Is the media biased? Can the study of language tell us? (Part 4)

In my recent posts I’ve been exploring the choices in language use (or discourse) that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC made when reporting on the recent fiscal cliff negotiations.  I said that patterns of choices that different writers or groups make can tell us about their biases (read more about this in my first post).  I also looked closely at the different uses of words like “income” in one post and “hikes” and “revenue” in another post.  This will be my final post on this topic for now.

My goal here is to look at the way the media outlets wrote about the different social actors that were involved in these negotiations.  In particular, I’ve chosen to look at “boehner” (as in John Boeher, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives) and “obama” (as in Barack Obama, Democratic President).  These two were widely reported on in all three news outlets.  They were often portrayed as the major players on either side.  Therefore, looking at how these men are talked about is likely to be a fruitful way of looking for biases in these media outlets’ reporting.

First though, I need to quickly talk about how we can analyze the choices writers make when talking about social actors (that is people who we say do things).  There’s one major distinction that is important here, and that is the difference between “agent” and “patient” (or “beneficiary”).  Agents are people (or perhaps things) that actually do things.  They are the doers of whatever the verb in the sentence describes.  Hence, “you” is the agent in “you are reading this blog”.  The patient is the receiver of the action.  “This blog” receives your reading in the previous sentence.  Don’t confuse these ideas with subject and object.  In the sentence “this blog is read by you,” “you” is still the agent (even though “you” is not the subject).  We can also talk about actors who have things done for them or to them.  In the sentence, “I read the blog for you”, “you” is the beneficiary.

Whether or not a social actor is an agent is an important indicator of how that individual is being discussed.  Being the agent may sound good, but this is not always the case.  Hence, being the agent in the sentence “he caused the fire” is not a positive thing.  Agents can be the doers of great things or the causers of misery.  Therefore, it’s important to think about what agents are doing before deciding how social actors that are often agents are portrayed.

I looked at how “obama” (also “the president”) and “boehner” (also “the speaker”) were used in each of the three corpora, as agents or patients (I also lumped beneficiaries and other categories into “patient”).  My analysis turned up the results presented below.  I’ve presented a ratio of number of times each man was the agent to number of times he was the patient in sentences in each corpus (remember a corpus is a collection of texts; the 3 corpora I’ve used here each contain news stories from one of three news outlets, click here to go back and read about this data).  Thus, if we look at the ratio for “boehner” in CNN, we’ll see that John Boehner was the agent 5.53 times for every one time he was the patient in a sentence.  This was a high agent-patient ratio.  Compare it to the others.  I’ve also presented for you actions that the men were represented as performing frequently (at least three times).  For example, in the CNN corpus, John Boehner “offered” a lot of things, and in all of the corpora both men “said” a lot of things.  In addition, I’ve presented words that formed phrases in which each man was a patient or beneficiary.  Hence, in the CNN corpus, the phrase “with boehner” or similar things were used, often to talk about meetings with John Boehner (this is actually true of both men).




So what does all of this mean?  Well let’s start by interpreting the agent-patient ratios.  “Boehner” was more frequently the agent in both CNN and MSNBC.  The reverse is true for Fox News, where “obama” was more frequently the agent.  This suggests that the writers in CNN and MSNBC chose to portray the fiscal cliff negotiations as largely driven by the actions and desires of John Boehner, whereas Fox News portrayed them as largely driven by Barack Obama.

Why might this be?  Well one possible explanation is that the fiscal cliff negotiations were not a positive experience for anyone involved.  It seems then that being the agent in these stories is likely not to be a good thing in many cases.   We can see this by looking at some of the actions the men are apparently performing.  For example, Barack Obama was frequently reported on as “wanting” things.  In the MSNBC corpus, he “wants the tax to revert to what it was…”.  In Fox News there was reference to the balance “obama wants”.  In the CNN corpus, Republicans were discussing “whether to give obama what he wants”.  He also “insists” on things in the Fox News corpus and “demands” things in the CNN corpus.  Taken together, he seems to be portrayed as a demanding individual, although at the same time also a powerful figure.

Compare this to how Fox News reports on John Boehner.  For example, he “offers” things (Both he and Barack Obama “offer” things in the CNN corpus as well though).  Even more so though Fox News presented Boehner as vulnerable from within his own party more so than the other two media outlets did.  Notice that he was “challenged” and he “faced” opposition (from within his own party).

So what do we see here?  Well I think we see something that’s not as simple as Fox News supports the Republicans, and the other media outlets support the Democrats.  To start with it seems as though the media’s reporting on Barack Obama was fairly similar.  In all cases he “wanted” things, and most of the actions he performed seemed to suggest that he was in a fairly powerful position.

Turning to John Boehner, it’s my interpretation that CNN and MSNBC reported on him in a very positive manner, especially in the CNN corpus, where he “offers” and “proposes” things, words that seem to be associated with positive movement in the negotiations.  Indeed, he was more frequently an agent in these corpora than Barack Obama was.  However, Fox News presented John Boehner differently.  He was less frequently the agent in the Fox News corpus than Barack Obama was.  He also seemed to be facing opposition.

I interpret this as MSNBC’s and CNN’s indicating implicit support for John Boehner and the compromises he was apparently willing to make as the leader of the Republican party.  However, even though John Boehner is a member of the more conservative party and Fox News is thought to be the more conservative media outlet of the three, their reporting undermines John Boehner probably due to his willingness to offer concessions to Barack Obama.

There’s a lot more that could be said about this topic still.  However, this will be my last post on the topic.  If you’re still interested in the topic though, feel free to comment below.   I am especially interested in whether any readers have noticed any other patterns in the discourse.  What do you see when you look at the data I’ve presented?

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Posted in Media discourse and media bias

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