Andrew Cline. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
Human communication always takes place in a context, through a medium, and among individuals and groups situated historically, politically, economically, culturally, and socially. This state of affairs is neither bad nor good. It simply is. Bias is a small word that identifies these influences.
All forms of communication are subject to multiple biases—personal biases, psychological biases, political biases, and cultural biases. Bias is generally thought to cause distortion in messages that might otherwise be delivered and received in some pure or true form. The antidote for bias is supposed to be something called objectivity. There are two senses in which to understand objectivity in communication. First, objectivity, similar to the scientific method, is an inductive process of gathering facts and presenting the truth based on those facts. Objectivity may also be understood as the “worthy” but impossible philosophical ideal of observing and describing reality “as it is” instead of how we wish it to be.
If bias exists, if communicators and audiences have social, political, cultural, and economic histories they cannot escape, then a pure or true form of a message cannot exist. As-it-is objectivity cannot exist. That said, human beings can be made aware of their biases and learn to mitigate them in communication. One could argue, however, that the desire to mitigate bias, and the techniques used to do so, simply introduces new biases into the message.
Some communicators speak from positions of political, economic, social, or cultural power. Politicians, for example, speak from positions of political power. They are certainly biased in favor of their ideological positions, and they may even be overtly partisan. They belong to parties and espouse dogmas and policies. And while they may think their individual ideologies are simply common sense, they understand that they speak from political positions. Citizens expect bias from politicians.
But what about powerful communicators who would have us believe that they speak the truth from a position of objectivity? Academics, for example, conduct research using well-established methods of inquiry that they believe help them develop theories about how the world works. Because academics are people constrained by the same influences as others, bias can be found in their messages.
The problem with bias is not that it exists, nor is it that bias somehow pollutes an otherwise pure message. The problem with bias is that it may distort a message sold to an audience as “objective.” What happens when the form of the message persuades us that the information is truthful yet the bias of the speaker distorts the truth?
This chapter will explore the role of bias in communication, focusing on the news media because it is in the arena of public affairs that the problems of bias seem most acute. Journalists attempt to get the facts and tell the facts without distortion. But this is clearly impossible because every act of communication requires some sort of structuring. Journalism is a heavily structured form. It is within the communicative structures of journalism that we find some interesting biases. At the dawn of the 21st century, the news media play a central role in politics and the so-called culture war, in which the clash of ideologies is often simplistically reduced to left versus right or liberal versus conservative.
Bias is a tendency, an inclination, or a bent that makes it difficult for us to communicate without prejudice. Bias indicates influences built into human cognitive and communicative abilities.
Theorists in cognitive science, such as Johnson and Lakoff (1999), contend that the human cognitive system is based on a human’s unique physical relationship to the world. For example, people walk upright and see the world with bifocal, forward-facing eyes. As a result, and with a few interesting exceptions, people across cultures tend to speak of the “good” as being a state of “up” and the future as a place “ahead” on the path. People have the ability to name and categorize the objects and sensations they encounter and use metaphor to compare objects and sensations. Comparison leads to evaluation—the determination of good or bad. And such evaluations lead to bias.
Bias, then, may play an important role in human evolution. Consider the hypothetical example of an early human tribe encountering a new environment. Their ancestors had long since learned that animals of a particular kind eat people. They learned to identify and categorize these animals by distinct characteristics that separate them from other more useful or less dangerous animals. The dangerous kind hunt and kill prey, with forward-facing eyes, sharp claws, and large teeth. As the tribe explores the new environment, they encounter a strange animal. But they notice that it moves with the same smooth ease as the man-eaters they have left behind. They notice that it has forward-facing eyes, long teeth, and paws that possibly hide retractable claws. It is unlikely that they will approach this animal for a closer look. It is far more likely that they will ready their weapons to defend themselves. And one reason for this will be bias—a prejudice against animals with the characteristics of a man killer.
This process is also known as stereotyping—making an evaluation about a new person, object, or sensation based on comparisons and generalizations following from those comparisons.
