Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On How to Get Your Tongue Unstuck

On How to Get Your Tongue Unstuck

ed·i·to·ri·al·izeverb, to inject personal interpretations or opinions into an otherwise factual account.

It is quite difficult for a human who has strong opinions to write a news article devoid of editorial comments stemming from his personal biases. These comments often creep into articles in the form of descriptive adjectives that convey matters of judgment, although they can be found in other descriptive words. Good editors are supposed to find and expunge such from articles prior to print, but sadly, good editors seem to be non-existent at present.

So, why is editorializing in news articles bad? Because the writer is telling the reader not what happened, but rather what to think about what happened. This leads to “group think” and biases readers. In the case of an ongoing murder trial, for example, this practice can result in the accused receiving an unfair trial by his peers and being wrongly convicted.

Editorializing is extremely prevalent in political reports because almost all writers have very strong convictions about their politics. This is very dangerous because it gives an enormous amount of power to the news media in swaying public opinion and shaping the political landscape. I suppose we are just fortunate that we have both conservative and liberal news outlets to balance each other out. *sigh* It is also my opinion that biased news reports are in a large way responsible for polarizing the public.

I have noted that while many people accuse the media of being biased, these same people seem to think that only the media that opposes their own views is biased. The truth is this: editorializing is found in both conservative and liberal news outlets. One of the valuable exercises we did in my high school journalism class was to take the two town papers, one liberal and one conservative, and compare news reports from each about the same event. It was eye-opening to find that the articles seemed to be about two entirely different events. Then we had to correct each without editorializing.

Just to prove that the bias exists on both sides, here are two examples from around the 2012 elections.

From the Washington Times, a conservative news paper.

Obama to break recent precedent, will stump during RNC
August 23, 2012

In discussing President Obama’s decision to campaign during the GOP convention, the writer stated: “By going on the road, Mr. Obama is bucking protocol. Incumbents usually stay home while the opposing party plots their defeat.”

The verb “bucking” means “to resist or oppose obstinately; object strongly to.” “Obstinate” is a matter of judgment and casts a negative light on the President’s decision to campaign during this time. Therefore, the word “bucking” is inappropriate and unnecessary in this news report.

What the reporter should have said was something like:

“By campaigning on the road during the GOP convention, Mr. Obama is going against the long-standing tradition of staying home during the opposing party’s convention.”

From the Washington Post, a liberal news paper.

Mitt Romney says plan will achieve North American energy independence by 2020
August 23, 2012

The writer began his article with: “Mitt Romney morphed into a traveling salesman here Thursday as he gave his best pitch for an energy plan that’s big on loosening environmental regulations and expanding domestic oil drilling and coal production.”

First, while I appreciate the amusing phrase, “morphed into a traveling salesman”, it belongs in a creative writing exercise, not a news article. Sorry, news articles are not about being creative.  They are about reporting facts. Second, “traveling salesman” has a bad connotation in our society. Most people don’t like solicitors and some get outright hostile toward them (myself included, if it’s on the phone). To draw a parallel between Mr. Romney’s campaigning and a “traveling salesman” is to cast a negative light on what he is doing. Next, “best pitch”. “Best” is a superlative, implying that Mr. Romney cannot do any better. Determining if something is “best” is judgment call. Judgment calls have no place in news reports. The “traveling salesman” parallel and the use of the superlative “best” are inappropriate and unnecessary in this news report.

What the reporter should have said was something like: 

“Mitt Romney campaigned in Hobbs, New Mexico, on Thursday, highlighting his energy plan, which features less environmental regulations and more domestic drilling and coal production.”

And so, my challenge to all my friends is this: if you are conservative, read a news article from a conservative news outlet and look at the descriptive words used. Pull out your dictionary and look at the connotation associated with the words. Is the connotation something that falls in the category of “judgment call”? If so, it’s editorializing and biased. And for my liberal friends, do the same thing only looking at news articles from liberal outlets. In my own experience, I have found it easy to spot editorial comments in news articles with which I disagree, but difficult to spot in those with which I agree. Why is this? Because we often think our own opinion is fact. It is not. While it is hard to see bias in statements with which we agree, it is not impossible. But you do have to train yourself to look for it. And once you do, you can begin to get your tongue unstuck from the extreme political polls. 

I Triple Dog Dare You ;)

Addendum, 3/19/2015:
This issue applies equally (and possibly more so) to cable news stations and shows. A 2013 report from the Pew Research Center on The State of the News Media 2013 found that Fox News injects opinion into 55% of its material. CNN was similarly found to inject opinion 45% of the time. MSNBC? A whopping 85% of the time. For the purposes of this study, a story was considered to be commentary/opinion if at least 25% of the time, it included opinionated statements. 

Both Business Insider and Forbes reported on this study.  As the writer in Forbes said, "If you’re like most cable news viewers, you probably think the channel you favor has a monopoly on the facts and the other ones are nothing more than a bunch of ranting. In fact, which cable network is the most opinionated is not a matter of opinion."  Viewer beware.

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