Posted in theology

How to detect news bias in, sadly, even Christian reporting

By Elizabeth Prata

News. Love it. Hate it. Need it. Fake news. Real news. The good old days of news. The bad old days of news.

Sigh.

We think news should be unbiased, and it should be, but it is a relatively new phenomenon. The golden age of unbiased, pure news was relatively short, a true golden age. During the 1972 Watergate scandal when the President of the United States stood accused of various abuses of power, good journalism came into American scrutiny and vernacular. It was reporters, diligent, honest, unbiased reporters who broke that story, one which led to the only American president ever resigning. We weren’t too concerned with non-bias immediately prior to that moment in history, presupposing that the news we were given was true. It wasn’t always.

Bias of omission:

Before Watergate,  the press avoided reporting on John F. Kennedy’s adulteries:

The largely male Washington press corps looked the other way then and likewise kept Kennedy insulated from sexual scandal during his presidency.

Before that, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, the press corps had a gentleman’s agreement, or actually a forced tacit agreement, that they would do everything possible to avoid displaying in photography or words, the President’s disability and the fact that he was in a wheelchair.

Bias of sensationalism:

And let’s not start on yellow journalism at the turn of the last century just prior to Roosevelt’s time that would put this millennium’s fake news to shame.

Yellow journalism and the yellow press are American terms for journalism and associated newspapers that present little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. Source

Anonymity:

Even further back, for example, Benjamin Franklin created an entire persona (Mrs Silence Dogood) and anonymously left his writings under the door of the newspaper editor, who happened to be his brother, who never would publish anything Benjamin wrote. Such anonymity in news writing in past decades was looked down upon in real journalism, but seems today with the advent of anonymous blog commenting, Twitter, and other social media, it’s now an anything goes wild west of reporting, anonymous or not.

It’s important to use constructive and informative language, language that’s precise and not evasive, language that solves, not destroys. With anonymous blogging and such, those qualities are all too often abandoned as a first resort and the lowest linguist denominator is used instead. This problem is gravitating to even Christian reporting, where the reporter, who may or may not be anonymous, does the same.

As already mentioned, the age of sterling reporting was short. In my opinion, perhaps between 1971-2001. Certainly by 2007 the news bias in America became widely evident during the Obama-McCain campaign, morphing into the general travesty we now endure.

I’ve been a professional news journalist and a newspaper editor. I have also been on the receiving end of news reporting. The Open Letter to Beth Moore published on this blog and here & here, sparked controversy in much wider realms than I usually run. I noticed a range of good-to-bad reporting that I’d like to offer you today as a lesson in detecting news bias.

One note: none of the reporters to my knowledge attempted to contact any of the Open Letter ladies nor do I believe they tried to contact Moore. It is a basic principle to try to speak with all parties. But all 3 reporters relied solely on already-posted material online. That’s not horrible, it is lazy though. It’s best practice to actually interview the subjects who are being reported on.

I am sure I hadn’t caught up with all the news that published stories about the Open Letter. Not that there were a plethora, but of the ones I managed to find or be told about, I believe these three represent the gamut of good, medium, and bad ranks of reporting. Let’s start with the good.

Lesson Example #1

Beth Moore’s Beliefs on Homosexuality Are Called into Question in Open Letter from Bible Teachers

This headline and article from Crosswalk.com is pretty good. It uses neutral language, states what the article is about, and isn’t inflammatory.

The actual article was pretty good, too. The headline and first sentence didn’t really “call into question” Beth Moore’s stance on homosexuality, because we don’t know what her stance IS. That’s why we published the letter, but I let that go. The author forgot to mention the name of one of the original signers of the letter, a factual mistake that didn’t need to be made. But the overall reporting on the issue was accurate.

In reporting, one needs to read as many of the facts related to the issue as possible, then distill them, choosing salient facts necessary to the issue AND of interest to readers for their understanding, restate them neutrally in language that will be comprehensible to the reader, and present both sides if there are two sides to the issue. That’s reporting.

In choosing the salient facts to present to the reader, the author is making a subjective judgment. The higher the skill level with the least amount of personal investment in an issue, the better the article will be. But there is really no such thing as totally unbiased reporting, because of the choices that need to be subjectively made as objectively as possible. The Crosswalk article did a good job of that, even including the full 5 questions within the article and un-truncated quotes from it. I rate the article an A.

