Study details mainstream media's biased reporting on ACORN

by Sue Sturgis, Institute for Southern Studies

Independent research from two university professors raises important questions about the way major news outlets frame stories -- and offers hard evidence that ACORN has been treated unfairly. The report describes how "opinion entrepreneurs" (primarily business and conservative groups and individuals) set the story in motion as early as 2006, how the "conservative echo chamber" orchestrated its anti-ACORN campaign in 2008, how the McCain-Palin campaign picked it up, and how the mainstream media reported these allegations without investigating their truth or falsity.

ACORN, a community-based advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families, has been in the news in recent weeks thanks to an undercover video in which two employees in the organization's Baltimore office appear to offer unethical advice on home loans, tax evasion and disguising identities of underaged sex workers to two conservative activists posing as a pimp and prostitute. The organization has fired the workers and hired a former Massachusetts attorney general to conduct an internal review. It's also suing the filmmakers for illegal taping under Maryland law.

The media scrutiny of the 500,000-member group has continued, with reports that a leading Senate Republican, Charles Grassley of Iowa, has called on the Internal Revenue Service to look at how ACORN has transferred charitable and government funds meant for the poor to political and profit-making arms of the group. Those transactions occurred before a change in the group's leadership last year.

This is not the first time ACORN has found itself in the media spotlight: The organization first became a high-profile story during last year's presidential campaign when Republican candidates and other conservatives attacked the group and tried to link it to Barack Obama, with GOP presidential candidate John McCain charging hyperbolically in an October debate that the group was "maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

Now a new study documents serious problems with the way major media outlets have handled the ACORN story.

Titled "Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong," the independent study of coverage by 15 major news organizations was authored by Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Christopher Martin, a journalism professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

They trace the latest uproar over ACORN to the White House firing of David Iglesias, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, for failing to help GOP election prospects by prosecuting alleged instances of voter fraud by the group. At the time ACORN was involved in a major voter-registration drive in the state.

Dreier and Martin note that after the House Judiciary Committee released over 5,000 pages of documents last month detailing the central role former Bush senior advisor Karl Rove played in Iglesia's termination, nearly every major news organization reported on the documents' release:

...[B]ut none of them -- including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily  News, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal -- mention that Rove was specifically focused on attacking ACORN for its voter registration efforts in New Mexico and other states, even though ACORN is mentioned frequently as a Republican target in the investigative documents.

The study points out that while ACORN has long been involved in efforts to improve housing, wages, access to credit and public education, the focus of most news stories about ACORN -- what the authors call the "story frame" -- was voter fraud:

The "voter fraud" frame appeared in 55% of the 647 news stories about the community organization in 15 mainstream news organizations during 2007 and 2008.

But at the same time, many media outlets failed to distinguish allegations of voter registration problems from actual voting irregularities, and between allegations of wrongdoing and actual wrongdoing.

For instance, 80.3% of the stories about ACORN's alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to mention that ACORN was reporting registration irregularities to authorities, as required under law, while 85.1% of the stories about ACORN's alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to note that ACORN took action when it became aware of the problems. And 95.8% of the stories failed to provide deeper context -- "especially efforts by Republican Party officials to use allegations of 'voter fraud' to dampen voting by low-income and minority Americans."

Interestingly, the study found that local newspapers were more likely to verify facts with county election boards and thus were less susceptible to the politicized "voter fraud" frame than national news outlets.

The authors conclude:

Our analysis of the narrative framing of the ACORN stories demonstrates that -- despite long-standing charges from conservatives that the news media are determinedly liberal and ignore conservative ideas -- the news media agenda is easily permeated by a persistent media campaign, even when there is little or no truth to the story.

article originally published at Institute for Southern Studies.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey