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March 05, 2007

Bias in Journalism: Hartford Courant Supports Annulment of 2002 War Vote

Why do I say they support it? Just read the opening to this article by David Lightman:

WASHINGTON -- Sgt. Richard Ford's sister wasn't home, so John Larson left a message.

The congressman sat alone in his second-floor Main Street office in downtown Hartford on Thursday and talked to Vanessa Migliore's message machine.

It was a difficult call. It had to be. The 1st District Democrat tried to express his sorrow, anger and discomfort over the death of Ford, the Connecticut National Guard soldier who died Feb. 20 of combat injuries in Baghdad.

"You and your family are in my prayers," he told her. "Thank you so much for all the sacrifice." He talked about the importance of "duty and service," and said Sgt. Ford had served in a "patriotic and honorable" way.

And he assured the family that a flag would fly over the U.S. Capitol in Sgt. Ford's honor, and that the flag would be delivered to their East Hartford home. Ford is to be buried today at Arlington National Cemetery.

Larson hung up and sat for a few minutes. He knew these were not times to think about matters like politics and legislation, but he couldn't help it.

Larson, of course, is the man who introduced legislation in the House to repeal the 2002 vote giving President Bush authority to wage war in Iraq.

The opening to this article is a classic emotional hook. Rather than simply recite the facts about Larson's plan to "annul" the 2002 vote, Lightman uses the death of a Connecticut National Guardsman to suck the reader in. After all, no one with a beating heart could ignore his family's pain. And, after reading about the difficult call Larson made, and how he seems to be such a decent guy, doesn't that make you think that perhaps his legislation has merit?

This type of reporting is called "narrative journalism," and it's used not only to make a story more interesting, but is often used to mold the reader's perception of an issue:

Hardboiled reporters don't routinely seek to engineer the sequential emotional responses of readers. They don't mess much with their readers at all. Storytellers do. The two roles are in conflict.

What's the big deal, you ask? Why is there a problem with making a story more palatable to the average reader? The Jawa Report begs the question:

[D]oes narrative focus lead to bias? I would say yes, in those cases when the profession itself has a strong set of political leanings. In that kind of environment when editors and reporters are looking to pick out the point of interest and refine the gripping details that breathe life into otherwise "hardboiled" reporting, they only have one reliable metrick to work with -- whether or not they themselves are interested in the story. Does a given presentation of data outrage, move one to tears, or cause a sense of warm satisfaction? Well, that would depend on the people reading the story. And, in the case of journalists, the people making the first call on whether or not a story gets written, and if it does, how it is presented, would be the people who will be (at least at the national level) overwhelmingly left-leaning.

Think about it: Lightman could have called Ford's family too, but he didn't. Now, I have no idea how Ford's family feels about Iraq. But it's interesting that Lightman "plays it safe" by focusing on Larson's difficult phone call and Larson's point of view, giving the reader the perception that the grieving family likely has similar feelings about Iraq making a mistake. If you're going for accuracy, wouldn't it be a good idea to get both sides?

But that's the idea: present one side using the emotional hook, maximizing the potential of swaying the reader to agree with a particular point of view. And that's what journalistic bias is all about. No longer is it "just the facts, ma'am," but gripping stories that aim to sway you.

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Posted by Pam Meister at 10:12 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0) | MSM

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