Loaded Words

My starting place today is the word “ostensible.”

I came across it recently in a newspaper article here in Richmond – not an Op-Ed piece, but a “straight news” report about current events.  The article was about a public meeting.  In inviting the public to attend, the meeting’s sponsor had stated its purpose.  I count myself among the strong critics of the outcome of the meeting..  But to my way of thinking, while the outcome deserved criticism, the announced purpose of the meeting had been bona fide.  To my knowledge, there was no reason to question the honesty of the announced purpose, and the article itself certainly offered none.  Yet the news report had referred to the “ostensible” purpose of the meeting, as if to suggest the negative outcome had been the sponsor’s intent.

“Ostensible” is one of those words lawyers use when writing legal briefs,  which are intended to be the most one-sided (i.e., biased) types of writing known to man.  In their legal briefs, lawyers intentionally use words with multiple shades of meaning, some neutral and some “loaded.”   Dictionary definitions of “ostensible” include words like “apparent,” “surface,” “seeming,” and “pretended” – but there’s a difference between “apparent” and “pretended.”  If a lawyer writes that the weather was apparently pleasant the day an accident occurred, there’s no reason to think the word means anything but “apparent.”   But if she writes that the plaintiff’s injuries were “ostensibly” caused by the accident (though they were only noticed after the visit to her lawyer), well, everyone knows that “ostensible” means “pretended.”  Faked.  Using a word that could simply mean “apparent” becomes a subtle way of calling the plaintiff a good-for-nothing, bold-faced liar and all-around scoundrel.

Closing statements to a jury, like advocacy in legal writing, are full of such loaded words – words the lawyer who uses them can defend as objectively accurate on the basis of the facts proven at trial, but which, tucked into their underbellies, carry belittlement, accusation, or condemnation.  (If the reference is to one’s own client or witness, of course, the words are loaded with suggestions of reliability, honesty and wholesome character.)

When commercial advertisements boast about revolutionary new products that will make you feel young again and are “free” for the first hundred callers, most people recognize the hype for what it is.  But lawyers addressing judges and juries have to persuade their target audiences more subtly, which is to say, while seeming to be neutral.  Words like “ostensible” fit their needs well.   And that, I believe, is where they have a great deal in common with news reporters.

The field in which I spent most of my life was labor and employment law, a field which is practically all about bias.  Decades in that field convinced me that the vast majority of bias in the world – I mean well upwards of 95% – is unconscious.  Hardly anyone thinks they are biased.  A person who acknowledges, say, being anti-Semitic, doesn’t think he’s biased – he thinks Jews deserve his scorn.  Members of the KKK generally think blacks, Jews and Catholics are lesser beings, or dangerous, or whatever – their own thinking on the matter is clear-headed and objective – anything but biased.  And obviously, liberals don’t think they’re biased against conservatives, nor do Republicans think they’re biased against Democrats.

I defended hundreds of people during my legal career who were accused of bias of some sort, and every one of them expressed sincere outrage that anyone could accuse them of being biased.  I see precisely the same reaction when members of the news media get attacked for their perceived bias.    Indignation!  Sincere outrage!  Journalists pride themselves on not being biased, period.

So in considering media bias, I don’t think in terms of rooting out the journalistic equivalents of Klaus Barbie or Adolf Eichmann.   Sure, there are a few hack journalists who purposefully express outrageous opinions in order to appeal to only one side of the political spectrum while inflaming the passions of the other.  But there’s far more unconscious bias in the media.  It appears on all sides of the various political spectra.  Indeed, I’d like to know how it could be any other way, bias being a natural product of culture.  (Talk about loaded words  – “culture” is a good thing, “worldview” neutral, and “bias” bad.  But for our purposes, what’s the difference?)

Even in the face of Herculean efforts to escape its influence, I doubt it’s ever possible to be bias-free, to escape the influence of one’s culture, or to have no world-view at all.  I’m waiting for some reporter to answer an accusation of bias with, “You’re right, of course, but I’m trying really hard to change.”  (Now that would earn my respect for objective reporting.)

