Most Americans agree that much of the news they read is biased in one way or another, but is there any kind of trend suggesting that mainstream news sources are more biased than smaller publications? A study by Pew Research Center found that there is a broad consensus among Americans on what publications are mainstream, even though the term is somewhat nebulous. According to Gallup, local news media sources are perceived as less biased than major news stations by most Americans, but does the research back up this belief?
As Americans have grown more concerned with bias in the news in recent years, it has become more important to know whether or not the news media you consume is biased or not and in which direction these news sources are biased. Using Biasly’s bias meter ratings, I investigated some of America’s primary mainstream news sources as well as smaller publications and local news organizations to figure out if there is a trend in mainstream news sources being more biased than their smaller counterparts.
What counts as Mainstream News and Smaller Publications?
According to Pew Research Center, Americans generally agree on what news sources count as mainstream media and which do not. As shown below, both Republicans and Democrats broadly agree that ABC News, CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and New York Post are mainstream. At the same time, HuffPost, BuzzFeed, the Sean Hannity Show, Vox, Newsmax, and Breitbart are generally agreed upon as smaller national publications and not as mainstream, or midstream publications. Five of the six midstream outlets began as digital publications, meaning they are less established than mainstream publications.
While these are based on a broad consensus among the American people, the line between what is mainstream and what isn’t is often blurry. For example, Fox News doesn’t consider itself mainstream, but 73% of American adults consider the station mainstream according to Pew Research Center. Essentially, what is mainstream news to one person may be obscure to another, and news sources should usually be considered on a case-by-case basis.
According to Maryville University, it can usually be determined what is mainstream news and what isn’t by the number of resources and trained journalists employed by a particular organization. Local news publications across the country from the Texas Tribune to the Boston Herald are even smaller than the national publications broadly considered non-mainstream, so they will be recorded in their own category. To get a better picture of what can and can’t be considered mainstream, the table below lists all of the publications examined in this article and how many visits their websites got in January of 2023 according to Similar Web.
|Mainstream Sources||Site Visits||Midstream Sources||Site Visits||Small Local Sources||Site Visits|
|ABC||38.0 Million||HuffPost||48.6 Million||Texas Tribune||2.6 Million|
|CNN||542.2 Million||BuzzFeed||21.7 Million||Utah Statesman||28.7 Thousand|
|New York Times||552.5 Million||Vox||17.5 Million||Boston Herald||1.9 Million|
|MSNBC||16.8 Million||Newsmax||22.8 Million||Daily Chronicle (Illinois)||939.9 Thousand|
|Fox News||314.2 Million||Breitbart||30.8 Million||Detroit Free Press||13.0 Million|
|Wall Street Journal||78.3 Million||Sean Hannity||769.4 Thousand||FOX 13 News Utah||2.6 Million|
|New York Post||171.6 Million||Indystar (Indiana)||4.3 Million|
|CBS||55.7 Million||Indy Week (North Carolina)||190.9 Thousand|
|Roll Call (Washington D.C.)||615.3 Thousand|
As seen in the table, the publications broadly considered mainstream tend to get site views in the tens or even hundreds of millions per month with the exception of MSNBC getting only 16.8 million site views in January. The websites from the midstream publications received less than the largest mainstream sources but more than MSNBC and ABC. This disparity between the site views of those news sources considered mainstream and midstream goes to show how arbitrary the line between the two is. While Sean Hannity’s website only received 769.4 thousand views, this can likely be attributed to the fact that Hannity is primarily a radio show. Unsurprisingly, the local news station websites received significantly fewer views than both the mainstream and midstream national publications with only the Detroit Free Press gaining more than 10 million views.
Source: Pew Research
Bias in Mainstream News
According to Biasly’s media bias meter tool, the major mainstream news sources as determined by Pew Research Center range anywhere from very liberal like CNN and MSNBC to extremely conservative like the New York Post. However, it also bears mentioning that a few of the news sources listed below have not been checked and rated by Biasly analysts and are only rated using Biasly’s bias meter, which may differ a bit from real human analysts. Listed below are the news sources considered mainstream and their bias scores.
