Politics and TV News: Commonly Used Bias Techniques

As I have dutifully trudged through TV news transcripts as part of creating my surveys, I have noticed certain bias techniques — some intuitive, and others subtle — that are employed with regularity by popular TV news channels.  My focus has been on political analysis segments wherein a news anchor/moderator is joined by one-or-more contributors, positioned as subject matter experts.

The most prevalent techniques are as follows:

  • False Balancing –TV viewers have been conditioned to expect news anchors to conduct interviews with contributing experts who present contrasting points of view. Interestingly, these expert contributors are occasionally unbalanced, and actually are on the same side the “debated” issue.

A variant on this theme occurs when complementary views are presented by experts from opposite camps. A Democratic congressman may be critical of aspects of “Obama-care” when interviewed side-by-side with a Republican senator whose disapproval applies to other areas. Both are critical, just in different ways.

On the surface, these experts represent groups who are traditionally in opposition, but their opinions are surprisingly aligned in this example. The notion that positions on a particular subject are not known in advance strains credibility. Still, that fact may be lost on passive TV viewers, who believe they have ingested a short-but- complete review of an issue when presented in this format, especially when the contributors are otherwise natural enemies.

Credit should go where credit is due, so I must recognize The Pessimistic Viewer’s September 12 blog (http://comm2302.wordpress.com/) for identifying and labeling this particular bias mechanism.

  • Time Management – This is an intuitively obvious slanting technique; the more time devoted to a particular perspective, the more weight it is given by the audience. Timing was initially my primary target for evaluating media bias, thinking it to be objective and readily quantifiable. In practice, however, it turned out to be much more difficult to do, primarily because of technique #3.
  • Flakking – In real-time, recording the specific speaking time of any particular contributor is inordinately difficult because of “flakking” — aggressive interruptions of contributors’ statements that are in conflict with those being favored on the program.
  •  Framing  & Finishing  – Even in the pseudo-debate construct of the popular anchor-plus-expert news format, the moderator has control of how an issue is initially framed (“Is the Gang of 6 Deficit Reduction Plan Bad for America?”) along with the manner in which the segment is closed. Even if the anchor does not personally deliver a closing statement, the last word generally has more impact than others, and the moderator can readily determine who gets it.
  • Anchor Affirmations – Television viewers have been conditioned to expect the news anchor/moderator, while possessing their own informed opinions, to exercise a certain amount of journalistic detachment and fairness. Implicitly, they are the ultimate arbiter.

Regardless of the historical role of the anchor/moderator, in this era of advocate journalism, strong opinions are easily discernible, and readily recognized as such by even the most passive viewer. Still, I often encountered more subtle endorsements which may slip passed a viewer’s internal bias filter. Simply have the moderator inject a, “Right,” or “Yes,” as a follow-on comment gives the preceding statement additional weight.

  • Pronoun Putdowns – Similar to moderator affirmations, news anchor can send a subtle-but-unmistakable message by the way they refer to involved parties. Groups holding conflicting views with the discussion leader are often referred to as “they” or “them.” Similarly, if a title-bearing politician, such as a Senator, is referred to as “he” or “him,” it comes across as a refusal to recognize rank-and-status, and conveys an implicit lack of respect.

In closing, some may see these slanting techniques as a normal part of Op-Ed programming.  While that is fair criticism to some degree, passive TV viewers may not make a conscious distinction between objective news and editorials.  The concept of framing applies here, but in a different context — Are these programs framed as Op-Ed segments, or overshadowed by pervasive, embedded marketing messages — “Cable News Network”  …  Fox News, Fair and Balanced” … “MSNBC, the Place for Politics” … “The No-Spin Zone?”

I welcome your comments on the matter.

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One thought on “Politics and TV News: Commonly Used Bias Techniques

  1. The Pardu says:

    Good treatise…to say the very least.

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