Bilbray-Busby coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle: What media bias?

A textbook example of "spin"

On June 6, 2006, there was an election in California. One of the hotly contested seats was for the 50th Congressional District in northern San Diego county. Republican Brian Bilbray was running against Democrat Francine Busby. The race was closely watched by the media, and held up as the most likely race for a Democratic upset in a previously Republican district, since the former representative, Republican Randy "Duke'' Cunningham, had been kicked out of office in a corruption scandal. Liberals were hoping to see a victory there that would give them momentum for the November elections.

So, readers in the San Francisco area woke up on the morning of June 7, and went to the website of the San Francisco Chronicle to see who won this important race.

And this is what they saw:

Notice the article that I have circled in orange. Here's a close-up of just the headline and teaser for the article in question:

When readers clicked on the link, they went to the page containing the full article, and saw this:

Now, what was the impression you got from seeing both the headline/teaser on the front page, and then the beginning of article itself? Who won? What was the mood of the voters?

You might be excused for thinking that the Democrat Busby won, and that the voters were in a strong anti-Bush and anti-Republican mood.

After all, the teaser says

"Disapproval of Bush helps Dems"

and the article itself starts with

"The tsunami of disapproval toward President Bush and the Republican Party that Democrats hope will carry them to a House majority...".

What else could you conclude but that the race was a disaster for the Republicans?

Because that's what the Chronicle (and many other newspapers and media outlets) wanted you to think.

The reality, however, was quite different.

As you can probably tell from looking at the images above, I cropped off the lower portion of both the front page teaser and the main article. Here's what the front page teaser actually looked like in full:

The phrase, 'Still, GOP wins" is appended almost as an afterthought, a disappointing final little detail.

And here is what the article looked like in full:

So: in fact, the Republican candidate Bilbray won. Busby lost.

But the Chronicle did everything possible to disguise this fact, especially for the casual reader who was just scanning the website for some quick info. The teaser, headline and article are all deceptively structured so that the results are perceived as good news for the Democrats and bad news for the Republicans.

This is what is known as "spin": crafting news reports to give a certain impression, regardless of the actual details of the story. Spin is very subtle. Notice that the Chronicle did not actually lie, or completely hide the facts. Instead, they de-emphasized the actual central fact of the story -- called "burying the lede" in journalistic parlance -- while playing up and moving to the top a partisan analysis of the story.

If the Chronicle's presentation still doesn't seem so lopsided, your perception of media bias dulled because you see it every day, imagine how the headline could have been written in a truly neutral manner:

Republican Bilbray Defeats Democratic Opponent in Closely Watched Race.

And then imagine how the headline might have been written if the Chronicle had spun the story the other way:

Crushing Defeat for Democrats as Republicans Win Easy Victory in District Where Dems Had Placed All Their Hopes.

Instead, the two Chronicle headlines started

Close House Race in S.D. and Strong Showing by Busby.

It's only when one sees how the media could present stories that the pervasive liberal bias becomes apparent.

For the record, here's the full front page:

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