In the case of our exploring tribe, bias plays an important role in keeping its members alive by helping them create new knowledge. Bias allows them to compare the new objects they encounter with similar objects from their former home. And these comparisons allow them to evaluate the new objects before actually studying them. So bias and prejudice were important, early defense mechanisms, and the source of rational evaluations of new experiences.
Furthermore, bias plays a role in reproducing culture. Suppose that this tribe believes that the new creature is connected in some important way to powerful gods. Encountering the new animal may certainly create a dangerous situation, but it almost as certainly creates an interesting cultural moment: The powerful gods they fear and worship apparently inhabit this new land, too. And so they are able to impose their culture onto the new environment. They will be able to think and talk about their new surroundings in familiar ways. The things that they know to be good will remain good. The bad will remain bad.
Bias works in similar ways today. For example, suppose you enjoy live theater and prefer such entertainment to the movies. You might argue, in a discussion with friends, that the live performance of a particular work is far superior to the film version. Your bias in favor of live theater could cause you to overlook fine qualities in the film version. If you tend to speak about theater in consistently positive terms and speak about film in consistently negative terms, then your bias may be the cause. Your bias might even cause you to make sweeping generalizations about the quality of theater versus film.
A simple preference for live theater, however, may not be the only source of your bias. Perhaps you were raised by parents who actively promoted theater and disparaged film as low-brow entertainment. Perhaps they even made rude comments about the cultural norms and morals of people who enjoy the movies. Perhaps, as a result, you grew up believing that theater people are better than film people—associating theater with certain levels of education or a certain social and economic status. As a result of your upbringing, you may believe that movies are harmful to a proper culture.
All these influences—including family, socioeconomic status, and culture—contribute to your worldview or ideology. Ideology is the screen through which people see the world and make sense of it. Ideology is one of the foundations on which biases are built. So in addition to stereotyping, you may also think of bias as partly an outward expression of a worldview.
Bias of nearly any particular sort often appears to be merely common sense to the individual because of the role ideology plays in the formation of bias. Common sense is the feeling that an idea is true simply because it is painfully obvious. What makes it painfully obvious is ideology. Bias occurs in a message when you use common sense as your guide.
But suppose you have a plan. It is your goal to promote live theater and to denigrate film. So you start a weblog and write about how wonderful theater is compared with the swill offered by the movie industry. Furthermore, you make it a point to introduce the topic in discussions with people you meet. And you plan one day to write a book and appear as a guest on television talk shows so that you can further your goal of promoting theater over film. Such an effort may certainly fit your ideology, but it is not the result of bias. Instead, you would be engaged in propaganda—the systematic propagation of a doctrine or belief. In other words, if you are doing it on purpose, it is not bias. Bias is not intentional.
It is not possible to list all the things that influence a speaker and his or her message. Some influences, however, will be more important than others. And identifying these important influences—making the evaluation of important versus unimportant—will be subject to the biases of the investigator or critic.
The first consideration in evaluating a message for bias is understanding the complexities of the “rhetorical situation.” This concept identifies the circumstances under which a speaker chooses to speak. The concept relies on understanding a moment called “exigence,” in which something happens, or fails to happen, that compels one to speak. For example, if the local school board fires a popular principal, a sympathetic parent might then be compelled to take the microphone at the board meeting. Bitzer (1968) defined the rhetorical situation as the
complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence. (p. 6)
The following are eight of the elements of the rhetorical situation:
- Exigence: What happens or fails to happen? Why is one compelled to speak out?
- Persons: Who is involved in the exigence, and what roles do they play?
- Relations: What are the relationships, especially the differences in power, between the persons involved?
- Location: Where is the site of discourse? For example, a podium, newspaper, Web page, or street corner.
- Speaker: Who is compelled to speak or write?
- Audience: Who does the speaker address and why?
- Method: How does the speaker choose to address the audience?
- Systems and institutions: What are the rules of the game surrounding and constraining numbers 1 through 7?
Analyzing the rhetorical situation (which, at its most fundamental, means identifying the elements above) can tell us much about speakers, their situations, their persuasive intentions, and any biases they may have in regard to the situation.