- ABC: Moderately Liberal, -27%
- CNN: Very Liberal, -70% (AI Rated)
- New York Times: Moderately Liberal, -47% (AI Rated)
- MSNBC: Very Liberal, -72% (AI Rated)
- Fox News: Very Conservative, 68% (AI Rated)
- Wall Street Journal: Somewhat Conservative, 14% (AI Rated)
- New York Post: Extremely Conservative, 82% (AI Rated)
- CBS: Moderately Liberal, -36% (AI Rated)
Based on these analyses, it is clear that the most prominent and commonly accepted mainstream news sources absolutely do carry bias. This bias is split roughly evenly between publications with moderately to very liberal biases and somewhat to extremely conservative biases in their reporting.
While the largest publications in terms of site views (CNN and the New York Times) skew liberal, the views on large publications with conservative biases such as Fox News and the New York Post are still enormous. While there are roughly even numbers of publications that skew conservative in this category to those that skew liberal, the sources with more liberal bias have overall significantly more views than their conservative counterparts.
Bias in Midstream Publications
The media sources broadly considered smaller publications in the Pew Research Center study range from very liberal to extremely conservative. Based on this fairly small sample, some major but midstream news sources suffer from just about the same amount of bias as their more mainstream counterparts. This might be due in part to the often blurry line between mainstream and non-mainstream and how arbitrary those terms are in many cases. Listed below are the bias ratings for these smaller publications.
- HuffPost: Very Liberal, -63%
- BuzzFeed: Very Liberal, –55%
- Vox: Very Liberal, -70%
- Newsmax: Very Conservative, 71%
- Breitbart: Very Conservative, 68%
- Sean Hannity (Radio): Extremely Conservative, 83% (AI Rated)
Based on the biases of these news sources, the level of bias seen in smaller midstream publications is not much different than those of major mainstream news sources. Similarly to the mainstream news sources, these publications are around equal in their levels of liberal and conservative biases in their reporting. Both the liberally and conservatively biased publications get comparable numbers of site visits in the tens of millions with the exception of Hannity, which is a primarily radio-based show. The largest of these sources, HuffPost, had 48.6 million visits in comparison to the largest of the conservative-leaning publications in this section, Breitbart, with 30.8 million. While these midstream news sources have relatively similar levels of bias compared to major mainstream publications, even smaller local news sources might be less biased, we will discuss this in the next section.
Bias in Small Local News Sources
While small local news sources are broadly seen as less biased by 53% of Americans, is there really less bias in these local news sources, or are they just perceived differently? Listed below is a handful of bias analyses of some local news media from across the country to get some idea of how these local news sources compare to both mainstream and well-known non-mainstream publications.
- Texas Tribune: Moderately Liberal, -44% (AI Rated)
- Utah Statesman: Moderately Liberal, -37%
- Boston Herald: Somewhat Conservative, 18%
- Daily Chronicle (Illinois): Center, -4%
- Detroit Free Press: Somewhat Liberal, -47% (AI Rated)
- FOX 13 News Utah: Center, -4%
- Indystar (Indiana): Center, -8%
- Indy Week (North Carolina): Moderately Liberal, -28%
- Roll Call (Washington D.C.): Somewhat Liberal, -13%
In contrast with larger non-mainstream sources and major mainstream sources, local media news sources do seem to be a bit less biased overall. While these local news sources were typically less biased according to the bias meter, the local news sources that were biased tended to lean liberal. However, these local news sources do seem to coincide with the common perception by many Americans that they are less biased than mainstream news sources. When these local news sources did have major bias, they tended to be more moderate in their levels of bias in comparison with national publications. However, it is important to note that biases still exist in these regional publications, and it’s best to look at them critically.
Conclusion: Are Mainstream News Sources More Biased?
Between primary mainstream news sources and smaller midstream publications, both are just about equally biased. On the other hand, smaller local and regional news publications seem to be predominantly less biased in comparison.
While there is little evidence for a trend in mainstream news sources being more biased than smaller midstream publications, small local non-mainstream publications are certainly less biased overall than mainstream news publications. While many news articles, especially those on political issues, will likely carry some bias, what matters most is understanding those biases before reading or watching the news.
By understanding beforehand how a news source might be biased and in which political direction, regardless of whether it is a mainstream news source or a smaller publication, readers can get a more accurate view of current events. Major mainstream news publications, midstream publications, and small local non-mainstream sources are all important to staying informed as long as they are consumed responsibly and with attention to possible biases. Subscribe to Biasly’s free membership to receive updates on news sources of your choice.