Lesson Example #2

This next article is from a news organization called NOQ, News-Opinion-Quotes.

Beth Moore refuses open letter to clarify position on homosexuality, blocks author

They went for a slightly more inflammatory headline and included the fact that one of the signers of the letter was later blocked by the addressee, Beth Moore. Now, the date an article is published relative to the incident being reported is important. The first article above was published the day after it appeared on my blog, The End Time, and on DebbieLynne Kespert’s blog and the same day it appeared on Michelle Lesley’s. Moore hadn’t had time to refuse to answer, nor had Lesley been blocked yet.

The NOQ article appeared 10 days later, after a period of time had passed where it became obvious that Moore was not going to answer, controversy had erupted, and Moore had engaged in certain actions such as blocking. Those subsequent facts were now part of the story. The headline can thus be called accurate, since Moore’s refusal to answer and the block were now wrapped into the issue.

The article singled Michelle out as a sole signer, which isn’t accurate, as there were 6 total signers. But the author did use a subjective opinion (an accurate one) when writing,

The letter is not confrontational towards Moore; however, it does ask that she confront the Bible and homosexuality.

It’s accurate because there are no words in the Open Letter than can be construed as confrontational, so the author’s assessment of it as non-confrontational isn’t opinion or bias, but a factual judgment call. However, note that othrs did assign the language in the Letter as confrontational. That’s why it’s a judgment call and it’s best left etirely off the table when reporting.

The author chose to include lengthy pull quotes in the article as well as the full 5 questions that Moore was being asked to illustrate his point. This is good.

In journalism, you want to present the facts as neutrally as possible and allow the reader to arrive at his or her conclusions. In this next paragraph, though, the author arrives at his own conclusions and presents them to the reader, telling him or her what to think. Not as good.

The implication is clear that Beth Moore refuses to address concerns, especially as it pertains to her notable dive off the deep end of woke-ism. Social Justice is incompatible with Biblical Justice and those who embrace the former seldom adhere closely to scripture. We can look at the PCUSA, the Episcopal church, Lutherans, and various factions within the United Methodist Church and see this.

That, and the next two paragraphs veer into certain heresies and discusses the social justice issue, which the letter didn’t really have a a lot to do with. Bringing in other issues perhaps betrays an agenda on the author or the news organization. It also concludes with another “I’m telling you what to think” paragraph.

This article is a medium on the scale, a C+.

This third article was a disappointment. OK, it was a massive travesty, if you really want my opinion Sadly, it represents the kind of journalism that we’re all-too-familiar with: BAD.

Lesson Example #3

Beth Moore Called Out Again, This Time Over Homosexuality and Ecumenicalism

The Open Letter that I was involved with didn’t “call anyone out.” It asked a popular Bible teacher her stance on homosexuality. That’s it. The inclusion of the word “again” makes it sound like I and the other ladies make a habit of calling Beth Moore out on homosexuality. The Ecumenicalism wasn’t a part of the letter, the author just threw that accusation in. Thus, the headline is inaccurate, inflammatory and prejudicial. It gets worse.

The author’s entire first paragraph describes the criticism Beth Moore has endured lately and thus the article begins with soliciting sympathy for one of the parties the author is supposed to be objectively reporting on. This is bias.

Bias of word choice:

in an open letter demanding Moore clarify her stance on homosexuality. [italics mine]

The word demanding is a prejudicial word, betraying an agenda. In journalism, look for words such as “stated” “asked”, “said” or “presented”. Those are neutral words, keeping the focus of the sentence on the facts, not the emotion.

When authors start using words like demanded, it puts a picture in the mind of the reader that the author wants there, not as a result of the facts, but because of her own bias.

Bias of scare quotes:

According to Michelle Lesley and a handful of other “female Bible teachers”,

Here, the author uses scare quotes. They are also called sneer quotes. Definition: ‘quotation marks used around a word or phrase when they are not required, thereby eliciting attention or doubts’; and are “employed to convey derision, irony, or skepticism” as this article about three erroneous uses of scare quotes describes further.