Bias may also be studied beginning with one or more of four broad categories: ethnocentrism, in-group/out-group, stereotypes, and systems. These categories offer investigators a way to understand bias in terms of how the speaker is situated according to circumstances such as culture and racial/ethnic identity and according to direct influences on thinking such as group membership or professional practice.
Everyone is part of a culture. The discipline of anthropology demonstrates that culture consists of the combined ways of being of a group of humans that must be reproduced from generation to generation, including mythology, art, politics, language, and traditions. Cultures generally consist of people of like ethnic background. Culture teaches a people how the world works and why. Cultures, in other words, reproduce ideology. Cultural ideology appears to the members of the culture to be truth and common sense.
What is the “American way”? That term roughly identifies classical liberalism: representative government, self-determination, free markets, rule of law, and civil liberties. Americans are proud of this cultural tradition. Many Americans believe that the American way is really the only way, assuming that other people in the world would live similarly if only they learned how great the American way is. And Americans often find it surprising when people of other cultures reject the “gifts” of classical liberalism. There is nothing surprising about it. For many other cultures, it is truth and common sense that the fruits of American culture are poisoned.
Ethnocentrism, and the commonsense understanding of culture that drives it, sometimes leads people to assume that the words and deeds of those from other cultures are driven by irrationality at best and evil at worst. Bias based on ethnocentrism may then appear in the way a speaker assigns motive to those of a different culture in comparison with his or her own culture. The speaker may use consistently positive terms to describe the motivations of his or her own culture and consistently negative terms to describe the motivations of another culture.
Related to ethnocentrism are the concepts of in-group bias and out-group bias. Humans are social creatures and love to associate with fellow humans in numerous ways. Some groups form by choice—clubs, political parties, professions. The members of other types of groups belong whether they want to or not—age groups, gender, race. In-groups are associations of like members, and out-groups are either an opposing group or the entirety of the population not “in.”
Members of political parties belong by choice—choice driven by a number of historical, cultural, and familial factors. Part of what defines a group such as a political party is its ideology, which will naturally differ slightly or drastically from the ideologies of other parties. In other words, members of Party A are likely to see the world differently from members of Party B. They are likely to believe that their way of seeing the world is the truth and common sense. Members of Party B may be thought of as mistaken or, in extreme cases, as dangerous or evil.
Biases based on in-group and out-group associations work in ways very similar to ethnocentrism. A speaker may use consistently positive terms to describe the motivations of his or her own group and consistently negative terms to describe the motivations of another group.
One of the smart things humans do is place everything they encounter into categories. It is an important way of understanding the world. The first reaction to a new object or experience is to compare it with something else already known in order to make sense of it. And if the comparison is close enough, people metaphorically and mentally place it into the box with the appropriate label—a category.
One of the mistakes people make concerning categories is assuming that objects or experiences in a category are similar in other ways or all ways. Consider the category “teenager,” for example. All members of the category belong, if they are aged 13 to 19. Now, further suppose that you shop at the local mall and often encounter teenagers there who disrupt the social scene with obnoxious behavior. You further notice that people outside the category “teenager” do not seem to behave similarly. To assume, then, that all teenagers are obnoxious is to engage in stereotyping. To act with regard to this stereotyping—treating all teenagers you meet with contempt—is to engage in prejudice. If you speak about teenagers in consistently negative terms and assign negative motivations to their actions, then you are biased against teenagers.
As in the example of the early human tribe demonstrated above, however, stereotyping and prejudice are not necessarily always bad. Even the current example—concern about the behavior of teenagers at a mall—might not be entirely ill considered.
A system is any method or procedure, based on an ordered collection of facts and/or principles, aimed at producing a desired result. A system may also be a collection of coordinated objects that together create a technology aimed at producing a desired result. Systems introduce bias into a message because people use systems to create and deliver messages.
Journalism, for example, is a profession in which its members may feel a strong connection in terms of professional identity. Such identity could lead to various biases based on the individual journalists being part of an in-group. But journalism also has a regular system of procedures that dictate what journalism is and how the would-be journalist should produce it. The system of journalism—the norms of its professional practice—exerts a large measure of control over the kinds of messages a journalist may produce.
