youth protest and media bias

Yesterday, I heard Sarah A. Soule, an Arizona sociologist, present a paper on “Student Protest and Youth Collective Action in the United States, 1960-1990.” She and her colleagues have coded thousands of stories from The New York Times that mention a wide range of collective political actions, from riots and “melees” to lawsuits and petitions. Their huge dataset allows them to observe the frequency of youth protests over time, the rate of collective action on any particular topic (e.g., civil rights), the percentage of protests that involve violence, and many other matters. I won’t “scoop” Soule by describing her results in any detail, but they are deeply interesting. One unsurprising result is a substantial decline in student protest between 1970 and 1990, partly offset by a rise in campus events that favored White supremacy during the 1980s.

Reliance on The New York Times raises methodological issues. It’s certainly possible that The Times has a consistent bias–or worse, has changed its bias over time, thus giving an inaccurate impression of trends in actual political behavior. Soule is something of an expert on media bias, so she is well equipped to handle the methodological problems. Nevertheless, most of the questions from the floor yesterday pressed her hard on the potential for bias. I may be reading too much into these questions, but I thought I detected the following implicit idea: The Times (a representative of what one person called the “corporate media”) avoids reporting on leftist protests, especially those led by students and youth. In reality, youth opinion is further to the left than we think, but the press overlooks the evidence, thereby making elites feel that they can move to the right.

All I can say is, I wish it were so. If anything, I suspect that The Times is biased in favor of reporting certain types of liberal student protest. For example, it gave very intensive coverage to the anti-Apartheid student movement that developed at Yale while I was an undergrad there. (After all, there’s a Times stringer on campus.) It gives hardly any attention to campuses of comparable size and location whose students are more likely to be mainstream conservatives. Quinnipiac University, Albertus Magnus College, and Southern Connecticut State are all very near Yale but never make The Times. Meanwhile, The Times has mentioned the Campus Crusade for Christ just 76 times in the last 33 years, according to Nexis; and most of those mentions were incidental. Campus Crusade for Christ claims 110,000 staff and trained volunteers.

I mention these factoids not because I am conservative or angry at the “liberal media,” but only because I believe good strategy begins by facing reality. Soule’s data, major opinion surveys, and personal observations all tell us that committed young leftists are relatively rare today, and there is a groundswell of genuine grassroots support for conservative causes. That should be the beginning of the conversation.

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