Recently, while following the events that are unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, I have been aware of a significant amount of bias in the media, and a lot of “shaping the story.” As both a journalist and a creative writer, I want to draw your attention to how bias can creep into news stories, often undetected. Even when a story includes nothing but accurate facts, it can include bias. How does that happen? It happens when journalists, editors, and producers choose what stories or topics to cover, and what information to include.
Creative writers do this all the time as they write and revise their stories, essays, books, or even poems. They pick and choose particular scenes, images, and dialogue that will get across the main idea, or plot, or theme, that they want to present. In making these choices, they also leave out things that they don’t feel are important to the story.
The same thing happens in journalism. Let me give you an example. I am going to pick a random local story out of a random newspaper — let’s say, the Chicago Tribune.
Here’s the story: Police Put Ticket Scofflaws on Notice
Keep in mind, I am not choosing this story because it shows bias. I have no idea if it does. But I want to show you how it could be manipulated to create a very different effect with the same facts.
The first couple of paragraphs of this story, written by Michelle Stoffel, read this way:
“Scofflaws beware: Arlington Heights will soon be fully equipped to more easily boot vehicles and suspend driver’s licenses of those owing fines.
A new hand-held ticketing device will allow officers to catch repeat offenders and more efficiently enforce two-hour parking zones. Plus, tickets will be more durable and put inside brightly-colored envelopes.”
The story then goes on to explain in detail how the new system will work, and why the previous system was less effective and more unwieldy (but keep in mind, many people only read the first couple of paragraphs of any news story, which is why those initial paragraphs are so important).
What impression do you get from the headline, and the first two words: “Scofflaws beware…”? As a reader, you immediately get the sense that this story is about the good guys against the bad guys…and how the good guys have won a battle in an ongoing war because of this great new ticketing system. Now, police offers can “catch repeat offenders and more efficiently enforce two-hour parking zones.” The last paragraph of the story reads: “The new system, which cost $45,013 and came out of the department’s seizure funds, will be implemented in May.”
OK, maybe this is a great story, and a positive change for this community. It sure sounds like it. But let’s just do a little manipulating here. What if the headline read this way:
“Despite Recession, Police to Spend More than $45K on new Ticketing Device”
Wouldn’t that headline immediately make you think differently about this story? Now you might think, “In this terrible economy, the police are spending $45,000 on a way to give more traffic tickets?” Suddenly, the police are the bad guys.
And then, what if the story interviewed someone who was ticketed twice in the two-hour zone — both times because they were visiting their elderly Aunt. The first time, the Aunt cried and pleaded, asking the person not to leave, and the person got to their car just two minutes late and had a ticket. The second time, the Aunt became ill during the visit and had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Our hapless driver jumped into the ambulance with their relative and spent 5 hours in the emergency room, and returned only to find that their car had been ticketed a second time for being parked for more than two hours! The quote reads, “I swear to you, I’ve never had a parking ticket in my life. I work at a homeless shelter all day long and then come to see my Aunt, and now this!”
Maybe such a story make at least some readers think, “Those darn police! I remember when I got an unfair ticket!”
And what if the article then reported the amount of snow that had fallen in that neighborhood this winter, and how many fewer parking spots were available due to the weather?
I’m not saying that any of the above, besides the original news story, is true. It’s not. I made it up. But what I’m trying to show you is that what a journalist chooses to investigate and include in a story, including who they choose to interview, and which quotes they choose to include from that person, can create the effect that the journalist (or their editor) wants to create. It might not even be conscious. But it happens. Sometimes, it even happens for the most basic of reasons — maybe there was a paragraph in this story about the winter snowfall, but it had to be cut because the story was too long to fit in the allotted space, so the reader never gets to see it.
As I said, as creative writers, we do this all the time. We re-work words and sentences and choose what to put in a story, essay, or poem so that it will achieve the effect we are looking for. What is important to know is that the same thing happens in journalism. Trained journalists are taught to be as objective as possible, to include all sides of a story, and to report “just the facts, ma’am.” But in truth, it’s very hard to be completely objective.
All I ask is that you be aware of this. Don’t let any particular media outlet shape the story for you. Think for yourself.