In Defense of Biased Journalism
The notion of removing bias from journalism has long been considered central to the practice. News outlets pride themselves on the perceived fairness and objectivity of their reporters, but readers and writers alike lament the supposed loss of objective journalism in the modern world. Many journalists and the publications they work for are striving to establish themselves as the last bastions of unbiased news. Yet until the day robots that can produce news articles go on the market, the truth is that unbiased journalism remains something of an oxymoron.
In many areas of life, it is accepted that human beings have biases and cannot approach anything with true objectivity. Journalists, however, are expected to be able to leave their opinions at the door when they sit down to craft the news, even though the news often covers divisive subjects. Readers may be expected, even encouraged, to pick a side when it comes to questions of politics, current issues, or the arts, but the journalists behind these articles operate under the pretense that they have not chosen sides on the issue. However, even relatively unobservant readers can see that this is often not the case.
Writing the news means dealing with polarizing or emotional subjects, so it can be difficult, if not impossible, for journalists to ignore their personal views. Modern journalism should be redefined so that they do not have to. So-called “objective” news has failed to effectively inform readers. Using purposeful rhetoric in order to make an informed argument about a newsworthy issue is more valuable than attempting to hide all bias; it creates news pieces that engage with the material and are more useful to readers. Yet the false perception that any hint of “bias” in the media is a bad thing remains pervasive among the public and the media.
The presence of bias does not harm the practice of journalism—far from it, in fact. It simply means that news outlets and journalists must accept that persuasive rhetoric is, and should be, central to the practice, and that the question “How can we use rhetoric responsibly in journalism?” must be explored. To this end, I will examine articles from three major news outlets—one British, one Qatari, and one American—to see how persuasive rhetoric is manifested in these publications. I will focus on the Aristotelian rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos: ethos being the credibility of the rhetor, pathos being appeals to readers’ emotions, and logos being appeals to and use of logic.
For the sake of easy comparison, I have chosen one article from each news outlet on the same topic: Russia’s recent actions in Crimea and the Ukraine, and the international response to those events. I chose to analyze articles from only non-Russian news sources, as the perspective of the Russian news is so vastly different from that of outside sources that questions of content might impede a critique of the persuasive rhetoric used. Each article I chose covers a slightly different aspect of the issue, but the writers’ individual approaches to the subject are still telling. The three articles fall at different points along the spectrum of analysis: one is presented as a strictly informative news piece; one is an analytical piece; and one is more deeply analytical, presenting criticisms and arguments as well as facts. I will also consider whether the author of each article uses persuasive rhetoric purposefully, acknowledging that a claim is being made; or whether they attempt, either deliberately or accidentally, to conceal their use of rhetoric—if a claim is being made at all.
“Vote by U.N. General Assembly Isolates Russia,” The New York Times
In an article from March 27, 2014, author Somini Sengupta discusses the votes of the U.N. General Assembly on the Ukrainian resolution to declare Russia’s annexation of Ukraine illegal. The tone is dry and removed: the author is not a presence in the article, just a medium through which the facts are presented. Though short, the article is dense with information, and gives little analysis to help readers understand that information. Yet rhetorical appeals to ethos and pathos are lodged between the facts.
One of the first things a reader may see is that the author’s name in this online article is clickable, and the link brings you to a page listing her credentials, including relevant previous jobs, the college she graduated from, and an award she won for foreign reporting. This serves to show readers, should they choose to click, that the author of the article has experience that lends credibility. This falls under the Aristotelian rhetorical appeal of ethos, establishing the author as a trustworthy source.
The density of the text also appeals to ethos: through density of material and a tone that may be perceived as “intelligent”, the author establishes herself as an expert. The first paragraph is actually one long, complex sentence, which delivers the necessary information about the event—when, what, who, where, why, and how. The next paragraph consists of another long, complex, detail-rich sentence. The third begins to give specifics—the exact number of votes regarding a resolution that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was illegal. Percentages here might have sounded casual or approximate, but the specific numbers of votes for, against, and total lend a sense of seriousness. The language gives an impression of seriousness as well: “calls on” is used in place of “asks,” for example, contributing to a lofty, scholarly tone. Even the appearance of a correction from a former version of the article serves the purpose of ethos: the New York Times wants readers to know that it cares about factuality and will make corrections accordingly.
