Our Words Are Not Neutral: A Look at Media Bias

A few months ago, I started a conversation via Facebook with my cousin. She’d posted a link to an article, “Conservative vs. Liberal Beliefs” by StudentNewsDaily.com, and she added that it explained the major differences between conservative and liberal standpoints (within a US political framework). Among other opinions I offered, I said the author’s word choices seemed biased. My cousin challenged me on this point, and it led me to researching media bias.

Here I will review a few points on media bias (there are more forms of bias than I list here) and examine the “Conservative vs. Liberal Beliefs” article using this critique. 

1. There’s the practical matter of space and time. The New York Times famously publishes “All the News that’s Fit to Print.” Newspaper columns are only so big and internet screens can only capture the public’s attention for a particular length of time before one gets tired of clicking. Televised local newscasts are less than 30 minutes to fill you in on the day’s important events. These news organizations couldn’t possibly present every side or nuance of a story. The public’s appetite for news is voracious, as we’ve grown accustomed to the 24-hour news cycle and hearing about breaking news immediately from our friends and networks on Facebook and Twitter. These external pressures exist even as newsrooms shrink and professionals filing the role of “traditional journalists” wane – see this post on the recent Washington Post buyout – as major media organizations struggle to monetize page views and remain viable business entities. There are fewer people to write, research, fact-check and edit a single article with less time. There’s a lot of shades of grey, people and points of view that simply get left out.

In many representations of US political discourse, as in this article, only two parts of the spectrum are presented: Republican and Democrat. Presenting the current US political system in terms of two parties is polarizing because it is framed as a dichotomy: sides that oppose each other – which they often do – and that each grounds their actions on their own beliefs uniformly and reject what the other believes. This way of thinking does not include issues that or instances when members of both parties came to agreement. Yes, that actually happens! This dichotomy also leaves out the granularity of opinion within each party. It also excludes other political sensibilities on the political spectrum that are not often talked about in the media: Libertarians, Green supporters, Anarchists, Socialists, Communists to name a few.

2. There’s the difference between fact and opinion. What makes a fact a fact? Science tells us that a hypothesis becomes a theory when it is proven by observable, verifiable, repeated experimentation. (Actually everything is only a theory until we find the one black swan.) Facts are things that actually happened; they have sources and are documented, are backed by data and studies. Conversely, an opinion cannot be proven, does not have a source, is not backed by data or lacks citation of events corroborated by others.

This article states beliefs. Beliefs are mutable, exist only within our minds, and cannot be proven. This article’s title includes the word beliefs. But I take issue with this article because it presents beliefs as facts. One way the authors could have approached this conversation in a substantiated way might have been to cite how Democrats or Republicans on an aggregate level voted on specific laws by looking at the congressional record. Notably, not a single citation of fact backed by a secondary source is made in this article.

For example, in the Immigration section, the article says that Liberals believe that, “It is unfair to arrest millions of undocumented immigrants.” But in actuality, the administration under President Obama – who is a Democrat – has deported one million undocumented/illegal immigrants, on pace to deport more people from the US in one four-year term than George W. Bush, a Republican. These actions have disappointed many previously staunch Democrats and Obama supporters.

3.  All our words are biased. Every word has a history and etymology. A word’s use (or abuse) through the centuries is carried along. Examples include words considered pejoratives of people of ethnic backgrounds. The negative connotations associated with these pejoratives hardly, if ever, resolve or “go away” with the passage of time, and I would argue, despite efforts of individuals within the maligned ethnic groups to reclaim such words.

Let’s look at the use of stereotypes. How does what is presented as fact in any article “feel true”? Besides the facts, how does the story play into our personal stereotypes and biases? A story may “feel true” or “more factual” or “appear more prevalent” because it reinforces our personal biases. This article includes opinions on two stereotypes: the poor and terrorists.

In the Abortion section, the article claims that liberals believe that “the government should provide taxpayer funded [sic] abortions for women who cannot afford them.” This sentence singles out poor women. The common stereotype of the poor is that they arrived at their “situation” by making bad decisions. Still in the thick of the Great Recession, can 50 million poor Americans all have simply made bad decisions?

The article states that conservatives believe that “abortion is the murder of a human being.” Later, in the Homeland Security section, it says that conservatives believe that “terrorists must be stopped and destroyed.” Who are terrorists? The article defines terrorists as “primarily Muslim/Islamic men between the ages of 18 and 38.” The article defines terrorist by a racial and religious profile, and not by a set of actions. The article also promotes a double standard. Double standards show bias or preferential treatment or consideration of one group over another – a sign of media bias. This double standard indicates to readers that it is ethically acceptable to eradicate, kill or murder terrorists because they are not human beings – at least not in the same way that fetuses of American citizens are.

To finish, the conversation and rhetoric among our own family and friends may be fueled by the mainstream media in polarizing ways. But it’s both good and important to have these “uncomfortable conversations” about the great issues and ideas of the moment, especially with people who may disagree with our own beliefs. It’s worse to not have the conversation at all, and risk becoming what President Nixon called the Silent Majority.

In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. – Dr. King

Even the silent take a side.

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4 thoughts on “Our Words Are Not Neutral: A Look at Media Bias

  1. Hi!! We have found very interesting your post about Media. There are some points which we didn’t think about before, and they make a lot of sense. We have recently done a research about how Maps are also manipulated and ditorted for a course at university, this was helpful! 🙂

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