Where am I headed with all this?  I have a proposal.  In this day of fake news and counter-accusations of same, we now have a plethora of “fact-checking” sites.  Snopes.  Politi-Fact.  Etc.  My excitement for them quickly wore off when, time and again, the analyses supplied by the fact checkers struck me as containing the same sort of unconscious bias I see in the media.  A politician claims that “taxes have been rising lately.”  Is it true?  The “fact-checkers” interpret the meaning of “taxes” to mean federal income taxes, interpret “lately” to mean the past five years, decide to look at grosses, or averages, or families or individuals, and based on all those interpretations and assumptions, declares that the politician’s assertion that “taxes have been rising lately” is “true” or “false” as if they’re God handing tablets to Moses.  Personally, I don’t mind when a politician phrases things to support his or her position – as I see it, they’re supposed to advocate for what they believe.  But when self-appointed guardians of objective truth betray their biases, my blood pressure starts to rise.

After avoiding the news for ten years, I decided some months back to pay regular attention again.  I subscribed to the newspaper and I decided to record the evening news on my DVR.  I tried BBC, Fox, the three major networks, and others.  It was no surprise to me that Fox was different from CNN – even with my head in the sand all those years, I’d heard about their reputations – but of greater surprise to me was the difference between the evening news on ABC and CBS.  I didn’t compare them long enough to notice a single instance in which either “choice of story” or “facts reported” caused me to conclude that one was more accurate or objective than the other.  (As far as I know, Polit-Fact would have concluded that everything both networks said was true.)  But I noticed a marked difference in the use of “loaded” words, even down to the subtlety of calling a three-day-old story “breaking news.”  I wish I’d kept a notepad at hand to record examples, but night after night, story after story, I found one network using language I’d have been proud to use as a lawyer advocating a particular point of view, trying to arouse emotions through word choices, while the other did not.

So, can anything be done about media bias?   Back when I was practicing law, I aimed for enough ostensible accuracy to come across as objective while intentionally loading my arguments with as much advocacy (bias) as I could muster.  I exploited language to support my cause.  My sense is that news reporters do very much the same thing as lawyers, albeit (in most cases) unintentionally.  And my question is this: Can we not investigate this phenomenon more scientifically?

I’ve always thought that the way we speak is one of the most reliable windows into how we think.   As I understand it, part of textual criticism is a sub-discipline of linguistics that analyzes the subtleties of word usage and style in order to do things like identify authors – to show, for example, that the Book of Genesis was written by multiple people with different writing styles.  Hollywood, at least, depicts experts who analyze ransom notes and diaries to generate profiles of serial killers, based on patterns of word usage.   I propose that in some school of journalism, linguistics or political science, there are scholars who might explore the feasibility of doing the same sort of textual criticism of news coverage.  Not to pronounce whether a particular story was accurate or not, but to come up with a way of assessing the frequency of “loaded” words or phrases, or other subtleties of language  — patterns or other characteristics of speech which  suggest a tendency to “color” stories.

A panel of philologists might create a list of a thousand words like “ostensible” which have a neutral meaning but are loaded with pejorative connotations.  They might create another list of words with both neutral and positive connotations.  A third list might contain words with no “load” at all.  With modern technology, it ought to be easy to scan every news report written in the New York Times for the past year, or to transcribe every report on Fox or BBC World News Tonight, getting a huge sampling of word usage, and a resulting take on how much the reporter, or network, or other news source, injects positive or negative connotation into their stories.

Or, say, scan a thousand articles from Newspaper X dealing with indicted or scandalized politicians.  Group them according to the political affiliation of the accused.  Then count how frequently the political affiliation is mentioned.  If scandalized Democrats are identified as Democrats three times in every five hundred words, while scandalized Republicans are identified as Republicans only once, that might be pretty good evidence the newspaper has a Republican slant.

I’d find it very telling to see that one ostensibly objective news source used “loaded” words three times as often as another.  Or that words like “ostensible” are used to describe politicians in one party more than those in another.  I feel sure that my examples suffer from the fact that I’m not a professional linguist, but I feel sure we have the technology and scholarship to engage in a more scientific study of bias in news reporting.  I’d find it a far more objective method of assessing media bias than any I’ve heard about elsewhere.

— Joe