Exploring Political Bias with the Bitly Media Map

The following is a guest post by Kris Harbold, a computer engineering major and recent intern at Bitly. During her time interning at the URL shortening service, she was able to work on the final stages of the Real-Time Media Map project, which analyzes media links that are being shortened (and shared) across the county, and then plots them against geographic location to look for patterns.
Here, she discusses the team’s findings and explores the potential benefits this type of service might have to offer. You can find more from Kris on Twitter at @harbolkn or over at her website.

The Bitly Real-Time Media Map

In early October, Bitly launched the Real-Time Media Map, an interactive data visualization that shows the nature of media consumption across the United States. This project employs data science to illustrate which states disproportionately gravitate toward The Onion versus The Huffington Post, or Fox News versus CNN, and so on.

The map provides a color for each state, representing the media source that is receiving a disproportionate amount of traffic from web users in that location. So, if we look at Virginia and see that it’s colored for The Washington Post, we know that Virginia has a disproportionate number of people reading The Washington Post versus every other state. The Media Map is interactive, allowing users to dive deeper into parts that are interesting to them. Clicking on a state reveals that state’s top ranking news sources.

For example, at the time of this writing, Texas has USA Today getting the highest level of disproportionate views, followed by The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal. We can also judge media usage on an outlet-by-outlet basis — clicking on a news source shows the national consumption for that particular media outlet. Darker regions represent primary viewing areas.

Why is this interesting for us to look at? Besides being an excellent demonstration of data science’s many uses, the map may also have something to say about American media consumption as a whole, and how that relates to modern politics. Consider the impact that news source political bias and reader affiliation have on news consumption and party friction. It’s common knowledge that different political parties have strong holds in certain states. It’s also been suggested that many major U.S. news sources present politically biased opinions in the news they present (whether they’ll admit to this or not). The question then is, what correlation exists between the political affiliation of readers and the news they consume?

Using Data Science to Identify Media Bias

While there have always been opinions on this matter, tools like the Bitly Media Map provide us with an actual, scientific way to approach the question. The starting point for answering it is to look at which biases are represented by which major media outlets. In 2004, Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo wrote a paper, “A Measure of Media Bias,” about an experiment they conducted to try to quantitatively determine the bias of different news sources.

In their study, they assigned each news source with a Political Quotient (PQ). PQ scores are assigned to media outlets mainly based on which think tanks are most commonly mentioned in their stories. Their findings showed that Fox News ranks as one of the top conservatively biased sources and that The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times express heavily liberal biases, while other outlets occupied a whole spectrum of political bias.

When these biases are taken into account and viewed on the Media Map’s Newspaper and TV/Radio maps in relation to Gallup’s 2012 map of conservative distribution across the United States, some interesting trends emerge. For starters, the maps showed an overwhelming consumption of Fox News in the South versus the rest of the nation. This isn’t too striking, as the South is one of the most conservative regions in the country. However, it is interesting to look at the specific national distribution for Fox News viewership. Mississippi and Georgia, the most politically conservative of states in the South, also have the highest levels of Fox News consumption (even more so than their conservative southern neighbor states).

Taking a look at the other side of the political spectrum is also quite revealing. California and New York, two of the most liberal U.S. states, are major consumers of some of the most liberal media sources. These two states represent the highest levels of disproportionate viewership for the majority of liberally leaning news sources. Each state’s own viewing patterns are also heavily made up of liberal or liberally leaning news sources.

Given their traditional political leanings, the media distribution of these various states may come as no surprise to you. The most interesting area to look at, however, is actually the U.S. Northwest. This area is made up of a large number of the nation’s most conservative states, including Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. On the map, however, it tends to be the most unpredictable in its media consumption, with preferred sources changing from morning to evening and any time in between — a tendency that’s not widely seen outside this region.

In the Northwest, the biases of consumption type also change depending on the format of news sources, with TV and radio consumption being more moderate (including BBC, NBC, and Al Jazeera), and print sources being heavily liberal (including The GuardianSan Francisco Gate, and The New York Times). This is a stark contrast to the habits of conservatives living in the South.

While there is no proven explanation for this dramatic divide, one interesting speculation might be made. Since 2008, the aggregate views and actions of southern Republicans have been shifting ever farther right, transitioning from more traditional conservative Republicanism to the Tea Party mentality.

The majority of Tea Party supporters in the United States reside in southern states, while very few of these caucus members come from the Northwest. Of all of these, Fox News was the first (and continues to be one of the few) major news networks to cover stories related to the Tea Party, and do so in a positive light. Whether it is this coverage drawing southerners to Fox News, or whether Fox is supplying this news due to the large numbers of southern viewers, it’s clear there is some correlation between the two.

Regardless of the cause, the ability to observe these types of differences between liberal, moderate, and conservative states will be a continuing and important source of education for a nation divided. It’s difficult to communicate effectively across parties when divergent news is being reported to each and source information just doesn’t match up. Knowing which states are receiving which type of information will be especially important with the upcoming midterms and presidential campaigning for the 2016 elections. As party lines are redrawn, politics change, and media coverage evolves, the Bitly Media Map is sure to provide exciting insight into the changing political landscape of the United States, and perhaps inspire some change as well.

For more on media bias and its effects, check out the following helpful resources: