Study Finds First Drop in Think Tank Cites

Progressive groups see biggest decline

FAIR’s annual survey of think tank citations in the mainstream media focuses attention on the groups that media turn to for “expert” sources. Rarely described politically when they are quoted (Extra!, 5-6/98), think tank sources often appear as neutral observers of the news, in contrast to partisan politicians and representatives of advocacy groups. If the media have a “liberal” bias, as conservatives have long claimed, then one would expect news outlets to seek out progressive think tanks as sources. However, in the history of this study, begun in 1996, we have instead found a consistent preference for conservative think tanks over progressive ones.

The latest survey of think tank citations—which is based on appearances in major newspapers and TV and radio transcripts that appear in the Nexis database—found that 40 percent of such citations in 2005 were to conservative or center-right groups, 47 percent were to centrist groups and only 13 percent were to center-left or progressive groups.

While total think tank citations decreased for the first time in our study, the decline was most precipitous among left-leaning think tanks. Overall, the 27,229 citations that the 25 most widely quoted think tanks garnered in 2005 was a 10 percent decline from 2004, the decline was 23 percent for left-leaning think tanks vs. 8 percent for right-leaning groups and 7 percent for centrists. No left-leaning think tank appeared in the top 10.

Despite the greater decline for progressive think tanks, the percentages for right-leaning, centrist and left-leaning think tanks are all within normal historical ranges. Of perhaps greater concern to those looking for a more diverse media diet is that citations of left-leaning groups are increasingly from center-left groups rather than unambiguously progressive groups.

The centrist Brookings Institution was once again the most widely cited think tank, well-outpacing the second most quoted think tank, the conservative Heritage Foundation. The leading left-leaning think tank, the center-left Urban Institute, received less than a third of Heritage’s total and approximately one-fifth of Brookings’ citations.

Two of the most dramatic declines in think tank citations from 2004 were for the Center for Public Integrity and Economic Policy Institute. CPI, which monitors campaign contributions, would be expected to be less prominent during a non-election year like 2005. The 47 percent decline suffered by EPI is less predictable, but may be related to the recent launch of the Center for American Progress, which could be displacing more progressive think tanks in the rolodexes of mainstream journalists.

The greatest increase in exposure belonged to the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that rejects the scientific consensus on evolution. Other think tanks new to the study this year were the Employee Benefit Research Institute, the healthcare-oriented Kaiser Family Foundation and the Lexington Institute, a conservative organization with a focus on military issues.

There have been notable recent attempts to study think tank coverage, including a problematic study by academics Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo (see Extra!, 5-6/05) and NPR’s analysis of its own use of think tanks (NPR.org, 12/14/05). NPR ombud Jeffrey A. Dvorkin only listed eight think tanks, and counted Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (which has Henry Kissinger on its board) as “left” think tanks. (There are no centrist think tanks in Dvorkin’s universe.) Even thus stacking the deck, Dvorkin still found a 239-141 advantage in citations for the right—a result that he said, puzzlingly enough, shows that “NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.”

Please also see the sidebar to this article: Defining the Think Tanks