Most reporters and editors say they’re independent in a new survey, but are they just crypto-Democrats?

05.07.14 7:10 PM ET

American politics has its share of infamous numbers.

You’ve heard about the 47 percent during the 2012 campaign. 

We’ll hear about richest one percent (again) during the 2016 election season as well.

Now get ready for the 7 percent!

That’s the number of reporters who identify themselves as Republican, according to a new study by University of Indiana journalism professors Lars Wilnat and David Weaver.

So what’s the deal? How can far less than 1 of 10 reporters in the business vote GOP?

The simple answer you’ll undoubtedly hear in conservative media circles is that this study serves as confirmation that reporters are in the tank for Democrats; that a liberal bias exists. The argument goes that reporters will tilt a narrative to confirm to their own political views—whether it be on gay marriage, abortion, guns, and so on, —and the American public will buy every word. This is how Roger Ailes can make the effective quip that Fox’s success is due to its appeal to a niche market: half the country.

But it goes deeper than that, particularly given the ultra-competitive world of journalism. Reporters know they’re being scrutinized more than ever before. Errors that used to fly below the radar no longer do. Make a mistake? Embellish a point? Twist a narrative too far? Everything from YouTube to Twitter to Media Matters will call them out on it.

The number that really stands out from the study is the rise in reporters identifying themselves as independent. Given the dark clouds hovering over both parties—65 percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the nation’s system of government and how well it works (Gallup)—it’s not terribly surprising to find 50.2 percent of reporters identify themselves as neither a Democrat nor Republican. That’s an 18-point jump from when the last study was last conducted in 2002.

Speaking of 2002, 18 percent of reporters polled then said they were Republicans. So why the huge drop to seven percent? One theory revolves around 9/11 and the buildup to the first Iraq War. In May of 2002, President George W. Bush had a 77 percent approval rating, which was primarily a reflection of the unity the country displayed after 9/11. So if you supported taking out Saddam Hussein by invading Iraq, that landed you in a strong majority (66 percent). Being right of center was simply more en vogue in the world of journalism at that time.

Since then, of course, opinion has shifted on the decision to go to war (53 percent now say it was a mistake, according to the latest Gallup poll). And with it, some reporters have either drifted to left-of-center or simply decided to avoid being labeled altogether.

So the increase of self-described independents in the media runs in concert with the rise of independents in the electorate, right? Well, not exactly. According to Gallup, 42 percent of voters identify themselves as independent. Big number except when peeling down the onion, three out of four “independents” saying they lean toward one party or the other (47 percent Democratic, 41 percent Republican). When the smoke clears, only 10 percent of those independents say they absolutely don’t lean toward any party.

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Based on that, the educated theory here is reporters vote Democratic a majority of the time. That makes sense when considering that the largest concentration of media exists in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. At last check, all aren’t exactly red cities.

Then there’s the matter of career prospects: Think of what would happen if walking into any of the Big Three networks for an interview and being asked what party you’re registered to. The smart prospect would simply declare his or herself independent (the old “depends on the candidate” excuse). If it’s a left-leaning outlet, the prospect may state they generally vote Democratic. Outside of Fox, declaring oneself a Republican in a job interview is likely the fastest way back to working the night shift at Arby’s to pay the rent.

So is the 7 percent figure in the study a bit skewed? Look at it this way: Some young Republican reporters (those paying attention to the landscape) see the deck stacked against him/her and are likely deciding to either declare themselves independent (hence the steady rise in that category) or choosing a slightly different career path in the industry by jumping to strictly opinion pieces from the get-go (which given the shift from less hard news to more opinion in today’s media, it ain’t the worst strategy).

To find the good old days of bipartisanship in the reporting ranks, one has to go back to 1971 when the IU survey was first conducted. It was then that 32 percent declared themselves Democrats and 25 percent went Republican (Note: Nixon’s approval to start the year was at 58 percent). Today, that 10 percent gap between Democrats and Republicans has expanded to 21 percent despite the jump in the independent category.

Independents are rising, and that just doesn’t apply to those who report the news.