The Media’s “Far Right” Obsession – The American Conservative | Techy Kings


Giorgia Meloni’s recent victory in the Italian national election led to an outburst of references to far-right political extremism in American and European news media. Given the challenge of establishing a politically neutral reference point for determining exactly what counts as political extremism, it is natural to wonder whether the media is as likely to condemn ideological extremism from the left as from the right. Our latest research shows that when it comes to calling out political extremism, media personalities are far more likely to denounce political extremism from the right than from the left. We have the data to prove it.

In our study, we conducted data analysis of millions of news and opinion articles from popular US and UK news media and quantified the media’s use of extreme qualifiers such as “ultra”, “extreme” or “far” when talking about right and left political orientation. That is, we counted the number of times different news channels mentioned terms like “extreme right”, “extreme left”, “radical right”, “radical left”, “right extremism”, “left extremism”. “ etc. Overall, we found that most mainstream news outlets mention the far right much more often than the far left.

Annual frequencies of terms denoting far-right (red) and far-left (blue) political extremism in popular US and UK news media.

We also found that references to both the extreme right and extreme left have increased in US and UK news media since around 2010. In the US there is also a general trend towards emphasizing extremism from the political outgroup. That is, both left- and right-leaning publications tend to mention political extremism from the opposite political tribe more often than from their own, but the pattern is milder in right-leaning locales. In fact, right-leaning news outlets are about twice as likely to mention right-wing extremism than left-leaning news outlets are to mention left-wing political extremism. American downtown stores show similar dynamics to left-leaning ones.

Annual frequencies of terms denoting far-right (red) and far-left (blue) political extremism in the US news media landscape.

In the UK, all 10 popular news outlets analysed, including the right-leaning ones, mention the far right more often than the far left.

Annual frequencies of terms denoting far-right (red) and far-left (blue) political extremism in the UK news media landscape.

Could the emphasis on far-right rather than left-wing extremism simply reflect the fact that there is more far-right than left-wing activity in the US and UK? This is certainly reasonable and consistent with the recent increase in electoral support for so-called populist right-wing parties and candidates in North America and Europe. However, others have also suggested increasing far-left activity in Western societies and mutual left-right radicalization.

Additional findings in our published work are also inconsistent with the hypothesis that the higher prevalence of far-right terminology in news media can be explained solely by a recent increase in far-right activity. For example, in the 1970s New York Times used references to far-right and far-left political extremism at comparable rates. Since the 1980s, however, both New York Times and that Washington Post have used terms suggestive of right-wing extremism consistently more often than terms suggestive of left-wing extremism. That is to say, the media’s disparate focus on right-wing political radicalism is not new.

Annual frequencies of terms denoting far-right (red) and far-left (blue) political extremism in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Donald Trump’s political success in 2016 has also been suggested as a distinct break from the past that may explain the acute increase in media focus on right-wing extremism. However, our analyzes show that the increasing media mention of right-wing extremism began well before Trump’s political rise, with mentions of right-wing extremism between 2008 (when Barack Obama first won the US presidential election) and 2014 (the year before Donald Trump’s 2015 entry onto the US political scene ) increased by 243 percent and 359 percent in New York Times and Washington Postrespective.

While it is undeniable that groups labeled “extreme right” have become increasingly prominent in American and European politics, it is also likely that the center of gravity in established media newsrooms, as in other culturally influential professions, has shifted to the left, especially as prestige news media firms increasingly organized and edited by graduates of elite universities, who tend to have social liberal beliefs that may shape their choice of political adjectives.

Previous research has indeed identified such a bias; left-leaning journalists in Britain outnumber their right-leaning counterparts by a ratio of 2:1. The difference is greater among young journalists, where surveys show a left-leaning to right-leaning ratio of 3:1. A similar study in the US found a 4:1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the journalism profession as of 2013. This disparity appears to have become more acute over time; In 1982 the ratio was only 2:1. A more recent study quantified the ideological stance of journalists in 17 Western countries. In all of them, with the exception of Slovenia, the average journalist showed a clear left-wing bias compared to the average national voter.

The ideological imbalance among journalists, combined with a societal shift away from fact-based standards of objectivity, can lead some journalists to label attitudes and groups they simply dislike as politically extreme. This is somewhat unsurprising. It may be natural for left-leaning writers to be more concerned with the far right than their more adjacent far left, while those on the right may be more concerned with the far left than the far right. And since most journalists are left-leaning, there would therefore be the potential for an overall online media bias towards anything right-of-centre.

Consequently, the most parsimonious explanation for the unbalanced mentions of far-right and far-left political extremism in the media is the well-documented left-leaning political bias of journalists, who potentially skew mentions of political extremism towards their political opponents. But the enormous cultural power of the media and the possibility that its ideological imbalance shapes journalistic content should prompt reflection on the extent to which news media content can accurately reflect current events—especially those with political connotations.

Our study also found that the increase in rhetoric suggestive of political extremism in news media tracks similar increases in terms commonly used to denounce prejudice (racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.) as well as terms commonly associated with social – justice discourse (diversity, inclusion, fairness, equality, etc.). In the figure below, we used a statistical analysis measure called “min-max scaling” of underlying frequencies to assess not the overall prevalence of terms but when, on average, a set of terms is used at minimum and maximum levels over a period of time. The red and blue lines below show min-max normalized mentions of right-wing or left-wing political extremism in the news media. Both trends show very similar dynamics to the orange and green lines that track prejudice language and social justice terminology in the same media organizations: namely, rapid and highly correlated growth after 2010.

Average annual frequencies (min-max scaled) of terms denoting right/left political extremism, prejudice, and social justice discourse in popular US and UK news media ordered by channels’ ideological orientation.

The potential link in news media content between calling out political extremism, denouncing prejudice, and social justice discourse deserves further examination. Due to the methodological limitations of our study, we cannot definitively determine the reasons behind the news media’s disproportionate focus on the far right compared to the far left. However, interpreting our results in conjunction with journalists’ well-documented left-leaning political leanings suggests that the reported increase in extremist activity, particularly right-wing extremism, may be as much a reflection of journalists’ political sensibilities as the facts on the ground.


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