Adverbs and Anxiety: A Recipe for Media Bias

I now recognize myself as a biased thing, a revolting ogre who sees issues as lensed and colored, who gorges his narrow, small-minded maw on narrow, small-minded beliefs. In this recognition (and revelation), I’ve found freedom. Because recognition is the first step to questioning your bias, to embracing the risk that you’ll prove yourself wrong. This recognition has moved me from Republican to Independent. And it’s exposed me to a world beyond my whiteness … to the arguments of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the insights of Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Without this recognition, the Great Golden Lie is fostered … that you are always right and that your rightness is both moral and upright. It’s this Great Lie that poisons democracy because rightism is the divinity of all destructive factions. Concerning factions, Madison said:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points … have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

Take for instance my old assumption (the best) that our media is “impartial.”

This, I now see, is a lie.

The Press As Sovereign

I strongly support the media, its constitutional necessity, its check upon the shadows of government. “Fake news,” as a media slur, makes me bristle, both for its censure and its myth. But in decrying this myth, the biased (my old self included) refuse to acknowledge the monster that truly is. Because our media is neither balanced nor neutral nor factual. Upon deeper reflection, it is preferential and sided and sensational.

One example .. .the media’s coverage of Trump post-election. Let me double down here: I’m a registered Independent, I’m not a Trump fan, and I don’t believe (strongly don’t believe) in his allegations of conspiracy. And while I think my “belief” is correct and irrefutable, it’s not the media’s job, right, responsibility, duty, cause, etc. to foster or blunt my belief. Rather, it’s the media’s job to present neutrally and factually, without any intent to sway or indoctrinate. Despite this, a few days after the election, NBC used the following language in a flagrant attempt at populous sway:

President Trump falsely claims fraud in vote counting.

Draw a line down the middle, one that represents neutrality, and “falsely claims” abhors that line. “Falsely claims” is a decision made for us, a biased accusation of lying. In a neutral world, lack of proof or inability to prove isn’t a lie. Rather, it’s reported as an “allegation,” like the “alleged” criminal (to be judged, not by our media, but by our courts). To clearly see this bias, here are the two concepts contrasted:

Trump falsely [not in accordance with truth or fact ] claims fraud ….

Trump alleges [to claim or assert that someone has done something illegal or wrong, typically without proof] fraud ….

Maybe you — left-winged and factionally myopic — can’t see this bias in the NBC headline. If so, then you can’t see it in the following either:

Joe Biden has been truthfully accused of acting inappropriately toward women.

Georgia has been truthfully accused of committing election fraud by Trump attorneys.

The Press As Boogeyman

Beyond the adverbial, there is another, yet more subtle, bias in our media, one built into headlines and steeped in the art of fear. Headlines — many sensationalized, many frightening — are intended to capture attention, spark emotion, and (in support of capitalism not neutrality) sway readers from other publications. This is not “fake news,” a concept I abhor. It is, however, “sensationalized news,” a/k/a “yellow journalism”.[1]

  • Sensationalism — the use of exciting or shocking language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.
  • Yellow Journalism — journalism that is based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration.

For example, this headline from The Atlantic — a publication I highly respect — is intentionally horrific, an open-ended question that leans into its assumed answer: that “many Americans are about to die!.”

The Atlantic’s headline[2] is a cunning bias, one that breathes oxygen (intentionally) into America’s inferno of chaos and fear. To choose dread over calm … this is a bias no matter how you spin it. The headline — ”How Many Americans Are About To Die?” — reads like the apocalyptic threat in a Bruce Willis movie. In an earlier article — The Yellow Headline (a/k/a How I Lost Faith In Objective Media) — I highlighted this deep love for threats at the expense of neutrality:

Once within a story or article, you-the reader-are afforded the freedom to judge words rightly and wrongly, to research beyond the printed word (a studied exercise everyone should habituate). However, the yellow headline doesn’t afford the reader this freedom because it isn’t the story itself … it’s a fragment, a whisper, a disingenuous microcosm, a mesmerizing flash of hypnotism.

These things are like surface water to depth: to accurately measure the latter, one has to dive beyond the former. A sensational headline can’t be judged on its own merit because one must first walk through the sensational, into the story itself, and then judged backwards. There’s an unfairness to this, a trickery played upon the reader. And it’s a black mark upon our mediaone I’m recognizing more and morethe bait-and-switch, melodrama over mere truth, yellow headlines intentionally written to fool and (let’s hope not) to bias the reader.

Some people in this country, including those in the highest echelons of our government, like Scott Atlas, the Stanford radiologist who now sits on the coronavirus task force, have done everything they can to play down the danger of the virus in the United States.

  1. Why the open ended question? Why not a simple (and fact-based) sentence?[3]
  2. And why the leading (and frightening) suggestion (i.e., “many Americans are about to die!”)?

Neutrality … facts … they find solidity in lifeless words, in structured sentences that bore you with order, sterility, and monotony. They lose solidity — soaked in the sensation of bias — when couched as overly-emotional headlines … headlines that skew the middle in favor of adrenaline and alarm. Think of it this way: if I was to enter the offices of The Atlantic, which would be the more neutral approach:

  • To quietly enter and shout “I’m here to deliver lunch,” or
  • To quietly enter and shout “How many Americans are about to die?”

The Press As Shepherd

There’s an argument to be made that we, as Americans, need media bias, that those who report should nudge us — for the greater good — in the “right” direction. In the NBC example[4] framing Trump in a “false claims” light is theoretically important to insuring a free and fair election. And regarding The Atlantic, the stoking of fear might be upheld as our best protector against Covid outbreaks and viral spread.

Both arguments are defensible, and more importantly, both can be justified by the greater good. When our freedoms and our safety are at risk, the sheep[5] (theoretically) need a guide, and the media — as we’ve seen — won’t hesitate to play our biased shepherd. But if this is the case, then the rules have changed. Instead of neutrality, our media now chooses for America, pushing us along the “correct” path and concealing the “injurious” alternatives.

Maybe this is okay. But if it is, then we must be upfront and transparent. No more myths of a free and neutral press. No more triumphs of reason over error. Because if we are to be herded by talking heads and typing shepherds, any claim of neutrality is a “false claim,” one that raises the sensational question:

How many dissenters are about to die?

[1] In the spirit of “If it bleeds, it leads,” a newspaper editor once told me that he followed “airplane logic” when he reported a story. “Readers,” he said, “don’t want airplane landings on the front page. They want airplane crashes. It’s the crashes that make great headlines.”

[2]One might argue that this is just one headline, that it is a rogue event and not a large-scale symptom of the media. For more examples, refer to my earlier article The Yellow Headline (a/k/a How I Lost Faith In Objective Media).

[3]This is exactly what The Atlantic did with its subheading:

A new analysis shows that ….

[5] The sheep analogy has historical relevance in sounding the liberties’ alarm:

If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.George Washington

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.Edward R. Murrow

Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.Isaiah Berlin

There is truth in the old saying, that if you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you.Benjamin Franklin

Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.Possibly Benjamin Franklin

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life