For example, journalists structure hard news articles (breaking news about immediate events) using the “inverted-pyramid” concept: The first two or three paragraphs answer the six reporter’s questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. This also happens to be the rough order in which most journalists use them because people appear to be affected by events happening now in a particular place for a particular reason and by a particular means. The events of the world and the human reactions to those events do not usually unfold in so neat a fashion as this structure. Hard news is biased toward a story of the world in which complex, and often ambiguous, events are presented in a simple hierarchy of importance.
Furthermore, journalists use various technological systems that introduce bias into the message. Television is a visual medium. Good journalism practiced in the medium of television is defined by the quality of pictures and sound. Some news situations are easily covered by television, for example, fires, car wrecks, protests, and mayhem of all sorts. There is an old saying in television news: “If it bleeds, it leads.” This may seem a cynical expression of journalistic pandering to the lowest common denominator. But it also demonstrates that television demands a certain type of content to be good television. The journalist who would hope to work in television is then encouraged to adopt the biases necessary to make it work.
The study of bias in communication is largely the study of texts by qualitative and quantitative methods. The news media provide an excellent opportunity to study bias. First, the news media produce an ever-expanding textual record of our world. And this record is captured and stored electronically, making it easy to find and study. Second, the charge of bias in the news media plays a role in the politics of the early 21st century. Most Americans experience politics through journalism, whose practitioners assert that they gather and present facts fairly, attempt to speak objectively, and deliver a message necessary to make democracy work.
Journalists, like politicians, speak from political, social, cultural, and economic positions, but usually not overtly, unless they are opinion journalists—columnists and pundits who are expected to interpret what they report. Journalists believe in the ethics of fairness and objectivity. These ethics have a strong influence on the profession. Fairness is understood as “getting both sides of the story.” In other words, journalists try to be fair by making sure that interested parties in a news situation have a say in the story. Journalistic objectivity is not the pristine objectivity of philosophy. Instead, a journalist attempts to be objective by two methods: (1) fairness to those concerned with the news and (2) a professional process of information gathering that seeks fairness, completeness, and accuracy.
It might seem that these journalistic ethics, and the process that supports them, would help reporters avoid bias and charges of bias. It might seem that journalistic practice is set up specifically to avoid bias. But the press today is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This may be simplistic thinking that fits the needs of ideological struggle. Perhaps it is not useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world. Groups such as Accuracy in Media (AIM) and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) thrive by critiquing the news media, based on opposite charges of bias—AIM charging liberal bias and FAIR charging conservative bias.
It should surprise no one that some charges of bias are politically motivated. Such motivation, however, does not explain why 69% of Americans believe that the news media are politically biased (Pew Survey Report, 2000). Instead, the answer is generally quite simple: Bias affects all parties in a communicative situation. Bias affects the messages speakers deliver. An audience’s own biases affect what it hears.
For citizens and researchers, it is important to develop the skill of detecting bias. Begin with a set of critical questions as follows:
- What is the speaker’s sociopolitical and cultural position? A given speaker may certainly have political or cultural intentions for a message. These intentions are not the source of bias. Instead, bias will arise from commonsense assumptions that spring from the speaker’s sociopolitical and cultural position.
- With what professional, social, ethnic, or culture groups is the speaker identified? Group members learn the biases of their group. In an important sense, a group’s biases, springing from its structure and worldview, define what the group is and who belongs to it.
- Does the speaker have anything to gain personally, professionally, or politically from delivering the message? Money, power, and prestige also play an important role in bias.
- Who is paying for the message? Where does the message appear? Who stands to gain?
- What sources does the speaker use, and how credible are they? Does the speaker cite statistics? If so, how were the data gathered, who gathered the data, and are the data being presented fully?
- How does the speaker present arguments? Is the message one-sided, or does it include alternative points of view? Does the speaker fairly present alternative arguments? Does the speaker ignore obviously conflicting arguments?
- If the message includes alternative points of view, how are those views characterized? Does the speaker use positive words and images to describe his or her point of view and negative words and images to describe other points of view? Does the speaker ascribe positive motivations to his or her point of view and negative motivations to alternative points of view?
