Last week, I wrote on the Hostile Media Effect and how it alters our perception of media bias. But I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that media bias does exist in our coverage. In today’s post we’re going to highlight six ways bias can manifest in the news.
Perhaps the most obvious form of bias comes from diction, or word choice. Here’s a simple exercise to consider.
After an altercation with Bob, John died.
John was killed by Bob.
John was murdered by Bob.
Technically all three statements are accurate and tell the same story: John was killed by Bob. But we read the three statements very differently. Vijith Assar of McSweeney’s wrote a creative gem called An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar last September. The piece itself is brilliant, and I’ll likely utilize it in a future post, but it breaks down how the English language can (by every basic grammar rule we learn as kids) turn, “A quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” into “Speed was involved in a jumping‑related incident while a fox was brown.”
Or, “a police officer shot a black man” into “The St. Louis County Police Department was involved in an officer-involved shooting after officers came under heavy gunfire.”
2. Emotive language
Connected to diction is emotive language. Empathy is one of our key identifiers as people, so the media will intentionally play to people’s emotions. But while emotive language might be appropriate during a human interest story on kids with cancer, it’s more complicated in say, war correspondence. In 2011, the Glasgow Media Group (a group of media researchers at Glasgow University) released the new edition of their book, Bad News For Israel, which highlighted the usage of terms like “atrocity”, “slaughter” and “brutal murder” in regards to attacks on Israelis in occupied territory by television news teams. By contrast, the studies found, that same emotive language was not used to describe the attacks on Palestinians. Similarly, when examining those perpetrating violence, Israelis were called “vigilantes” or “extremists” while Palestinians were called “terrorists”.
When reporters omit information, they are actively choosing to leave important facts out of a story. Perhaps the reporter decided not to include a contradictory source or an editor cut content due to corporate interests. Although we’d love to believe that truth and justice are journalists sole motivators, there are shareholders to placate at many large media groups, and sometimes it’s out of the journalist’s hands. But readers don’t know what they don’t know–omitting information hurts the people who are most affected by the news itself: the audience and those directly involved in the story. Mac McClelland, formerly the human rights reporter at Mother Jones, sums it up quite neatly in an article on the whitewashing of Hurricane Katrina.
“Telling only the happy half of the story isn’t just a disservice to some abstract principle like truth or fairness; it’s a very real disservice to the people on the ground.”
4. Lack of verification
The ethics of journalism requires us to verify the accuracy of our information. It’s what separates us from propaganda or straight up fiction, and it cannot, under any circumstances, be forgotten. It’s why sites like Politifact.com and FactCheck.org exist, why bastions of journalism like the New York Times and Mother Jones hire entire teams of fact checkers to make sure that every article is as accurate as possible. Ideally, you want three independent sources for a single piece of information. Sometimes statements aren’t verified and you see it blow up in a big way, like the time media outlets reported that hundreds of Palestinians were massacred in the Battle of Jenin–a massacre that really wasn’t.
5. Selective Reporting
Imagine you’re an editor in a newsroom, and your supervisor tells you that due to interests high above your pay grade, you need to run fewer stories that criticize Hillary Clinton. Not the election as a whole, just try to keep Clinton’s name out of the mud. You feel weird about this, but you want to keep your job so you tell your writers, “I know we’re two months out from the primary, but let’s try to focus more on Sanders, for better or for worse.” Is this hurting anyone? Yes, yes it is. Not only is it, again, harmful to the principles we hold on truth and fairness, but also because newsflash: audiences notice.
Earlier this year, I got firsthand experience with it. I wrote a blog post (for this site) which was edited and reposted on the Huffington Post. This “Bernie Sanders hit piece” wasn’t really a hit piece, more just me using the forum to process some feelings, but the Huffington Post added a [slanted] headline and the comments section filled up with folks telling me to stop bashing Sanders. Interestingly, their rage wasn’t 100% connected to my article, but to the overall sentiment that the Huffington Post was slanted toward Hillary and thus only running negative articles on Sanders. I don’t know whether this is true, but what I do know is that a whole lot of people saw what they believed to be selective reporting and didn’t like it.
Decontextualization is a type of omission in which the omitted information is essential to understanding a decision, action or event, its underlying motivations or key events leading up to it. We see it all time, whether it’s a politician’s quote taken out of context or a video clip of a confrontation without enough background information. As journalists, it’s key that we include all of the information to give our readers a full picture of the situation. And perhaps even more importantly, it’s our job to fill in the information gaps when others try to pass of information out of context as the truth.