This very common kind of bias is all the more effective because it is subtle.
Out-and-out left-wing bias is too obvious and has become rare. But the harder to spot point of view bias has largely replaced it. Objective, unbiased journalism should have these characteristics:
- The subject of the story receives the bulk of the attention
- Exact quotation is preferred to indirect summaries
- The point of view of the subject dominates the beginning of the story
- Balance is provided by briefly citing the opposing side at the end of the story
- Any comments from the journalist should be germane, necessary, and completely neutral
One way to shift the point of view of a story devoted to A is to spend more time elaborating the point of view of favored B than unfavored A. This is commonly found when under the guise of balance the journalist gives A a brief point or two and then gives more space to B’s rebuttals. Another way is for the journalist to bring in an omniscient speaker, rebutting the unfavored point of view. Editorial comments can only be justified to supply new, neutral information needed to understand the story, but not needed to express the journalist’s personal notion of the truth or the facts. It should be free of weasel words like “nevertheless,” “however,” “but,” “despite,” and the like. But it is all too easy to drop in information from B’s talking points or to introduce (errors in) mathematics or statistical interpretation favoring the journalist’s point of view.
Recent examples are the reporting of the differences between the Republican-controlled Missouri legislature and the Democrat Governor. Stories about proposals and legislation passed by the Legislature are always viewed through the lens of the Governor’s objections. Sometimes much more ink is devoted to what the Governor and Democrats think about the proposals than to the reasoning behind them. Needless to say, when the headlines dealt with the Governor’s issues, the point of view in the stories was not Republican. If Republicans are allowed to speak for themselves, it is usually only at the end of the story.
A weekend story from the Associated Press affords a good opportunity to highlight this bias. The headline is:
Emboldened House Conservatives Planning Next Steps
AP dispatches are commonly edited by local papers. Your local paper’s version may be different. From the headline we expect that the point of view will be that of conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives. But – surprise – much of the reporting is from an unidentified, but clearly not conservative point of view. The second paragraph – since most stories are not read to the end, the earliest paragraphs are most important – talks of ‘slim hopes for ambitious bills on immigration and voting rights.’ Who harbors these ‘slim hopes’? Certainly not conservative Republicans. Those are Democrat issues. Two paragraphs later we read that Cantor’s loss ‘dashed any dimming prospects for far-reaching legislation.’ Given a Democrat Senate and President, any far-reaching legislation would have to be from the Democrats’ agenda. The words ‘dashed,’ ‘slim’ and ‘dimming’ betray the point of view of partisans of Obama’s legislative agenda. The casual reader expecting neutral journalism is invited to join ‘most people’ in thinking that Cantor’s defeat and conservative plans are really not favorable developments.