These specifics also appeal to logos, as it is difficult for a reader to accept the logic of an argument without particular, concrete evidence. Direct quotes are used frequently to support the author’s claims about what was said: a “pointed rebuttal” is not just described, but quoted. Logos is closely tied with ethos here: while there is no direct claim being made, the author uses evidence to support her statements and thus enhance her own credibility as someone who has done thorough research. Factuality is highly important to journalism, and the more specificity that is given in an article, the more readers may be convinced that they have gone to the right source for accurate information.
Though there is no outright attempt to appeal to readers’ emotions in this article, close examination reveals subtle appeals to pathos. Like the first two paragraphs, the fourth paragraph consists of a single sentence, but this time a short one: “Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, called Russia’s actions ‘a direct violation of the United Nations Charter.’” Setting this sentence apart highlights it and gives it a sense of importance, as does presenting it in a short, simple form, instead of working it into a longer or denser sentence. This gives the impression that the writer wants to lend a sense of significance to this quotation, and therefore to the fact that Russia has violated the U.N. charter. The word “violation” itself calls to mind violent acts, such as rape. The choice of quotation and its presentation seem to be deliberate choices that influence the reader to view Russia negatively.
The article also uses pathos by setting apart “the most poignant argument,” which came from Costa Rica in favor of the resolution. The fact that poignancy is being considered here brings emotion directly into consideration, and to say that this argument in favor of the resolution is the most poignant is certainly an appeal to pathos. Another quotation is described as “a pointed rebuttal,” as noted above, and the author describes one country as having “railed against” another over the issue. This is powerful language that evokes emotion, when the facts could have been stated with less emotional words.
This article walks a fine line: the author wants to appear as objective as possible, but the article needs to be accessible enough to draw in readers. It is largely informative and dry, to the point of being almost difficult to read, with a clipped tone that is mostly devoid of emotion. But the reporter does seem to be gently on the side of the resolution’s supporters, though no claim one way or the other is directly made. This piece does not, however, seek to answer any big questions or to advise what should happen next.
“Building pressure on Russia a tough task for Obama in Europe,” Al Jazeera America
This article from March 24, 2014, by Tony Karon, covers what President Obama may do in response to Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine. Though very informative and fact-heavy, the language is somewhat more colorful than that of the New York Times article. The author interacts with the information provided, giving speculative predictions and asking questions; though again, this article does not directly argue for any particular side of the issue.
The author’s name here is clickable, as with the New York Times article, but it does not take readers to a list of credentials for the author. Instead, one finds the author’s job title and a list of other articles he has written. The other articles provided could be seen as a form of ethos, as readers can see that this author has established himself as a frequent contributor to discussions on serious political subjects. However, it is a weak form of ethos in practice, since readers who click on the author link are not necessarily going to click through and evaluate the other articles.
Ethos does come through in this article at the level of detail, as in the New York Times article. Starting with the first sentence, the article gives details that pertain not just to the situation with Russia, but to the broader scope of geopolitics: “President Barack Obama signaled a resolve Sunday on the eve of his departure for Europe to rally support for tougher sanctions against Russia, deploying U.S. Special Forces to stop a bully thousands of miles away — not in Ukraine, but in the hunt for the Ugandan renegade Joseph Kony.” Ethos is also apparent in the number of links to other sources embedded in the article. This serves the purpose of logos as well, in that the links provide supporting evidence, but it reveals ethos in that it shows that the author did plenty of research before writing the article and is willing to share his sources with the reader. Even if readers do not actually click on the links provided, their presence helps establish a sense of professionalism and trustworthiness.
The article is quite complex: the author intertwines many disparate elements of the issue and how it fits into the broad scope of international affairs. Making these matters clear and accessible without appearing to “dumb it down” for the reader helps the reader to trust the author. This tactic is evident in sentences such as this one: “Chinese analysts believe that the lack of a military option, the extent of Russia’s economic integration with the West, and the fact that Moscow’s cooperation remains important on issues such as Syria and Iran, militate against Washington mustering sufficient leverage to compel Moscow to back down.” There is a lot of information here, but it is presented in a fairly straightforward way, using vocabulary words that might not be known to all readers but whose meaning can be deciphered in context without running for the dictionary. The fact that the writer has managed to render such complicated matters relatively readable points to his thorough understanding of the topic.
