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by
Scott Ott

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June 18, 2014 - 9:59 am
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One of the things I learned early in my journalism training at Penn State is that a reporter can manipulate the meaning of events through word choices and source choices while appearing to remain an objective chronicler of the world as it is.

Case in point: Washington Bureau Chief Dan Roberts reports for The Guardian on the importance of Obamacare in this year’s U.S. Senate race in North Carolina between Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis.

I’ve done a seminar for high school students on how to read the news, so let’s have a little journalism clinic right now, to discover how a reporter’s word and source choices subtly sculpt your perception of the campaign, the healthcare issue and the respective politicians and their parties.

Budding journalists learn “inverted pyramid” style: a reporter must pack the most important information at the top of the story, because many readers won’t make it to your second paragraph. Here’s Dan Roberts’ first graf [that's journo lingo for paragraph].

The closest-fought election in this November’s knife-edge battle to control the US Senate may come down to a referendum on a subject that everyone has an opinion on but few voters can claim to fully understand.

In addition to portraying voters as ignorant, I’m sure you noticed the dramatic action words — closest-fought, knife-edge, battle, control — in the first sentence.

This aggressive language hopes to woo readers from the sports section to the “hard news.” It’s an attempt to make soft-handed geeks in silk ties sound like bone-crushing middle linebackers in the Super Bowl. (And to make the reporter seem more vigorous as well.)

As you read through Roberts’ piece, you’ll find other examples that make it seem like the reporter would rather write from Tal Afar than from Charlotte: skirmish, exchange of artillery, rival, war of the airwaves, rhetorical battle, defeat, rebel, seized, terrified, dashed, heated ideological cauldron, attack, livid, battleground, enemy, fight, bitter.

This is the hook, the idea that there’s drama here so you should care. The reporter sinks that hook again and again in nearly every graf. He portrays the match as even in the polls and in campaign cash, and says the decisive factor which will swing the result is what people think of Obamacare. Of course, as we’ve recently seen in Virginia, Rep. Eric Cantor’s drubbing by a relative unknown can’t be pinned on just one factor, but that doesn’t stop the armchair quarterbacking in political journalism.

Next, let’s scrutinize how the reporter portrays the two candidates: Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis [emphasis added below].

Speaking to reporters next to a golf course on the day he received an endorsement from former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina general assembly, looks more at home in the prosperous suburbs and country clubs of Charlotte than a firebrand in the Tea Party mould.

Tillis is later described as “oblivious” to what’s happened on Capitol Hill regarding budget compromises. Roberts echoes Democrat attack ads noting that Tillis received support “from outside donors such as the Koch Brothers…National Right to Life Campaign, the National Rifle Association and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Along with the Romney endorsement and proximity to a prosperous suburb and country club, what does the reporter want us to think about Mr. Tillis? (Somewhere, a hound cocks his ear to the skirl of a whistle.)

The journalist notes also that Sen. Hagan accuses Mr. Tillis of blocking a Medicaid subsidy that “she says would have benefitted 500,000” North Carolinians. Medicaid, as you know, is a program for the poor.

Normally, I’d overlook the photo choice, since the reporter doesn’t generally make that, but in this case, the combination of Thom Tillis’ grim visage and the salute-like wave contribute to the overall portrayal in the story. Take a look on the next page.

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Top Rated Comments   
I had the privilege in public school of having a English teacher that actually had us read propaganda and dissect it. The side effect is that I can't watch or read most news now.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
With a sufficient vocabulary, a few selected quotes and characterizations, it is fairly easy to nuance a story to influence most audiences with whatever impression you wish. It happens almost constantly. It's why I rarely bother with broadcast news, news magazines or newspapers anymore. Even when telling the truth, it reads like lies.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
In the Air Force we had the Tongue & Quill, a military guide to effective writing and inside its pages, The Buzzword Generator which would produce such gems as:

"Integrated Third Generation Projection" and the like.

You simply chose one word from each of three columns to come up with a nifty-cool sounding gizmo or program to impress the reader or briefing attendants.

