Persuasive but biased?

The debate over whether journalists can ever truly divorce their personal opinions from the pieces they write is one that remains contentious to this day. Any journalistic ethics code will tell you that the goal of non-editorial journalism is to impart factual information to the public, free from personal feeling, bias, and politics. Consciously or unconsciously, however, the case can be made that by using subtle linguistic variations, journalist’s personal opinions can find their way onto the page. Adding to this, many find that the place journalism holds in a free market economy is increasingly precarious, and as a result, many newspapers, television news networks, and online publications are being forced to tailor their articles to a specific subset in the hopes of increasing, or simply holding on to, their market share.

Reading this article, published in esteemed UK newspaper The Guardian, one can see why this argument is thought to be valid. Published in the week prior to the US elections, it focuses on one bill being voted on in California, Proposition 34. This bill would have abolished the death penalty in the state of California, a state known for its high number of prisoners on death row, and create a precedent for the abolition of the death penalty nationwide. On studying the text, however, the article does not seem to be presenting facts to us without bias, but rather seems to be a persuasive piece of journalism.

The entire article, for example, focuses on voting “yes” on Prop 34, and uses consistently optimistic or “up” language in concurrence with this concept. That voting yes would provide a “boost”, “I became determined” and “pragmatic alternatives” are some examples of the effect that choice of language can have on the overall tone of an article. Additionally, the writer, Ed Pilkington, chooses his subjects discriminately, mentioning as proponents of the bill not only usual suspects like the Hollywood glitterati, or former death row inmates that have been proven innocent, but those that may cause a jarring dissonance in the reader as people who may not typically be thought of as being in support of such a move, such as a former prison warden, or an ultra-conservative news commentator like Bill O’Reilly.

The article additionally focuses on a variety of social proofs meant to reinforce the merits of the bill, such as the economic disadvantages faced by a state with a death penalty, and the potential for injustice, especially in regards to those of the convicted that may be mentally ill. Contrastingly, there are no sources or data that provide the opposing view.
It is a noble goal for journalists to provide a subjective view of the issues, but whether this can be done is still up in the air. In this article, however, acknowledgment of bias is a prerequisite to the reader’s evaluation of the piece.

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One response to “Persuasive but biased?

  1. Watching the local evening news the bias is poorly hidden in the banter questions between the news anchor and the reporter at the scene. Even if the reporter is simply describing what is happening, the news anchor asks questions that slant the reporting. And, their selection of which witness to question in the newscast comes with its own bias. The news has a limited time frame and an agenda, they make choices based on what will help the ratings and whether they got an exclusive. Sometimes it’s not the reporter, but the company they work for.

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