Filtering Revolution: Reporting Bias in International Newspaper Coverage of the Libyan Civil War

[joint work with Matthew A. Baum]

Abstract: Reporting bias – the media’s tendency to systematically under-report or over-report certain types of events – is a persistent problem for participants and observers of armed conflict. We argue that the nature of reporting bias depends on how news organizations navigate the political context in which they are based. Where government pressure on the media is limited – in democratic regimes – the scope of reporting should reflect conventional media preferences toward novel, large-scale, dramatic developments that challenge the conventional wisdom and highlight the unsustainability of the status quo. Where political constraints on re- porting are more onerous – in non-democratic regimes – the scope of coverage will be driven by the conservative preferences of the state, emphasizing the legitimacy and inevitability of the prevailing order. We test these propositions using new data on protest and political violence during the 2011 Libyan uprising and daily news- paper coverage of the Arab Spring from 106 countries. We uncover evidence of a status quo (i.e. pro-Qaddafi) media bias in non-democratic states, and a revisionist (i.e. pro-rebel) bias in democratic ones. Media coverage in non-democratic states under-reported protests and other non-violent collective action by regime opponents, largely ignored government atrocities, and over-reported those caused by rebels. We find the opposite patterns in democratic states.

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