Also in its pages is the sentence:

“Jargon allows us to camouflage intellectual poverty with verbal extravagance.” Which is why most "journalism" reads like an eleventh-grader's attempt at sounding exciting or intelligent when they clearly lack the life-experience to give a realistic or even accurate first-hand account of, well, pretty much anything.

This is what passes for "journalism" these days when in reality, most articles are the same schlocky sales BS that the average car dealers throw at you and are also very close to anything Sham-Wow or K-Tel (remember them?).

So send no money now, we'll bill you later, but wait, there's more!

UGH

I noticed it happening in the 70's. Then, there's the heavily employed TV "news" format where the on-the-street talking head "introduces" the subject, then cut-away to the more polished but no more informative segment videotaped by the same talking head, then finishing up with a closer by the same talking head on the scene.

Typical of their taped segment's openers are:

"It was a day like any other"
"Little Becky was just playing outside with her friends"
"No one could imagine this quiet, peaceful neighborhood etc., etc."

And they all do it nationwide, probably everywhere in the fully westernized world.

And it's sickening. Formatted, made to elicit emotion (always always get the crying family member in there) and pathetic.

But who wants to watch, "Stupid ignorant minority moron shot and killed another stupid, ignorant minority moron"?

However, I was taught by very intelligent English teachers that all that is efficacious garbage and never even comes close to either reporting the news or even telling a story. It's something unnatural and generally ends up like a turtle on a fencepost.

As in: OK....so where do you go with that?

"I'm (insert typical catchy reporter name here) reporting from (scene of event) for (insert "eyewitness", "Instant", "Newscenter" 4, 6, 8, 12, etc), back to you, Tom, Cindy, LaQueesha, etc.

It's just awful and such an overly-lacquered thing that it stopped me from ever watching even the most important news of the moment, such as a Space Shuttle disaster.

Yet, they all seem to demand high drama in the least little thing. This tells me that they are NOT in the news business but in the ratings business and competing against other similarly schlocky craptacular productions elsewhere in the same time slots.

But, if that's what the stupid, ignorant, incredibly vacuous minds of America want, that's what they get.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (34)
All Comments   (34)
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Stories like this always make me remember my Logic professor in college. He discussed the subtle ways language can be skewed to influence thinking. He referred to words as being eulogistic (gentleman), neutral (man) or dislogistic (bum). When I read news stories, or hear them on the air I'm always evaluating the language based on this criterion. Surprising how transparent the slant frequently is.

The other thing he said was when someone has lost a logical argument you can always count on the ad hominem attack - so true.
17 weeks ago
17 weeks ago Link To Comment
I was a teenager in the late 60s when Walter Cronkite was busy undermining support for the US effort in Vietnam. My father used to shout at the TV as he watched Walter slant the war news through subtle word choices and things like raising his eyebrows and negative facial expressions. I thought my dad was crazy -- but of course realize now how perceptive he was. As many others have commented, it is difficult to watch broadcast news and read most newspapers because the twisting of the facts to support the liberal point of view is so blatant to those who can see it.

It's clear to me that most reporters are products of the liberal echo chamber--their only exposure to views that contradict the liberal view of the world is in the form of sarcastic, eye-rolling put-downs of conservative views. 100% of the people in their world agree with the liberal view of the world, so in their minds, they are not slanting the news, they are telling the "truth" and are on the side of the "good." None have an inkling that an opposing viewpoint could be legitimate. Without a fair representation of moderates and conservatives in the TV newsrooms and at most newspapers, it's hard to see how the distorting of the news will ever change.

Perhaps those who have suggested that conservatives acquire more newspapers, mainstream magazines, and TV stations are on the right track.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Excellent article and comments, as usual. I find myself looking at word usage as well - how it slants the article tone.

Two things - I've read articles on areas where I do have expertise and found that the journalists get 50% or more of the information wrong - and it makes me cringe and then realize when I read their articles on areas in which I don't have expertise, that I need to realize that 50% of the information may be wrong.

