Is the media biased? Can the study of language tell us? (Part 1)

Greetings!  Welcome to the inaugural post of my blog, linguistic pulse. I’m writing here to share my perspective on language and its use in discourse related to politics, education, and society more generally with anyone who might be interested.  In particular, the way I see these things is shaped by my own background as an applied linguist who is interested in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis.  If you’re not sure what these things are, that’s not a problem.  In fact, I’ve decided to write this blog specifically to communicate with people who are not familiar with my academic discipline because I think the perspective offered by scholars in these fields is one that many others will find intriguing, challenging, and hopefully also empowering.  Thus, my goal with this blog is to present a perspective on these issues that echoes the sophisticated, rigorous studies found in these disciplines while being accessible and interesting to a larger audience.

As my first attempt at this, I’ve decided to take up a set of questions that have long interested me: Is the media biased?  And if so, how? Not to mention, how might we demonstrate its biases? I’ll be exploring this issue in a series of posts over the next couple of months.  So let’s start off with a basic discussion of what “bias” might mean.

My interest in this question no doubt stems from the frequent accusations in US media pertaining to the idea that the media is in general partial to a particular group.  It’s my perception that conservatives are particularly likely to make these accusations.  As evidence of this I’ll point you to the abundance of terminology coined by conservatives to make exactly this point: such as “the liberal media” or “the lamestream media”.  These ideas have been institutionalized in the form of the Media Research Center which boasts “25 years of holding the liberal media accountable for shamelessly advancing a left-wing agenda, distorting the truth, and vilifying the conservative movement”.

To me, these claims of “media bias” seem rather naïve.  Most importantly, in many cases they seem to be based on a poorly developed perspective on what constitutes “bias”.  What I think is a pretty good representation of a very popular view of journalistic bias is presented in the next paragraph. This is not a quotation, but it also does not represent my views on the topic:

There is a neutral, truthful account of events.  It is the job of the journalist to observe and report important events in an objective manner.  Media bias occurs when journalists systematically fail to observe or report on events in an objective manner.  Most commonly this occurs when journalists allow their political beliefs to affect their reporting.  Unbiased reporting is the result of observation and reporting that stems from the setting aside of personal beliefs on the matter to focus on only the facts.  Journalists, members of the media, and others can voice their opinions in venues in which we do not expect to find objective reporting, such as in newspaper editorials, on opinion-oriented television shows, or on talk radio.  In general news reporting, however, we expect to find objective accounts of the news.

The view I’ve attempted to outline above is one that I think many people would describe as “common sense”, and they probably view “common sense” as something positive, something that shows the correctness of the idea even though we might not be able to articulate why the idea is right.  I agree that the view above represents “common sense”, but I disagree with this as evidence of its validity. I think we can demonstrate quite easily through a set of thought experiments that rather than being something we unnecessarily impose on to “the facts”, our biases are crucial elements of the way we choose to represent the world in our discourse (that is in our speech, in our writing, or in any other way we might communicate).

So let’s begin.  Take a look at the image below, which I have borrowed from here.

Try to answer this question: What do you see?  Don’t worry too much about context or background information.  The more information I give you, the more opportunity I have to shape your interpretation of the events.  Simply think about the question: What do I see here?  It’d be great too if you’d write down one sentence that you think describes the picture.


Here’s what I wrote down: “Protesters continue to chant as police in riot gear surround them.”

How does it compare to your sentence?  Do you think my sentence is in any way inaccurate? What about yours?

Here’s the caption included with the picture on CNN’s website: “Police attempt to disperse a crowd at Occupy Portland on Sunday”.

I would say that both this caption and my sentence (and probably yours as well) are plausible interpretations of what is seen here.  However, they are the product of a series of choices that both I and the writer who produced the caption made.  When I looked at the picture I immediately focused on the protesters and decided to describe the actions they were performing.  I also mentioned what the police were doing, but you might say that I buried their actions inside of a dependent clause (that is I only described their actions in a part of the sentence that could not stand alone “as police in riot gear surround them” and which seems to be secondary to the main clause that describes what the protesters were doing).  It’s also notable that I pointed out that the police are equipped with riot gear, a fact that I chose to illustrate the imbalance of power in the picture. Compare this to the caption writer who seems to have focused only on the actions of the police without mentioning their riot gear.  My interpretation of the word I used to describe the police’s action “surround” is that it is more menacing than the phrase the caption writer chose “attempt to disperse”.  Notice that I called the people in the picture “protesters,” whereas the caption writer labeled the people who are not the police in the picture “a crowd at Occupy Portland”.  “Protesters” seems to assign these people more purpose and intentionality than simply being “a crowd” does.

My point in comparing these sentences is not that one of us is correct and the other incorrect.  Rather, you can see that in choosing what to focus on or what to include in our sentences and how to label it (something all journalists must do), both of us produce sentences that are rather different, and they reflect certain biases.  My own bias as someone very critical of the economic establishment and the inequitable wealth distribution in the United States led me to consider what the protesters, who are part of the Occupy movement (note their signs) were doing in the picture.

I can only speculate about what led the caption writer to focus on the police.  It seems to me that most likely this writer views the Occupy movement as at best a curiosity that s/he does not understand and at worst views them as a public nuisance.  Thus, he/she chose to focus on the police because their actions are more readily interpretable (in other words, the writer can explain what the police are doing in the picture or what they intend to do more easily).  Another possibility is that the writer chose to focus on the actions of the police because their agenda of removing the public nuisance was the only one deemed worthy of coverage.  Again, I don’t really know what the writer was thinking, but these explanations seem plausible to me.

The way we chose to represent these stories stems from our own biases, but it also perpetuates our biases in the form of discourse.  On the one hand, in writing my version of a caption, I present the Occupy movement as more purposeful and perhaps even as an admirable underdog sticking up to the more powerful police.  A reader might walk away from my account with positive associations of the Occupy movement.

On the other hand, in the CNN caption writer’s version, the police are presented as the ones doing the purposeful work.  A reader might get the sense that this is a routine procedure for the police who in carrying out their duties must regularly deal with things like this. The Occupy movement then is placed on the same level as other public annoyances like bar fights that must be broken up in order to maintain the peace.  Hence, in contrast to my sentence that contains a more positive evaluation of the Occupy movement, it seems that the reader of the CNN caption is exposed to a description that implicitly supports the status quo and provides a relatively negative evaluation of the Occupy movement.

So, we’ve seen that there are multiple ways of talking about the same event.  Despite this possibility, I think most people agree that there are clearly ways to talk about this picture that are simply not accurate.  For example, the sentence, “A green mouse chases a polka-dot cat around a money tree”, is not an accurate representation of what is happening in the picture (and you’d probably find it hard to find a picture it does describe, although I by no means wish to call into question anyone’s PhotoShop skills).  Nonetheless, the different sentences I compared and probably the one you wrote as well are plausible interpretations of the events captured in the picture.  In fact, there’s an infinite range of possibilities.  We could choose to focus in on the horse in the picture and write something like “A horse is startled by the human noise around it”.

Here we are at the main point.  We have to make choices when we speak, write, or communicate about events.  The choices we make in our discourse (or the language we use) are affected by our biases.  In addition, through being broadcast in the media, written on a blog, or whispered to a friend, our discourse transmits our biases to others.  Whether or not those others necessarily buy into our biases is another question, but it certainly stands to reason that in many cases our audience will be receptive to our interpretation of the events, especially when, as is often the case with news media, the audience has not yet formed their own interpretation or opinions about the event or the issues.  Hence, our biases can become our audience’s biases; likewise, the media’s biases are also capable of becoming media consumers’ biases.

Now, I hope I’ve succeeded in convincing you that bias is not something that some bad journalists let slip into their reporting.  The only way we might circumvent our biases when producing an account of something we observe or experience would be if there were some way to randomly generate a report of it.  Even then, however, you’d be making a choice to be completely random (not to mention that you’d probably be creating discourse that wasn’t very coherent or relevant to the people reading what you wrote or listening to you speak).

Perhaps this sounds like an “anything goes” type of argument. However, I don’t think that is the case. As I’ve already mentioned, there are certainly ways that you can misrepresent the situation. Misrepresenting the situation would be in my opinion (and probably in most other people’s) bad journalism. In addition, we can still argue about the value of my interpretation of the picture in comparison to the CNN caption writer’s, but we’ll have to do so on different grounds – on grounds other than whether one is “true” or not.  We’ll have to instead appeal to the theories and values that make up what we believe the purpose of journalism and the media to be.  I think that one of the purposes of journalism and the media should be to keep a watchful eye on those that hold power in our society.  This might help to explain why I think that a group that is critical of wealth inequality is an important element in society. If we knew what the CNN caption writer thought about the purpose of the media, we could compare the theories and values and make arguments about their moral, practical, or political merits.

So what’s all of this talk about a single caption on one picture got to do with bias in news media more generally?  Well in my next posts I’ll be analyzing the way different media outlets reported on the recent fiscal cliff negotiations as a way of trying to explore media bias.  In particular, I’ve systematically collected articles from the politics sections of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC for analysis.  If you’d like to be alerted to this next post, please subscribe to my blog by clicking “Follow” up in the top left corner of your screen.

Update (Jan 23, 2013): I’ve posted Part 2 of my discussion of media bias, in which I look at the use of the word “income” in MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN’s coverage of the fiscal cliff negotiations.  You can find it here.

Update (Feb 3, 2013): I’ve posted Part 3 of this discussion of media bias.  I looked at how Fox News used “tax hikes” to portray tax increases negatively, whereas CNN used “tax revenue” to portray them more positively.

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Posted in Media discourse and media bias
3 comments on “Is the media biased? Can the study of language tell us? (Part 1)
  1. Matt Jurak says:

    Nick, this was clear, thorough, and cogent. I’m definitely working this into my lesson plans on tonal bias next year!

  2. Mai says:

    The photo exercise is great!

  3. Robbie Chan says:

    Hi there, I read your comment on Economist the other day and felt tempted to be here and it was informative. I’ll read on. Thanks.

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