Reading between the lines

Examining the biases behind journalistic objectivity

Supplied Photo

Simple turns of phrase or even the order in which a reporter introduces sources can hint at their inherent biases. Every word in an article or image displayed on-screen reflects a choice about which information, perspective or worldview a journalist or newsroom wanted to prioritize.

The old adage “It’s not what you say but how you say it” rings especially true when it comes to journalism. While the words a reporter writes matter, the way they’re introduced and organized can sometimes speak volumes about what seems, at first glance, like a fairly neutral piece.

Even seemingly innocuous attempts at objectivity can reveal a news outlet’s political influences. When The Associated Press (AP) reported on Aretha Franklin’s funeral this past August, much of their coverage surrounded Ariana Grande and her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

During the funeral, officiant Bishop Charles H. Ellis III visibly touched Grande’s breast and joked about mistaking her name for a new item on the Taco Bell menu.

Ellis later apologized during an interview with AP. But while the news agency covered his regret in detail, they failed to apologize for their own micro-aggressions. Not only did they publish an article about Ellis’ apology without waiting for comment from Grande or her team, but they also mentioned what she wore to the funeral (and ran a separate piece critiquing her “tiny dress”).

In doing so, AP quoted Ellis and prioritized his viewpoint while barely giving Grande a chance to respond to what happened. And although they briefly mentioned the #RespectAriana hashtag that popped up on Twitter during the funeral, AP also included a full tweet criticizing her dress. By attempting to give equal weight to different sides of the same story, the outlet indicates they believe what Ellis said and did to Grande are just as important as what she wore when these things happened.

Their coverage served to reinforce two myths about sexual assault. To clarify, I use the term “sexual assault” here deliberately to describe this instance of unsolicited,
sexual touching.

First, publishing this article with next to no follow-up helps normalize assault as something for which a person can just apologize with few repercussions. And second, mentioning Grande’s outfit only underscores the harmful delusion that clothing determines or is in any way related to consent.

In cases like these, attempts at neutrality only serve to reinforce dominant narratives. Instead of calling out the abusers, the discriminatory and the powerful, these articles equally weigh their perspectives with those of the people who are victimized.

In this era of so-called fake news, it’s important to take a closer look at the media we consume and examine any potential underlying motives – even if it means critiquing the reporters and outlets you consider to be on your side. As consumers, we need to pay attention to what journalists say and how they say it.

Danielle Doiron is a writer and editor who thinks the world could use a little more journalistic transparency and a lot more respect. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily represent the editorial views of The Uniter.

Published in Volume 73, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 25, 2018)

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