Since June 6, the world has been roiled by an ongoing series of disclosures based on Edward Snowden’s document leaks, with coverage led by the Guardian and the Washington Post, about clandestine mass surveillance conducted, with little oversight, by the NSA and its international partners.

Public perceptions of these surveillance revelations are affected not only by the NSA’s actual actions, but also by the news coverage of the government’s spying programs. Previous studies have shown that the latter factor can have a profound effect on public opinion. Given the importance of this issue, we decided to analyze major US newspapers’ “post-Snowden” coverage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to determine if there was an overall bias in either a pro- (traditionally conservative) or anti-surveillance (traditionally liberal) direction.

The results were unexpected, and quite remarkable.

Our analysis of total press coverage of FISA and FISC between July 1 and July 31 (July was the first full calendar month after the initial disclosures in June) revealed that the widely held assumption that major media outlets uniformly tilt to the left does not match reality. In fact, if anything, the media appears to tilt to the right, at least on this issue.

We did a LexisNexis search of four of the largest US newspapers by circulation: The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. Of the 30 traditionally pro- or anti-surveillance terms we examined (15 each, listed below) in all four newspapers, key words generally used to justify increased surveillance, such as security or terrorism, were used much more frequently than terms that tend to invoke opposition to mass surveillance, such as privacy or liberty.

USA Today led the pack, using pro-surveillance terms 36 percent more frequently than anti-surveillance terms. The LA Times followed at 24 percent, while The New York Times was at 14.1 percent. Even the Washington Post, where Barton Gellman was the first US journalist to break the news of the NSA’s surveillance, exhibited a net pro-surveillance bias in its coverage of 11.1 percent. Although keyword frequency analysis on its own is not always conclusive, large, consistent discrepancies of the kind observed here strongly suggest a net media bias in favor of the US and UK governments’ pro-surveillance position.

The pro-surveillance media bias we found was not, in general, overt. In our opinion, most of the New York Times’ FISA/FISC coverage was neutral in tone. But covert bias is still bias—in fact, it may even be more effective than blatant bias, since readers may not notice its existence. A seemingly neutral article could leave a net pro-surveillance impression on readers if it contains an excess of references to, say, foreign terrorists or national security—terms that tend to frame the issue as a question of patriotic willingness to do what it takes to keep the country safe.

Our findings indicate that the intense public concern about the NSA’s activities is not merely an artifact of biased coverage, since the media actually appears to be biased in the opposite direction. In a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, 54 percent of respondents disagreed with dragnet collection of internet metadata and 71 percent disagreed with warrantless monitoring of US phone calls. Public opposition to the government surveillance might be even more pronounced if overall media coverage was neutral and unbiased.

Consciously or not, Western journalists and media outlets may still (even more than a decade after 9/11) be wary of appearing to be “soft on terror,” much as they once were about appearing to be soft on Communism. President George W. Bush’s September 2001 admonition that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” appears to have an enduring legacy in media bias.

List of terms

The pro- or anti-surveillance terms we examined were: abroad, counter(-)terrorism, counter(-)terrorist, foreign, protect, protecting, protection, secure, security, specific, target, targeted, targeting, terrorism, and terrorist (pro-surveillance); broad, domestic, dragnet, indiscriminate, ineffective, inefficient, liberty, mass, massive, non(-)adversarial, one side, private, privacy, right, and rubber(-)stamp (anti-surveillance). Terms occurring as part of the following proper names were excluded from our analysis: American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, and National Security Agency.

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Albert Wong and Valerie Belair-Gagnon are resident fellows at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School