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Media Bias in Presidential Press Questions

Brandon Merrell - Yale University
Kevin Calderwood - University of Washington

We propose a novel mechanism through which media bias can influence public opinion. Although a rich literature shows that members of the media can selectively report and frame the stories that they write, researchers typically assume that journalists do not affect the underlying process through which newsworthy content is generated. In contrast, we analyze situations in which members of the press directly influence the stories they report. This is particularly acute in the context of interviews with prominent politicians, where minor changes in question tone and content can dramatically alter public perception of the interview subject. Using an original dataset of more than 250,000 questions posed to American presidents, White House press secretaries, and other administration officials, we find evidence that reporters systematically change the tone of their questions based on the party affiliation and personal characteristics of the respondent.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2017 APSA Annual Meeting, 2018 SPSA Annual Meeting, and 2018 ICA Annual Meeting. Copy available upon request.