Bias in the News Media
Much recent research demonstrates that simply deciding how to measure bias is difficult to do when dealing with a journalistic piece—a text with a complex rhetorical situation. This difficulty is compounded by audience reactions to the journalistic text. One study demonstrated, for example, that partisans of opposing camps both detect bias against them in the same news coverage (Vallone, Ross, & Lepper, 1985). Another study (Domke, Watts, Shah, & Fan P, 1999) suggests that the liberal-bias argument used during presidential campaigns is partly strategic and occurs most often when coverage of conservatives is favorable or a conservative candidate has a news advantage (i.e., sustained favorable coverage). Furthermore, a recent study found that the perception of bias in the news media was related to the number of charges and amount of coverage of bias but not to actual bias (D’Alessio, 2003). Another study in the same year, however, showed that personal discussions of political bias among like-minded people led to perceptions of bias in the news media (Eveland & Shah, 2003).
Perhaps more important than charging political bias is studying the inherent, or structural, biases of journalism as a professional practice—especially as mediated through television.
- Commercial bias: The news media are money-making businesses. As such, they must deliver a good product to their customers to make a profit. The customers of the news media are advertisers. The most important product the news media delivers to its customers are readers or viewers. The news media are biased toward news that draws readers and viewers.
- Temporal bias: The news media are biased toward the immediate and the fresh. To be immediate and fresh, the news must be ever-changing even when there is little news to cover.
- Visual bias: Television is biased toward visual depictions of news. Television is nothing without pictures. Legitimate news that has no visual angle is likely to get little attention. Much of what is important in politics—policy—cannot be photographed.
- Bad news bias: Good news is considered boring. This bias makes the world look like a more dangerous place than it may actually be. Plus, this bias makes politicians look far more crooked than they may actually be.
- Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of “stories” that must have a beginning, a middle, and an end—in other words, a plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news media apply a narrative structure to events, suggesting that these events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships. Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama. Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials to present conflict between the two sides of an issue. Last, narrative bias leads many journalists to create, and then hang onto, master narratives—set story lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.
- Status quo bias: The news media believe that “the system works.” During the “fiasco in Florida” following the 2000 presidential election, the news media were compelled to remind Americans that the Constitution was safe, the process was working, and all would be well. The mainstream news media never question the structure of the political system. The American way is the only way, politically and socially.
- Fairness bias: Ethical journalistic practice demands that reporters and editors be fair. In the news product, this bias manifests as a contention between/among political actors (also see “Narrative bias” above). Whenever one faction or politician does something or says something newsworthy, the press is compelled by this bias to get a reaction from an opposing camp. This creates the illusion that the game of politics is always contentious and never cooperative. This bias can also create situations in which one faction appears to be attacked by the press. For example, Politician A announces some positive accomplishment, followed by the press seeking a negative comment from Politician B. The point is not to disparage Politician A but to be fair to Politician B. When Politician A is a conservative, this practice appears to be liberal bias.
- Expediency bias: Journalism is a competitive, deadline-driven profession. Reporters compete among themselves for prime space or air time. News organizations compete for market share and reader/viewer attention. And the 24-hour news cycle—driven by the immediacy of television and the Internet—creates a situation in which the job of competing never comes to a rest. Add financial pressures to this mix—the general desire of media groups for profit margins that exceed what is “normal” in many other industries, and you create a bias toward information that can be obtained quickly, easily, and inexpensively. Need an expert or official quote (status quo bias) to balance (fairness bias) a story (narrative bias)? Who can you get on the phone fast? Who is always ready with a quote and always willing to speak (i.e., say what you need them to say to balance the story)? Who sent a press release recently? Much of deadline decision making comes down to gathering information that is readily available from sources that are well-known.
