On Networks, 'Controversial' Law Means Conservative Law

    That's controversial: Conservative laws were called “controversial” 30 times as often as liberal ones on ABC, CBS, and NBC during a five-year time period. Arizona law most 'controversial': 56 percent of the time network reporters referred to either a liberal or conservative “controversial” law, they were speaking about the Arizona policy even though that law is just two months old 

Liberals may like to boast of fighting the establishment and taking on the status quo, but it's conservative laws that are 30 times more likely to be deemed “controversial” – at least by the mainstream media.

In the past five years, when ABC, CBS, or NBC news reporters claimed a law was “controversial,” they were most likely referring to legislation backed by the right.

This analysis looked at 110 news transcripts dating back to 2005 where the term “controversial” fell within three words of the term “law.” Of these transcripts, 62 referred to policies that were clearly liberal or conservative. Of the 62 ideologically identifiable “controversial” laws, 60 were conservative and only two were liberal.

Whether it was NBC's “Today” on Jan. 2, 2008, referring to the “controversial new law in Arizona [where] businesses can be shut down if they intentionally hire illegal immigrants,” or ABC's “Good Morning America” on Dec. 23, 2005, discussing the “extension of the Patriot Act just days before the controversial law was set to expire,” conservative policies seemed to be more hot-button issues for the media than liberal policies.

Arizona's illegal immigration reform act was by far the law most frequently described as “controversial” by the news networks. Though the Arizona law was passed just two months ago, it was described by networks as “controversial” in 56 percent of the liberal or conservative transcripts studied.

But the “controversy” over the law is largely media-driven, according to Bob Dane of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Dane said the media have often mischaracterized the Arizona law.

“I would say that the media has focused on all the wrong aspects of [the immigration law]. The criticism of the bill has been far more extreme than anything that is in the bill,” he said.

Despite media claims that the law is “controversial,” polls show that Americans are solidly in favor of the Arizona policy.

After referring to “Arizona's controversial new immigration law,” Brian Williams of NBC “Nightly News” on May 26 went on to report that “In our new NBC News/MSNBC/Telemundo national poll on this issue, we found 61 percent of people support the Arizona law, 36 percent oppose it.”

By comparison, the networks branded few liberal laws as controversial. The recent health care reform law, which 55 percent of likely voters would like to see repealed, wasn't labeled “controversial” once. Neither was the auto bailout package, which 53 percent of Americans believe was a bad idea. The only two liberal laws described as controversial in the transcripts were Oregon's assisted suicide policy, which ABC's “World News Tonight,” called controversial on Oct. 5, 2005, and a California law requiring serial numbers on bullets, which ABC's “World News Sunday” called controversial on Oct. 14, 2007.

Other conservative laws deemed controversial by the media included No Child Left Behind, a law banning partial-birth abortion and a law allowing oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


This study reviewed the transcripts of all 110 ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news transcripts, as well as NBC's "Meet the Press" between June 1, 2005, and June 21, 2010, in which the term "controversial" was used within three words of "law."

Duplicate transcripts and those not referring to U.S. laws were excluded. Other transcripts were discarded for the following reasons:

·         The term “controversial” did not modify the law or parts of the law referred to, or

·         The transcript did not mention the name or a description of the law, or

·         The law was called controversial by a guest or interviewee as opposed to a reporter, anchor, or host.

·         The transcript referred to a law that was considered politically neutral (such as a driving regulation in Connecticut and laws banning certain dog breeds in various states).

Of the 62 transcripts included in the final results of the study, all referred to policies that were clearly liberal or conservative. Sixty of the times reporters labeled a law controversial, it was a conservative policy and just two of the times it was a liberal policy.