Word choice is a key tool reporters use to subtly convey bias. Media consumers must be aware of this in order to protect themselves from bias quietly injected in the news.
Words are never created equal. Even synonyms vary as far as connotation. Because of this, it is important to consider every word a reporter chooses to use, and ask: Is this the best possible choice of word here? Is this the least biased way this idea could have been phrased?
As an example, take the portion of an article an AIM blog quoted earlier this week. The article, from CNN, included the following:
Before departing the White House early Monday for a farewell tour of Europe, President Bush stole a page from his predecessor and suggested he feels American consumers’ pain.
Note the use of the word “stole.” Now, go to your favorite search engine and type in the phrase take a page from the book. In another window, search for the phrase steal a page from the book. See what comes up.
You’ll find that the historically accepted idiom actually reads “take a leaf from the book” (though in recent years the word “leaf” has changed to “page;” to substitute “leaf” with “page” is hardly an example of incriminating bias). Searching for take a page from the book results in pages of examples of the idiom in use.
However, when you search for stealing pages from a book, the references that come up refer to actual stealing.
Here, the CNN writers have twisted an idiom by replacing the commonly accepted term “take” with the word “stole,” which has a far more negative association. To “steal” a page from a book is not even an accepted variant of the familiar idiom.
Later in the same sentence, CNN writes that Bush “suggested he feels American consumers’ pain.” The key word here is “suggested.” Here are other ways the writers could have expressed the same idea:
– Bush said he feels American consumers’ pain
– Bush argued he feels American consumers’ pain
– Bush expressed that he feels American consumers’ pain
– Bush stated that he feels American consumers’ pain
Compare and contrast the connotations you notice with each of those variants. Does the word “said” evoke the same emotion as “suggested” does here?
“Said” and “stated” are generally considered to be neutral words. “Suggested” is a word that can be loaded with implications in a way a word like “said” cannot.
This AIM article points out examples of word choice bias in a New York Times article published earlier this year:
The word choice in the article, while subtle, definitely advances a pro-union and pro-McEntee agenda. “Public sector unions” are “under attack.” Wisconsin and Ohio laws will “cripple” the “rights” of union members, “jeopardizing” the union’s income stream and “political clout.” McEntee’s union is under “assault” in New Jersey and Florida, states attempting to “curb bargaining rights or achieve far-reaching concessions” on “health benefits and pensions.”
When The Times uses words like “attack” and “assault” to describe the way in which state governments are attempting to mitigate union influence on the economy, that word choice indicates that unions are the victim. In reality, while unions may be victims here, so also may be non-union workers, who make up a far larger percentage of overall workers in the United States: In 2010, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 11.9% of American workers were unionized—leaving 88.1% of American workers un-unionized.
In that example, The New York Times used words with violent connotations to describe union-related events. The word choice there indicated that unions were being somehow victimized. The Times never came out and outright called unions “victims,” but that implication lay in The Times’ word choice.
Another AIM article examines the Washington Post’s choice of words with regards to a story on President Obama’s health care bill. The AIM article explains:
The [Washington Post] article follows Prescott’s work to find “poignant stories of Americans who might lose their health coverage under the Republican plan,” work that involved “poring over hundreds of files. Among them were heart-wrenching tales of hardship faced by people whose care is dependent on Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled” (emphasis added). Yet, despite how “heart-wrenching” those tales were, Prescott admittedly sorted through “hundreds” of files before finding just five she could potentially run with.
The bias in word choice here is relatively obvious: note the use of the word “heart-wrenching,” for example, and “hardship.” The reporter could have written that Prescott “pored” over files containing “information on the lifestyles of Medicaid dependents.” Which version sounds less biased to you?
A. “Heart-wrenching tales of hardship faced by people whose care is dependent on Medicaid”
B. “Information on the lifestyles of Medicaid dependents”
Which style of writing seems more appropriate for a news outlet that purports to publish unbiased news?
Everyone who uses words is guilty of using biased word choice—even those writers out there who consciously attempt to use neutral language. That’s because everyone has a unique worldview, and that worldview tends to express itself whether obvious or not. It’s not wrong for writers, even reporters, to engage in biased word choice, as long as they are open about it. The problems come when writers use biased word choice, and pretend to be objective about their coverage of an issue.
Media consumers need to be mindful of the word choices they are exposed to in the news, both print and otherwise. Bias in word choice is inescapable, but consumer awareness can neutralize its effects.
CommentsComments are turned off for this article.