- Glory bias: Journalists, especially television reporters, often assert themselves into the stories they cover. This happens most often in terms of proximity, that is, to the locus of unfolding events or within the orbit of powerful political and civic actors. This bias helps journalists establish and maintain a cultural identity as knowledgeable insiders (although many journalists reject the notion that follows from this—that they are players in the game and not merely observers). The glory bias shows itself in particularly obnoxious ways in television journalism. News promos with stirring music and heroic pictures of individual reporters create the aura of omnipresence and omnipotence. Consider the use of the satellite phone with regard to glory bias. Note how often it is used in situations in which a normal video feed should be no problem to establish. The jerky pictures and fuzzy sound of the satellite phone create a romantic image of foreign adventure.
- Class bias: Journalists used to be working class. Early in the 20th century, the average journalist had a high school education and made a working-class wage. By midcentury, college graduates began showing up in newsrooms at America’s largest newspapers. But the working-class attitude persisted. The class status of journalism turned a corner in the 1970s. Reporters at smaller daily newspapers now have college degrees. And along with these degrees come greater earning power and a white-collar, middle-class lifestyle. Further separating journalists from the working class and poor is the ongoing move by corporate newspaper chains to cut back circulation among the poorest citizens because advertisers do not care to reach people without discretionary income. The result is that journalists, for the most part, have become socially, economically, politically, and culturally separated from the poor and the working class.
Structural Bias as Theory
Some critics of the press think of it as speaking with a unified voice with a distinct ideological bias. A better understanding requires a theory. A theory offers us a model that tells us why things happen as they do. Furthermore, a theory allows the user to predict outcomes and behavior. Assertions of ideological bias do neither. While the press does demonstrate ideological biases with regard to certain issues or other localized phenomena, these and other behaviors are explained and predicted by the structural biases. Since the press sometimes demonstrates a conservative bias, asserting that the press is liberal neither predicts nor explains. Since the press sometimes demonstrates a liberal bias, asserting that the press is conservative neither predicts nor explains.
Test this for yourself. Choose a situation that is current—preferably breaking right now. For each of the structural biases listed above, write down what you would expect the press to do, based on that bias. Then, complete the exercise with a concluding statement that takes into account as many of the structural biases as possible. Now, follow the situation as the news event plays out. Collect texts from numerous sources—local and national. The Associated Press is an especially useful organization to study because its structural and stylistic norms have been adopted by most news organizations.
Compare the evidence from the texts with the predictions you made. Were your predictions correct?
This exercise can also become the basis for original research in communication generally and the news media specifically. Any professional communication will operate with normative practices that define the communication. Those normative practices are the source of structural biases. Furthermore, the culture of the profession will dictate other structural biases. In the list of structural biases of journalism, note that some (e.g., temporal and narrative) spring from normative practice and others (e.g., expediency and class) spring from the culture of the newsroom.
Among the social sciences, the discipline of psychology pays the closest attention to the concept of bias. Three of the four general categories for studying bias—ethnocentrism, in-group/out-group, and stereotypes—come directly from this field. Bias in communication from a communication perspective offers a wide-open opportunity for the student researcher. Bias is understudied in communication.
Part of the problem, as mentioned above, is that a good metric for determining bias does not exist. Textual analysts may certainly detect, describe, and theorize about various forms of bias in a given text. But as yet no measure exists for determining bias in broad classes of texts such as journalistic writing.
Niven (1999), however, has suggested a technique for comparing the performance of specific news organizations under similar circumstances. His study developed a method of determining bias based on analyzing coverage of specific types of news events by different news organizations. For example, the Niven study looked at 20 years of coverage of Democratic and Republican governors who had achieved similar results in two specific policy areas: murder rates and unemployment. His contention was that differences in coverage must then be attributed to partisan bias if the governors of different parties achieved similar results. He found no support for allegations of bias based on his metric.
Although Niven’s results are interesting, they speak to a specific sort of situation. What about other types of coverage? Do his results hold up if the subject of the study is the coverage of state senators, presidents, or city managers? Niven’s technique creates interesting opportunities for future research.
Another interesting area of future study is the bias caused by how journalists use language. It is readily apparent that journalism has a language all its own. For example, journalists use specific and regular expressions for attributing quotes and asserting relationships among people and events, such as in location and time. Anyone communicating through a regular system and medium will also be operating with assumptions about language.
Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias into the message. If, as asserted earlier, there is no such thing as an objective point of view, then there cannot be objective or transparent language, that is, a one-to-one correspondence between reality and words such that a person may accurately represent reality so that you experience it as he or she does. Language mediates lived experiences. And evaluations of those experiences are reflected in language use. Rhetoric scholars generally accept that language cannot be socially or politically neutral; language reflects and structures our ideologies and worldviews. To speak at all is to speak politically. The practice of journalism, however, accepts a very different view of language that creates serious consequences for the news consumer. Most journalists do their jobs with little or no thought given to language theory, that is, how language works and how humans use language. Most journalists, consciously or not, accept a theory (metaphor) of language as a transparent conduit along which word-ideas travel to a reader or viewer, who then experiences reality as portrayed by the words.
Lakoff (2002) argues that journalism operates with many false assumptions about language. Journalists apparently believe, for example, that concepts are literal and nonpartisan. The standard six-question rubric of journalism (who, what, when, where, why, and how) cannot, however, capture the complexity of issues as seen through, and expressed by, incompatible ideologies. Journalists treat language use as neutral; the mere use of language cannot put anyone at a disadvantage: Words do not have a political reality. They are merely “arbitrary labels for literal ideas.” Following from this, journalists generally think that news can be reported in neutral terms. But to choose a discourse is to choose a position. To attempt neutrality confuses the political concepts. Is it an “inheritance tax,” a “death tax,” or an “estate tax”? What could possibly be a neutral term? Journalists believe that a general reader exists, and each shares the same conceptual system. Americans, for example, share the same English language, that is, its grammar. They often do not share dialects or the connotations of concepts, lived experiences, and ideologies. The statement “I am a patriotic American,” means something entirely different to liberals as compared with conservatives. This difference is more than a matter of connotation. The differences in connotation spring from different social constructs and ideologies.
For further research, perhaps these false assumptions by journalists, rather than overt politicking, help create some of the political bias the public detects in news reporting. A conservative will quite naturally assert a conservative worldview by using concepts in ways comfortable to conservatives. The same goes for liberals. It is often pointed out that most news reporters are Democrats or vote for Democrats. Party affiliation, however, tells us nothing about political ideology. There are conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Be that as it may, the ethics of journalistic practice strongly urge reporters to adopt the assumptions about language and the structural biases listed above. The ethics of journalistic practice encourage journalists to adopt a (nonexis-tent) neutral language to mitigate any effects of ideological bias. Could it be that there is no concerted or sustained effort to slant the news for political purposes by mainstream news outlets?
Antibias Crusading as an Elitist Practice
For further research: AIM claims that the news media are biased toward liberal politics. FAIR claims that the news media are biased toward conservative politics. Supporters of these views see one group as right and the other as wrong. But the reality is not that simple. Yes, AIM and FAIR each point out coverage that appears to bolster their various claims. At times, the media do seem to be biased one way or the other. What these groups do not say, however, is that their mistrust of the media is also a mistrust of the people. Those who complain the most about media bias would see themselves as able to identify it and resist it. They get upset about it because they question whether the average American is able to do the same. If the average American can identify it and resist it, then there is little need to get upset about bias. The AIM and FAIR Web sites are full of material to help hapless Americans avoid the cognitive ravages of the “evil” conservatives or the “slandering” liberals and their media lackeys. What if the average American is quite capable of identifying problems with news coverage?
Every communicative situation is saturated with bias because communication always involves people who are situated historically, socially, politically, economically, and culturally. If this is so, then bias simply indicates a natural state of affairs. Calling it “natural,” however, should not indicate that bias is an inert substance in the communicative solution. Some powerful communicators assert, overtly or otherwise, that their messages are objective in one sense or another and, therefore, demand your acceptance. Journalists and academics, for example, fall into this category. Bias matters in the messages of those who claim objectivity precisely because they use objectivity as a structuring principle for their messages and as a stance for their claiming of truth. The claim of objectivity, then, can be a powerful means of persuasion. Detecting bias in a message requires critical thinking; one must examine the rhetorical situation and the structuring frames of a given discourse for clues to how bias might affect a speaker and his or her audience.