One or two words can make all the difference in what a news article says — or doesn't say.
People have been complaining about bias in news stories for as long as newspapers have been around. Common wisdom holds that reporters and editors have a political agenda — conservative or liberal, whichever is the opposite of the views of the complaining party — and craft news stories in a way that furthers their agenda.
Such a scenario isn't altogether unheard of. The further back one goes in the history of newspapers in this country, the more common was the practice of publishing newspapers for the express purpose of promoting a particular political ideology.
But the business of reporting and editing has by now been so thoroughly professionalized by the preponderance of academic degrees in journalism -- with the often un-examined deification of "objectivity" as ultimate measure of quality -- that bias in news is a phenomenon defined by nuance and subtlety rather than blatant activism.
That's not to say bias, slant and opinion don't make their way into news stories that have been written with a conscious effort to be objective. Sometimes it's a function of lazy writing and editing, and sometimes it's lazy thinking. Consider some recent examples of crime reporting in The Cincinnati Enquirer.
We all expect newspapers to be against crime, of course; we assume that reporters assume crime is bad and should be stopped. Thus, right from the start we've agreed to a dilution of objectivity in how these things are written about.
But a close look at the language used in a story also reveals a frame of mind or value system that's assumed by the writer.
• The Enquirer's Jennifer Baker recently wrote about the trial of a man charged with aggravated murder in the beating death of his girlfriend's 7-year-old son. In describing the charges, Baker writes, "The beating was discipline the boy's mother knew about but failed to stop, Hamilton County prosecutors have said."
Because the events involve an adult and a child, the beating is cast as "discipline," as though the child somehow deserved something of what he got. If the deceased were an adult, the word wouldn't have been used. What assumptions are revealed by its use here?
• In an Enquirer story about a teenager run over by a car while skateboarding, Amber Ellis describes the social ties between the child and the driver, who was not charged with any offense. The story says, "These ties further complicated the tragic and senseless death of a promising teenager."
Almost every reader would agree: The death was tragic and senseless. But is saying so objective?
• The final example is an Enquirer story about a law restricting skating in New Richmond. Barrett J. Brunsman used what must have seemed a clever word to describe the kids who get caught: "Cops can now confiscate the skateboards or inline skates of scofflaws." Unfortunately he used the same word several paragraphs later: "Such scofflaws pose a danger to both themselves and the public in this Ohio River village of 2,219 people, according to the ordinance that took effect Dec. 13."
To make it worse, an editor at The Enquirer was so taken with the offbeat word that she or he put it in the headline: "Police now can take scofflaws' skates." That kind of piling on takes away the charm of the word when it was used once. But more to the point, is it objective to keep calling skaters "scofflaws?"
Because the writer is talking about kids, we know a certain amount of humor is implied. But that doesn't make it objective.
CONTACT GREGORY FLANNERY: firstname.lastname@example.org