A health-news story in The New York Times set me thinking about the kinds of biases working in the background that affect both reporting and headlines. This was sent to the Public Editor of the Times for his consideration; I got a response from his assistant indicating that it would be put on file for consideration in “possible future columns about headlines”.
One note: although it was only mentioned in passing in the letter, I think it is an under-emphasized point that, because of the way people read the newspaper, the placement (example and example) of pertinent information within a story can bias the reporting as much as the information itself. In most discussions of media “bias”, it is assumed that a valid defense against bias is that “both sides” are presented somewhere in the text. But few people actually read all stories all the way to the last paragraph. Many (perhaps most) people skim the headlines (either in print or online) for stories that interest them, then skim the first few paragraphs of stories they’ve chosen to read for the gist. If what they read in the headlines or in the first few paragraphs seems either to include all the important points or to reinforce what they had already assumed about the story, then they don’t bother to read the rest. Thus, for practical purposes and for most people, “balanced” information that is presented in the fifth or tenth or seventeenth paragraph may as well not have been included at all. I suspect that is a large part of the perception of bias.
21 January 2005
I’ve had an epiphany. I used to read the headlines and stories about what was happening in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in Washington and conclude that reporters were purposely focusing on the negatives and failures rather than on the positives and successes because they had a loathing for the President and for the Republicans, that they wanted to expose any failing and suppress any success to fulfill a ‘liberal’ political agenda.
Now I realize that the agenda is not political. I haven’t yet figured out what it is — cultural miasma or financial reward or fame? But it exists.
“Cancer Passes Heart Disease as Top Killer” screams the headline from your health section (online on 1/21/05; don’t know when it was in print), a headline guaranteed to scare people and to reduce their general happiness and sense of well-being. More bad news! The world is going to hell! We’re all doomed! And, by implication since this is cancer we’re talking about — and we all know it is modern technology and its by-products that invented cancer — They’re killing us!
Of course, if you actually read a few paragraphs into the story (but not just the first paragraph or two, which you might do if you are skimming for broad knowledge rather than delving deeply), you discover that this is actually good news — that the change results from the fact that both cancer and heart disease are on the decline (but with heart disease declining more quickly); that we are all safer and healthier than we used-to be; that we have less to worry about, not more.
So the New York Times and the rest of the media are not biased toward liberalism; they are biased against happiness and contentment and optimism.
Or perhaps it is a political agenda. People who are happy and content and optimistic tend to avoid radical change; and, if your political agenda demands radical change, the last thing you want is happy, content, optimistic people messing it up by voting for the status quo. Keep them miserable and anxious.
Or perhaps it is just about selling papers and winning Pulitzers.
Either way, it is not objective journalism.
© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell