One clue in determining the bias of a news story or message can come from human behavior. People have a tendency to take for granted the things that are common, typical, expected or even normal. On the other hand, people tend to point out the things that are different, out-of-the-ordinary, unique, or abnormal. Being human, many times a reporter’s word choice will reveal his or her bias along the same lines.
For instance, in a balanced story about politics, we’d most likely hear words about the “left-wing” and the “right-wing.” If the normal balance point were shifted left to a liberal bias, the comments would reflect the “mainstream” ideas and the “right-wing” ideas. By the same token, if what is considered normal to be shifted right to a conservative viewpoint, the comments would reflect the “mainstream” ideas and the “left-wing” ideas.
Word choice can also reveal the difference between a liberal editorial comment being stated as a fact versus a balanced factual detail. Sometimes what is not said is just as revealing.
As a national correspondent, Goldberg noticed how CBS identified conservatives as conservatives, but didn’t bother to identify liberals as liberals. “It sounds innocent enough, but why is it that Phillis Schlafly was identified as a conservative, but Catherine MacKinnon was not identified as a radical or feminist or a flat-left law professor or even as a plain old liberal? MacKinnon, after all, is at least as far to the left as Schlafly is to the right. Why was she simply a ‘noted law professor’? The clear implication was that Catherine MacKinnon is an objective, well-respected observer and Phyllis Schlafly is a political partisan.”[i]
Some times the opinion of the reporter is more obvious. Have we ever noticed the use of words like wacky, weird, wrong, bizarre, extreme right, scoundrel, sham, or scheme during an “objective” news story? When we do, we need to make sure it puts up a red flag in our mind that states we are hearing anything but an objective view. Certain words in of themselves cast a judgment of right or wrong and would not be used in a balanced news report.
Unfortunately the policing of words alone is not enough to protect our families from negatively biased messages. A good reporter may use all the right words while finding “experts” to speak with a bias that sides with what the report believes to be right. In reality, if a reporter looks hard enough, he or she will undoubtedly find an expert somewhere who will make the desired statement that needs to be presented.
It’s not that the newscaster is trying to purposely sway things to the left. He or she is merely attempting to do what feels right for the story. “The sophisticated media elites don’t categorize their beliefs as liberal but as simply the correct way to look at things.”[ii] If the media is convinced that it holds “the correct way to look at things” and society hears that perspective during every nightly newscast, it won’t take many years for the people to buy into the new perspective or what is considered normal. With that in mind, it doesn’t take long to understand how the perception of what is normal can creep through the years from the conservative right to the liberal left.
I’ll never forget the period of time when newscasters focused on pro-life people blocking abortion clinics to spare the life of the unborn. The footage showed police officers dragging “extremists” a way in an attempt to allow women their “right of free choice” to have an abortion. The pro-life perspective was presented as unconstitutional and many people bought into it.
A few years later I had several opportunities to meet women who had aborted their unborn babies. Besides their hearts being emotionally scarred, they all had one thing in common. Their attitudes revealed a deep desire to do just about anything to go back in time and correct the terrible mistake they had made. I couldn’t help but wonder why newscasters never told this side of the story.
With the understanding that I was possibly watching a biased reporter every time I turned on the news, I had to determine if the media was biased concerning abortion. Then it dawned on me, the word choice of the newscasters was “pro-choice” not “abortion.” I had discerned that a bias existed, one that redirected the perspective from life and death, to the freedom of choice.
Since the media presents things in waves, we can check for bias by looking for an obvious pattern. Homeless stories in the news are a good example. I’ve noticed that each time a Republican president is in office, there are numerous homeless stories that pop up in the news. When a Democrat is in office, the number of homeless stories drops off significantly. “Homelessness ended the day Bill Clinton was sworn in as president. Which is one of those incredible coincidences, since it pretty much began the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.”[iii]
Looking for hype will also help us spot bias. Several years back, the FBI cracked a major case of pedophiles promoting child pornography on the Internet. Every network and major newspaper ran a story on how “some” of the abusers were Catholic priests. Shortly after the church stepped up to do something about it, the stories shifted to Presbyterian ministers.
Since it is extremely offensive to hear about a minister abusing children, a red hype flag should jump up in our mind. When I read these reports I asked myself who “some” of the other offenders were and then dove into researching the truth. It didn’t take long to learn that the smallest percentage of abusers were involved in ministry. I became more concerned to learn how many of the other offenders were police officers, judges, and public school teachers.
Nonetheless, the media felt it was important to point out the priests over the other categories of people. Many newscasters also showed disdain as they presented the stories. It was clear that they painted the priests as being wrong while letting the others off the hook. This silent language can give us a hint that there is an existing bias.
Silent languages like body language and other non-verbal communications can play an important role in the presentation. We all remember growing up and getting one of those looks from our moms as we were reaching for the cookie before dinner. Nothing had to be said; yet we immediately picked up on its full meaning.
By looking for visual clues, we’ll be able to detect how a newscaster might alter the meaning of a word with a simple glance, lifted eyebrow, or shrugged shoulder. The way the talent dresses, wears cosmetics, or speaks can also reveal a bias. As we’re watching the news, we might want to take a mental note of the facial expressions and eye movement and see if we can determine the messages being sent. As we do this, keep in mind that sometimes what is not done is just as powerful.