How to be Politically Pejorative while Claiming Journalistic Neutrality:

This is merely an instruction sheet. I am not making any claims as to any particular news outlet(s) one way or the other.

Not all news sources are journalistically neutral on the issues in the news. But honestly do we want a news anchor to be indifferent to murder? There are lines we draw when it comes to defining human morality. There are always multiple sides to take on every issue. We generally expect journalists to report just the facts, but we allow for the emotions, and the opinionated view that comes with it, of general humanity. I’d have to say when more than 99% of people agree that murder is bad, it’s okay for a journalist to make that assumption and speak assuming that point of view. It’s not a scientific fact that murder is bad; it’s just a subject on which people have an overwhelming consensus of opinion.

It’s not far from that 99% mark, however, that we expect our journalists to not express an opinion favoring one view over its opposing view.  We expect all the facts and opinions from both sides in our news. We actually only want the facts and opinions that are most important, but we like to think we want them all. The problem comes when bias is used to determine which facts and opinions are the most important.  Since the title of this piece implies I will be talking about politics, let’s remove the word facts from here out. Whether or not facts exist in political platforms is unimportant, as any facts will be spun anyway, and the only thing we will have left is opinions presented as facts. To prevent confusion, let’s just call these political opinions.

Assuming we, as individuals, only reference one media outlet for our news, how can we tell if it’s presenting all the opinions in journalistically indifferent manner?

It can be done.

First, look at the labels on the opinions and the issues. If a stance or issue has a label other than its proper name, the issue is not being presented neutrally. We don’t discuss the national healthcare plan as “Obamacare” unless we are denigrating it. Anyone who referred to any of our prior president’s ideas as “The Bush Plan” wasn’t supporting the plan.

In fact, anytime you reference The President, including his name with the reference adds a slight negative tone. The President is the executive of our country. Simply using the title acknowledges the august nature of the office. Adding a name can be a way of making sure that posterity knows exactly who to blame.

When we say, “The President raised taxes in 1993.” We think that in 1993, the country probably needed a tax increase, we might wonder why. When we say “President Clinton raised taxes in 1993,” we wonder who Mr. Clinton thinks he is, raising taxes on us, we probably don’t get to wondering why, we assume it was some whim of the named individual.

Of course every journalist will name the President if he’s part of the story, but where will the President be named? If it is in the headline, title or expository statement, it may be pejorative.

Be particularly wary of news outlets omitting the name of the office altogether when referencing any politician. Using just the politician’s last name, particularly in a headline, is almost always meant to be negative. Deep in the body of an article it’s acceptable to shorten to just names if there are multiple people with the same office.  Again the respectable short form would be just the office, but if multiple subjects with the same office are present, it’s necessary to add names. Just using a name, when an office is held, is a not very subtle sign of disrespect.

Another way to covertly add bias is to choose who will be used as experts, witnesses and representatives of each side of the opinions.

The simplest way to do this is to simply omit inviting one side to the debate.

A more complex method involves inviting both sides and then treating them differently akin to how a prosecutor treats the witnesses for the prosecution and the witnesses for the defense differently in a criminal case. It’s not just the questions the moderator will ask. A biased moderator might interrupt the representative of the opposing opinion with a “further question” or request clarification only to force a complex, difficult to follow response. The moderator will allow the representative closer to their supported opinion answer in simple answers or in the worst case, loaded catchphrases. A particularly devious moderator might even ask for clarification from both sides but allow the one representing the favored opinion to simply repeat the first simple answer and then, using their authority as moderator, act as if the repeated opinion clarified things satisfactorily.

And then there is the choosing of incompetent experts, witnesses and representatives of the opposing opinions. If a news outlet chooses the representative spearheading one side of an issue to debate a fledgling from the other side, it’s not going to be a fair debate, but it will be presented as if it should be.

So you’ve discovered that pretty much all the media outlets use some or all of these methods. Some outlets use them far more often than others. Where do people go to get unbiased reporting of the political news?

The best resource people have is their own brain.  They can use that oft-underutilized organ, when they gather all the information they can, to sift through the details and identify which opinions really make sense. It’s up to the individual to decide where they stand on each issue by identifying the facts and opinions that matter to them.  To do that, they need to be able to tell when there is bias in their sources, not to discount the source outright, but to know how the information has been flavored to identify the underlying ingredients.

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About wilogden

Wil Ogden was destined to be a wastrel but thwarted fate. During his second junior year in high school he discovered he had a muse and a talent for writing. Despite taking almost a decade to complete a bachelor's degree by changing majors eleven times, he managed to grow up. Along the way he worked as a blacksmith, a record store manager, a candy store manager, too many years in food service, a four year stint in the USAF, and finally settled down into Information Technology, which he uses to pay the bills and support his family of himself, his wife, son, seven daughters, two dogs, three cats, six chickens, a snake, a ferret and two parakeets.

Posted on April 12, 2011, in Tripe. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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