Second, when I was stationed in Europe, one of my jobs was to read all of the papers about international affairs...I found that most were center left or left in their leanings in the hard news sections and then either right or left on the opinion page. The same paper would have an article on some incident and an editorial and the article would slant left and if the editorial page was right, would slant right. How they presented the facts to bolster their view, who they quoted, and how they used their quote was the difference. I had to wade through opinion everywhere to get the facts...and many times I was matching that against cables.

I agree with cfbleachers, that a little seminar on how to read news or frankly any article in any area to determine how biased it is would be one of the great services to the readers. Next up could be how scientific papers can be skewed, but that's a bit more complicated as one would really need to understand statistics - it's doable, though, and one can do some quick checks on sample size, and p values to determine whether or not the statements made are accurate. One can also critique the design of an experiment to determine if the hypothesis is actually being tested. I learned that in "Journal Club,' after I got my masters....BIG eye opener.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Perhaps that's what the pros call balance, my friend -- skewed in both directions at once.
18 weeks ago
18 weeks ago Link To Comment
And then there is the Houston Chronicle....if they drop the comics and the crossword puzzle, I'm outa there. JimB
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good article and reminder. Another flawed composition technique involves the use of the absolute when setting up the storyline conflict. Thus, in the opening paragraph of the article, the author notes that Obamacare is a subject "few voters can claim to fully understand". Note the word "fully". I wonder if Einstein would claim to fully understand physics. I wonder if any mother or father would claim to fully understand parenting. Even among those who have read the PPACA, or whose job involves administering or advising on aspects of the law, I would bet that zero of them would say they "fully" understand it.

I think fully all of humanity (sic) can at best strive for an adequate or sufficient understanding of a subject. A voter who sufficiently understands where the PPACA stands in relation to their own political philosophy is an adequately informed voter and need not be relegated to the default catch-all category of those dim bulbs who merely have an opinion on the subject.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Great point! Thanks.
18 weeks ago
18 weeks ago Link To Comment
The author should not be allowed to approach high school students until he comprehends that the past participle of 'to lead' is 'led', not 'lead'.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks for catching that typo. I have repaired the offending past participle.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
The "Sieg Heil" photo is the icing on the cake, of course. No such thing as coincidences…not in "journalism" anyway.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Barack Obama is the Symptom - the Mainstream Media is the Disease.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
I just got a line on the official media response to the upcoming November Republican landslide;

DON'T GET COCKY REPUBLICANS, THE VOTERS ARE GIVING YOU ONE MORE CHANCE TO SUPPORT OBAMA'S AGENDA.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is brilliant, Scott. It should be a regular PJM series.

I have watched the news and read the news for years...as a cross-examiner would examine witness testimony on the stand or working through a deposition or statement.

Not merely for inconsistencies and "tells"...but for logical fallacies, word usage, placement and intentional bias.

There is not a single political story of ANY significance out of the lapdog media that isn't rife with "propagandist trip wires" in most major "news" outlets. I no longer can stand the task.

I get "triggered".

But most people would not believe some of the subtleties of advanced propagandists. It comes not only in word choice, inflection, pictures/diagrams/visuals, facial expressions and attitude.

I can think of no one better than you to lead us through Propaganda 101.

I most certainly would join in the comments each and every time.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks for the encouragement. I do this naturally as I read, and didn't think much of it until yesterday. Perhaps I shall follow your suggestion.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Please do.

We really would benefit from more of Scott Ott in the front of this site, instead of the back room.

Ditto for Bill Whittle. And my favorite vacationing pundit, who currently is sipping something with a double umbrella.

I love Trifecta. But, the three of you belong highlighted in the front of the house much more often.

What better than a "how to" series, presented in a fun, interesting and compelling way...to decipher the "message", obtain the code rings and frequency the dog whistles.

You are a treasure and we should not keep you partially buried. Ditto for Bill and Steve.
19 weeks ago
19 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for your kindness. I'll share with Bill and Steve.
18 weeks ago
18 weeks ago Link To Comment
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