These are unnecessary quotes used to disparage a person, in this case, we “female Bible teachers.” Note that the first article simply stated that we are Bible teachers. The Church Leaders article used scare quotes to describe us. Whenever you see excessive scare quotes, it means the author is sneering, dosplaying bias, and isn’t as neutral as she should be. Run from the article. Still not sure? Note the difference-

Live lobsters
“Live” lobsters

Bias by Spin:

The letter alludes to the various public statements Moore has made recently
Among the reasons is the alleged lackadaisical attitude Moore displays

The reporter is maligning the Open Letter writers’ credibility by using language that insinuates we have communicated vague or ambiguous claims. Should be “The letter refers to the various public statements…” and so on.

Lesley articulates the problem with Moore striking such amicable relationships with Merritt and Hatmaker this way:

Amicable is a judgment call, indicating bias. It skews the sentence into another opinion the author wants the reader to have. Better to drop the ‘amicable’ entirely. Just say ‘relationships’ and let the reader decide what kind of relationships they were.

So far, Moore hasn’t addressed the letter publicly (she rarely addresses criticism directly)

Facts not in evidence. How does the author know that Moore rarely addresses criticism directly? If the author knows this, was her knowledge gained via a social media relationship, which should be announced to readers so they can assess authorial bias, or does she know this because she contacted Moore and learned it first hand, in which case this fact should be in quotes and attributed to Moore? The author is displaying bias again, telling readers what to think. The enclosed parentheses are another clue.

Buice also takes issue, specifically, with Moore’s ecumenicalism, which is apparent in her willingness to work with other Christian leaders from different denominations 

Is it apparent? No. This is another biased judgment call on the author’s part. If she wanted to include that fact she should give an example of the ‘apparent willingness’. She is leading readers to the conclusion she wants. And the ‘other denominations’ Moore works with in this context, is Catholic, which is not a denomination but a false religion. The author is biased and ignorant of religious falsity.

she has made a couple comments that could very easily be interpreted as alluding to the pettiness of the criticism

The author again is displaying bias by telling her readers that the criticism (which isn’t criticism, but an honest question) is petty. The author has inserted her opinion into the article. It’s just opinion writing at this point, not reporting.

Several of the comments garnered by the debate point to the general public’s disgust at the in-fighting present in the church today.

As the author opened the article with sly innuendos about unfair criticism against Moore, she ended with with a general, non-specific (and unnecessary to the point of the Open Letter) statement reminding the reader of the public’s disgust with in-fighting, leaving the reader the impression once again that the Open Letter writers were unfair in asking Beth Moore the questions that were asked.

Overall rating of this article: F-

I’m disappointed in the author’s overt bias and negligent reporting. She’s a Christian according to her bio. These things should not be. Grace and benefit of the doubt should be given. It wasn’t.

It’s even more disappointing because according to her byline, she has written nearly 1000 articles. Hopefully her bias hasn’t shown through in 999 others of them. Perhaps she’s been more fair and neutral elsewhere than she was in this article.

Conclusion

When you’re reading Christian news articles, or even secular articles, look for neutral headlines devoid of inflammatory language, headlines that match the article, and headlines that have captured the essence of the article’s point. Look for neutral language that doesn’t lead the reader to the author’s biased conclusion, and is absent sneering scare quotes. Look for whole, not truncated quotes, an absence of adjectives, attributable facts, and is generally honest and fresh. In other words, a unicorn. LOL, well not really, but the reporting I’ve described IS becoming rarer these days. Treasure it if you find it.

 

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Illustration from The Graphics Fairy

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Elizabeth Prata was a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, and her newspaper is a three-time winner in writing categories in the New England Better Newspaper Competition, the largest and most comprehensive journalism recognition program in New England.

She has also worked for the Athens Daily Banner Herald, and contributed articles to the Madison County Journal and Maine Monthly.

 

5 thoughts on “How to detect news bias in, sadly, even Christian reporting

  1. You recommended “Expository Listening” and that book had a positive impact on how I interact with sermons and what I am able to understand and apply. This blog post is a primer in “Expository News Reading.” Thank you again!

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  2. I know that this isn’t your main point, but I beg to differ about the objectivity of the Watergate reporters. Just a casual reading of All the President’s Men shows that Woodward and Bernstein were determined to tarnish the Nixon White House and strove to find every piece of dirt about the President and his men that they could. Their editor, Ben Bradlee, and their chief source of information, Mark Felt, were also heavily biased against the President and the administration. Treating this people as paragons of virtue is frightfully inaccurate. J.

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