Bias can be very subtle, and subtle bias can be more dangerous than overt prejudice. In February 2012, an article appeared in the New York Times on the growing numbers of single-parent families, with a specific focus on one town in Ohio. It was criticized by Slate Magazine for hiding its judgmental bias behind a veneer of liberal thinking. In this lesson we will explore both the original article from the New York Times and the criticism that followed, looking for examples of bias. We will study how the mass media use language to inform and persuade, which is the third learning outcome for Part 3. In doing so, we will develop an awareness of the potential for ideological influence in the media. WHAT FORMS DOES NEWS BIAS TAKE? How does bias in the news manifest itself? Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to recognize. No self-respecting reporter is going to come right out and say “And this next sentence is biased, so watch out!” Rather, we must try to find bias ourselves, and in order to do so we must know where to look. We have found that the most common ways that bias manifests itself in the news are through word choice, omissions, the limiting of debate, framing of the story, and a biased selection and use of sources. Sources are important! HOWEVER, You cannot always trust information from all sources. 1. WORD CHOICE Words are very precise building blocks that form the basis for all communicated ideas. They can hold truths or lies but are always the products of expression. People express themselves not only through what they say but also by how they say it. Diction and syntax allow an idea to be established in any number of ways: some are basic, others are luxuriously flamboyant, some reveal secondary thoughts, others betray hidden emotions. It’s like the saying, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A whole sentence says more than simply what the individual words describe. Bias, in many forms, is not necessarily explicit in the words that have been used but can be recognized when seen in the fuller context that the words represent. Journalists do this by manipulating single words in such a way that whole sentences’ meanings are subtly changed…and sometimes not so subtly. WORD CHOICE EXAMPLE The following examples are taken from the context of the 2003 conflict in Iraq: 1. St. Petersburg Times (Florida) 3/25/2003 The Red Cross, one of the few aid groups with staff operating in Iraq, hopes to negotiate access to the main power station, which is said to be under control of U.S.-led coalition forces. But neither local staff nor specialists in neighboring Kuwait have been cleared to go because of continued clashes. 2. Dar Al-Hayat 4/1/2003 Iraq said its troops were battling U.S.-led invasion forces inside Nassiriya and on the city’s outskirts on Tuesday and inflicting heavy casualties. American Sources such as CNN have labeled the conflict the “War In Iraq” 1. Copy of CNN’s Iraq page Arab sources such as Dar Al-Hayat regularly call the conflict the “War On Iraq” 2. Copy of Dar Al Hayat’s Iraq page Word Choice Analysis: In many cases, the keywords of a sentence are manipulated to elicit an editorial comment without the reader being explicitly aware that an opinion is being stated. In this pair of examples, the difference of a single word changes the meanings to reflect opposing viewpoints. By changing the preposition “in” to the word “on,” there is a subtle yet significant difference. In fact, by changing only one letter, the entire thrust of the military campaign changes from one of fighting dissidents within the political borders of Iraq to one of aggression against the entire nation. 2. OMISSION Omission occurs when important information is not reported or is reported incompletely. We can think of omission as being news that should have been reported but is left out of the news we read, see and hear. When important news is omitted, we get a skewed or biased perspective. Obviously no news organization can cover every newsworthy story from every possible perspective. But news organizations and their reporters do have an obligation to seek the truth and be reasonably comprehensive in their reporting. The information citizens need to make informed decisions comes, to a significant extent, from news organizations. If important stories are ignored, are reported incompletely, or present facts that are not adequately verified, then the obligation to seek the truth is undermined. In these cases the news that is omitted can be as important as the news that is published. Here are two reports of a Harris poll on schoolchildren and violence: OMISSION – AN EXAMPLE OF BIAS The answer is here: Omissions Analysis 3. LIMITING DEBATE People in positions of power often try to use the media to promote their positions or their “spin” on events. Sometimes, especially in cases of national security, government officials have an interest in limiting or eliminating debate. They hope that their interpretation of events is accepted, rather than questioned, by the media. They would have us believe that their view of events should be shared by all right-thinking people. Sometimes the media, or at least some media, wittingly or unwittingly act as debate limitting agents. They accept the official position without adequately scrutinizing the assertions of those officials. EXAMPLE The following articles appeared on the same day in the New York Times. They are not written by the same reporter: Before reading the article, LET´S LEARN ABOUT THE VIETNAM WAR. LIMITING DEBATE Limiting Debate Analysis 4. FRAMING THE STORY In order to quickly and efficiently process large amounts of information and make sense of complex stories journalists use frames. News frames guide journalists in deciding which details of a story to select and emphasize and which to leave out or de-emphasize. Frames are usually implicit rather than explicit. One of the most common frames is conflict. In the conflict frame reporters structure their stories around a conflict that is often portrayed as being inherent in the issue being discussed. Other standard frames for news stories include: the consensus frame which emphasizes general agreement; the reaction frame which features the reactions of one or more important people involved in the story; the wrongdoing exposed frame in which corruption or injustice is revealed; and the straight news account frame in which the reporter primarily asks the standard who, what, when, where and how questions. While it may seem that stories lend themselves naturally to one or another frame it is worth imagining alternative frames which might have been used in the stories we read. For example, if the politicians in Washington all support going to war but a significant percentage of the general populace are ambivalent or opposed to such an action, a reporter could frame the article with a consensus frame, focusing on the agreement between Republicans and Democrats. Alternatively that reporter could give the story a conflict frame focusing on the difference of opinion between politicians and the citizens opposed to the war. The picture that emerges is likely to be quite different depending on the frame chosen. Finally, it is worth noting that there are often frames within frames. For example, when the overall frame is conflict, an internal frame may be a multisided conflict or, alternatively, two-sided conflict. HAVE A LOOK AT HOW THE BBC HAS FRAMED SOME STORIES. and then on Facebook: Read about this here: http://civic.mit.edu/blog/natematias/is-the-bbc-framing-issues-differently-on-facebook OPTIONAL ACTIVITY: http://www.thinkib.net/englishalanglit/page/11842/single-mothers ACTIVITY: CURRENT NEWS IN THE UK Read the two following articles based on current issues in the UK: SCOTLAND INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM ARTICLE 1: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26461833 ARTICLE 2: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/scotland-independence-referendum-vote-yes-and-lose-the-bbc-says-maria-miller-9154553.html
WRITING TASK: BLOG ASSIGNMENT
- MAKE SOME RESEARCH ON WHAT WAS GOING ON IN SCOTLAND AT PRESENT. WHAT WAS THE ISSUE AND DEBATE ABOUT?
A. What is the main problem presented in both articles? B. What is the issue addressed in the first article? C. What is the issue addressed in the second article? D. HOW CAN WE DETECT BIAS IN THESE ARTICLES? What clues does the text give to you? Think of this in terms of word diction, framing, limiting debate and omission. Your teacher will give you a large piece of paper and a marker so that you can write down your ideas. Be prepared to present you conclusions to the class.