Can You Recognize Media Bias?

Bias often doesn't manifest itself through bald-faced lying. That is much too easy to counter and much too costly to the source's credibility.  Often it is carefully injected into media through loaded language and incomplete reporting of important details. A prime example of this is an AP report published by Snopes.com, entitled "Attorney General Launches 'Religious Liberty Task Force'" 

Here are some of the highlights:

The article claims that Session's statement, "nuns were being forced to buy contraceptives" is "not fully accurate," but it leaves that accusation hanging, with no supporting evidence or argument. We're supposed to believe that it's not accurate for the mere fact that the AP says it isn't. So, really, the writer is just voicing an unsubstantiated emotional opinion on Session's terminology.

At one point it describes Christian belief as "religious dogma." Show me a case where this term is anything but derogatory and antagonistic. It's a clear and shameless attempt to ensure that readers will, through a default emotional reaction, pick sides against sincerely held Christian belief.

The article states that Sessions "praised a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple." This statement is technically accurate, much like if I were to tell you that "Agent Orange is an effective herbicide developed and used by the US government." That statement is completely accurate, but it is also misleading because it is vague and leaves some very important details out. You probably want to know before you start spraying Agent Orange on the cracks in your driveway that it is has been banned due to the millions of deaths and vast numbers of terrible diseases for which it is responsible. The wording in this AP article is vague enough that it withstands any accusation of error while allowing the reader's emotional biases to determine (especially if they are otherwise uninformed about the case) their understanding of the facts. Yes, Jack Phillips refused to decorate a cake for a same-sex couple in this specific instance. But, not because they were a same-sex couple. He had served them in the past. He refused to decorate (though he would have sold them the cake to decorate themselves) a cake that communicated a message (celebrating a gay wedding) to which he objected. It's the same reason that he doesn't make "Happy Halloween" cakes.  Now, you may not like his views, but reason compels us to see the distinction between what the AP article is trying to imply (that Phillips doesn't serve gay people) and reality (he simply doesn't create cakes for messages that go against his belief system.)

The above are clear signs of bias from a news organization that is supposed to be one of the most unbiased in the nation, yet any freshman English student would lose marks for turning in this sort of biased writing.

The last two observations might not be undeniably clear, but I still think they are worth considering.

First is the final paragraph of the article which includes the observation that Sessions is "a Methodist and a former Senator from Alabama." Why include where he is from and his denominational affiliation? They have little to do with the actual content of the story. I think it's to connect the dots in the reader's minds between the culture's built-in stereotype of southern Bible-thumping "bitter-clingers," and advocating for religious liberty.

Finally, if you look at the piece in its entirety, it uses "rights" only in reference to LGBT issues and to voice the opinion that Christians are emphasizing their own rights over non-Christian religions. The entire rest of the article refers to religious freedom, beliefs, convictions, and liberty, but never "rights." These are subtle distinctions to be sure, but the term "right" has in our culture an absolute quality that makes it effective to juxtapose "religious convictions" against "LGBT rights." That word choice presupposes who should have priority. One article might not do much to sway someone's thinking, but over time, and hundreds of instances, I believe it has an effect.

The point of this little exercise isn't to hate on "fake news." It's certainly not to suggest, as many have done, that we should flush Snopes and the AP and go find news that is biased the other direction in our favor. We simply need to be able to clearly identify instances of how media attempts to sway our opinion by manipulating emotions rather than providing sound supporting arguments. It is vitally important that we cultivate our ability to recognize these attempts and make sure that we can counter emotional manipulation with concrete, well-reasoned, factual thinking.

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