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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: New year, same old loaded words

Savvy newspaper readers can spot bias from the opening paragraph of an article or a column, without even knowing the byline.

Like the opinion piece published last Saturday with this phrase in the opening line: “… Donald Trump’s religious right-wing takeover of the federal courts …” (“Trump’s judicial picks will cause lasting harm,” Elizabeth Cavell).

Dropping the current president’s title is the first clue. “Religious right-wing” confirms this opinion piece is coming from left field, and not from the “religious left-wing” but from the anti-religious. Whining about the federal courts is the final tip-off. Progressives have been sullen about President Trump’s originalist judicial appointments since the first confirmation hearings in 2017.

Sure enough, it’s from an attorney with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, written for the Progressive Media Project and distributed by the Tribune News Service. It serves newspapers primarily in the “Left-Center to Least Biased” categories.

Bias ratings are available from MediaBiasFactCheck.com for print, broadcast and online media. While the Tribune News Service news reporting is rated as “generally free of loaded words and pretty straightforward,” last Saturday’s opinion column it supplied didn’t fit that description. It’s full of it.

And by now you can tell what this columnist thinks it’s full of. What a crock.

Columnists provide a look at the world from their particular point of view. If you don’t like mine and you’ve read this far, congratulations! Reading a diversity of viewpoints is the best way to strengthen your thinking.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” says Proverbs 27:17. And when disagreement is civil and sticks to the point, it does more than just polish our own biases. We might learn something about each other.

All writing and all readers are subject to unconscious bias. Or in the words of social justice protesters, implicit bias. Police officers, journalists, and also butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and anyone occupying a human body over the age of 5 has implicit biases. It’s how we make sense of the world. Our unique life experience preloads actions, words and phrases with baggage. With bias.

Media Bias/Fact Check defines as loaded any “wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes.” For example, describing cowboys as untaxed, unshaven and liberated from obligations paints a picture of deplorable, selfish rednecks. Cowboys of my acquaintance would describe themselves as overtaxed, over-regulated and committed to their communities. Deciding whether you’re reading a deliberate attempt to influence emotion or the lazy use of an outdated cultural image is up to the reader.

Stereotypes and punchy adjectives are tools for columnists but a minefield for straight reporting. The AP Stylebook tries to contain implicit bias with explicit guidance. Writing “accused tax-evader Jim Jones looked nervous in the courtroom” is labeled wrong, lest it be interpreted as assuming guilt. It recommends “Jim Jones, accused of tax evasion, looked nervous in the courtroom.” But being described as nervous in the courtroom may also imply Jones is guilty. Adjectives are a challenge in trying to make just the facts an interesting read.

Word choice might be a result of innocent implicit bias, but there’s another reason national news has a slant. The AP Stylebook has been accused of explicitly nurturing the left-wing bias of major news organizations by, for example, insisting the term pro-life be abandoned in favor of “anti-abortion rights.” Nobody holds a March for Anti-Abortion Rights. It’s called a March for Life.

It’s not only word choice but what’s not mentioned. Wednesday’s Associated Press story on “What’s holding our country together?” spends three paragraphs on rumors of a few people not wearing masks at an outdoor Christmas market in a small town in rural, conservative Pennsylvania, and the possible health impact. The interview with the woman who “packed the family into the car to head into downtown Atlanta and join thousands dancing in the street” to celebrate the Biden/Harris ticket is silent on any concerns about COVID.

It’s the kind of biased reporting by omission that has fed the politicization of pandemic protocols all summer.

We should expect to be challenged or affirmed in columns, but we need to get our stories straight. The Spokesman-Review is rated by Media Fact/Check as “Least Biased based on story selection and editorial positions. We also rate them High for factual reporting due to proper sourcing and a clean fact check record.” Score one for a free local press, where they know they’re doing it right if there’s something for everyone to love. Or despise.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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