to counteract and even tip the scales against the network’s verbal messaging.
  3. We often don’t recognize the forces that are persuading us. The viewers who were interviewed after the election did not say that they voted for Reagan because Jennings’s face lit up when he reported on the candidate; that notion would probably strike them as ridiculous. They would reason that his policies and experience appealed to them more than Mondale’s. 

Nonverbal communication includes hand gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, posture, cadence of speech, and body language. Nonverbal cues have a powerful impact on us, even when they are so subtle that we don’t notice them. Everyone engages in nonverbal communication, and the nonverbal messages you send reveal whether you agree or disagree with someone, if you’re making an effort to connect with them, or if you are totally disinterested. This is often how subtle news bias is communicated, but we all use the language of nonverbal communication.

News Bias: How Little Cues Sway Voters and Elections

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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