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Smelling bias

You may think that there is bias in news articles. So do I. But from that point we might diverge.

Of course, you say, this McIntyre is just a cog in the machinery of the East Coast Liberal Media Establishment, he has openly admitted to having been a McGovern Democrat 35 years ago, and everyone knows that The Sun is still carrying out orders it got directly from the Kremlin.

After that comes the spluttering.   

Oh yes, we in the mainstream media are so powerful that Republicans landed in the White House in five of the past seven presidential elections, controlled both houses of Congress for a decade and appointed a majority of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. We are one fearsome media juggernaut.

I tend to discover bias elsewhere.

I see unintended and unrecognized bias when we write articles as if being upper-middle-class and college-educated were the norm. The "we" who write and edit drink wine or imported beer, not Bud Lite; "we" jog or  play lacrosse or tennis instead of going bowling; "we" eat field greens, not iceberg lettuce. (Whether we actually do any of these things is irrelevant. Pasty, paunchy, sedentary as journalists tend to be, we write as if we were fit and fashionable.)  "We" write stories for "people like us," stories that alienate readers or potential readers who do not fall into our categories.

I see bias when baby boomer writers expect that everyone remembers pop culture references from 30 years ago. The tobacco industry would "rather fight than switch," which was the commercial slogan for my grandfather’s Tareyton cigarettes, keeps turning up. Last week I excised an allusion to Welcome Back, Kotter, which went off the air in 1979.

I see bias when a feature proclaims that men don’t wear hats. It’s not just that I wear a fedora (Labor Day to Memorial Day, of course); it is that I notice that  many adult black men still tend to wear hats. Are they invisible?

I see bias when an article describes Valerie Plame, in her testimony before a congressional committee, as a "willowy blonde." Such stories contained no physical description of Rep. Henry Waxman — perhaps on purely aesthetic grounds — leaving us in that little world in which women have physical attributes but men don’t.

These failures of perception are matched by the journalistic vice of reliance on prefabricated phrases, like "willowy blonde." Combine unexamined assumptions with unoriginal language, and you get journalism that looks oddly lifeless and out of touch, even to an audience that shares the writers’ biases.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:22 PM | | Comments (4)


Are you seriously saying that because the Republicans have won more often than Democrats over the past few decades, the mainstream media isn't biased?

Otherwise, solid entry. I'm a white guy who also wears a fedora in the fall and winter and eagerly await the rest of the world to follow our lead.

Must see the fedoras!
Upon the Eastern Shore, us,
We wear a baseball cap.

-- Burm O'Shave

I have made the argument that describing only women in physical terms is sexist, but it doesn't resonate with everybody. Male and female reporters I've worked with acknowledge the unequal treatment but see such descriptions as harmless color.

Then again, even writers of serious political pieces seem incapable of referring to Ross Perot without derisive asides about his height and appearance. ("A little man with big ears and a big idea," etc.)

Colorful? Certainly. Harmless? I'm not so sure.

Thanks for the Tareyton reference ..."the bright and the white of the taste worth fighting for"..oops..bias!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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