Oftentimes people view the news media as offering, as Joe Friday from Dragnet would put it, “just the facts.” Through the use of things like selection, slanting, and charged language, the reporter is often able to get you to view the story through the same lenses they are, possibly without you even being aware it’s happening. An example of this can be found if you look at two articles claiming to be about the same story, in this case two articles about the book deal signed by the controversial founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, in late December of 2010. On December 27, The New York Post – a notable conservative American newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. – ran an article by David K. Li entitled, “Wiki boss is one for the books.” Just the day before, On December 26, The Guardian – a major center-left British newspaper run by the Scott Trust through the Guardian Media Group and who had previously worked with Assange to publish part of the 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks – ran an article by Paul Lewis called, “Julian Assange to use £1m book deals for legal fight.”
One way that our understanding of the events around us can be manipulated is through a process called selection. Selection has less to do with how a story is presented to us and more to do with what facts the writer chooses to put into the story and which he chooses to leave out. Li’s article is pretty short at only 151-words whereas Lewis’ article comes in over twice the length and just about as much on content at 404-words. There is nothing in Li’s article that is missing from Lewis’, but the opposite cannot be said to be true. Lewis’ article discusses the quickly rising legal costs for Wikileaks and Assange and the financial impact the decisions of American companies like Visa, MasterCard, and Paypal in stopping the processing of payments to WikiLeaks has had, while Li wrote nothing more on that topic than a single quote from Assange taken from the Sunday Times of London, “I have already spent [more than $300,000] for legal costs, and I need to defend myself and keep WikiLeaks afloat.” (The variant of this same quote from the Sunday Times of London article found in Lewis’ article reads, “I have already spent £200,000 for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.”) Other details found in Lewis’ article but missing from Li’s article include some additional background information on Assange and the ongoing Wikileaks story, and details of Assange’s fears of being extradited to the United States for prosecution over information leaked to and made available by WikiLeaks.
The second way in which media outlets may attempt to control the way we view a story is through slanting. Slanting can include the facts that are chosen in the selection process, and also includes things like the overall tone of the writing, words and phrases selected. Slanting a story one way or another is perhaps even more inevitable than showing bias through the selection process.
One common method of slanting, and the third way that media biases may be found, is through charged language. Ki states in his article that Assange is being accused of sexual assault in Sweden; Lewis (in an example that also exemplifies selection) writes, “The 39-year-old is fighting extradition to Sweden, where two women have accused him of sexual misconduct. He denies the allegations.” It seems to me that the term “sexual assault” sounds a lot more extreme than “sexual misconduct” and including the fact that the allegations are denied sounds a bit less condemning as well.
For some, the idea that a single, unified version of a story may sound appealing as a way of countering the contradictions often found as a result of bias in reporting, but nothing is more vital to democracy than a free, open, and diverse media. For the last 30 years, despite a widening amount of information being made available with previously existing mediums like newspapers, radio and network television in addition to technologies that have become popular more recently – things like cable TV and most notably the internet – the viewpoints and the voices have become narrower and the ownership has mostly been given over to a few very powerful corporations.
The article by Lewis mentions Paypal, Visa, and MasterCard – three major players in the world of online funds transfers – cutting off the flow of money to Assange and Wikileaks; this illustrates beautifully a great reason why media consolidation is so dangerous. If someone were to go to one of a handful of available media outlets with a ground-breaking story that would be damaging to the power structure or their financial interests, the story could have a hard time finding its way to the ears of the unknowing public the same way the money has a hard time finding its way to Assange and WikiLeaks.
In order to have a democracy, you must have an informed public. So long as the information is allowed to be controlled by a small posse of multinational corporations without the best interests of the public wellbeing in mind, the idea of a well informed public is gravely threatened. While the differences between Lewis’ article and Li’s article point out that complete homogenization has not yet occurred, it also makes it strikingly clear why it never should be. Bias is human nature and is inevitable; bias toward the best interests of a few without alternative and opposing biases or room for a voice of dissent is the squelching of the flame of liberty and is stoppable, but increasingly less so with each year.