Logos comes into play here too, as the writer is making certain claims that need to be supported. After writing that “the G-7 group may struggle to agree on the extent of sanctions that can be mustered, given their own economic interests,” the author goes on to list Italy, Germany, France, and Britain’s interests as examples. The sentence “Obama, by contrast, has to contend with limited public support for a strong stand” is followed by statistics from a Pew survey that support this claim. The author gives support for his claims in a clear and simple way, so readers never have to search for the evidence. Where the supporting information might be distractingly long or complex, it is provided in the form of a link to another article instead of in the actual text.
Pathos is revealed in the language Karon uses: there are some strong, evocative word choices here, such as “bully,” “tightened their grip,” “anxiety,” “crisis,” and “risky.” Many of these words are used while describing Russia’s actions. This language evokes a sense of tension and nervousness in the reader, the impression that something bad could happen. The article focuses on President Obama and paints him as a man in a difficult situation, facing many choices and expectations, carrying the weight of thwarting disaster on his shoulders. As the last sentence states, “the president will have his work cut out for him in mustering unanimity on how to manage a risky confrontation with Moscow.” This message evokes a kind of understanding, if not sympathy, for his difficult position.
The article is about questions and choices. Unlike the New York Times piece, it goes beyond simple information to present a bigger picture and ask important questions, such as “Do Western powers believe it remains possible to roll back Russia’s acquisition of Crimea, or are the sanctions simply designed to deter further expansion?” It does not answer these questions, nor does it seek to do so, but the article does explore the issue in more depth due to this approach.
“Kidnapped by the Kremlin,” The Economist
This article appears in the March 8, 2014 issue of The Economist. An interesting thing to note is that this publication does not name the authors of its articles. As reasons for not giving authors’ names, The Economist cites keeping with historical tradition, allowing writers to collaborate on single articles, and particularly, “a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it.” These are interesting and legitimate-sounding rationales, but one does wonder if the lack of a name and accompanying credentials might leave some readers questioning the credibility of the material. However, The Economist can rely on its long history as a respectable publication to some extent to dissuade these lines of thinking.
This particular article explores what the West could do to punish Russia for occupying Ukraine. Its tone is much more forceful, even opinionated, than the other articles we have looked at so far. Ethos is established here, again, through the density of information and specifics given. The article references other articles in the same publication for support when needed: “he has established dangerous precedents that go far beyond Ukraine (see page 22).” This works for ethos as well as logos, though perhaps does less for ethos than referencing outside sources would: outside sources would corroborate that different publications are in agreement with the claims made here. But the article does provide the details and background that let us know that the author, or authors, has done appropriate research.
The use of logos here is interesting, as this author is making bolder claims than the authors of the previous two articles did, and must provide support for those claims. For example, the author takes the stance that Putin will not stop at Ukraine, and uses evidence from the past to support this: “So do not bet on Mr Putin being content to stop at Ukraine. In 2008 he fought Georgia to assert control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe.” The supporting evidence goes on for a couple more sentences, extrapolating from past events in order to predict what could happen in the future. This sort of argument was not present in the articles from the New York Times and Al Jazeera.
Pathos is also quite evident in The Economist’s article. The first sentence reads: “As you read this, 46m people are being held hostage in Ukraine.” “Being held hostage” is a strong choice of words. The other two articles hinted at the notion that Putin’s actions may have been wrong, but did not make the claim outright, giving any criticism of his actions in the form of quotes from politicians and other sources. This article, however, is deliberately critical: “Don’t be alarmed, [Putin] says with unambiguous menace, invasion is a last resort.” The article might have simply stated that Putin has suggested that invasion is a last resort, instead of giving the information in this intensely phrased sentence. The words “unambiguous menace” leave us no doubt as to how the author thinks we should view Putin. And the very title of the article contains the word “kidnapped,” so a negative view of Russia’s leader has been planted in readers’ minds from the beginning.
This article makes a claim as to what should be done in reaction to Russia’s actions, rather than just what could be done, what has been done or what is being discussed. “The West is not about to go to war over Ukraine, nor should it,” the author states. The article goes on to give advice, such as “the West should strengthen its ability to resist the Kremlin’s revanchism…” It is worth noting the complexity of the language used in this article: “revanchism” isn’t even recognized by Microsoft Word. The word is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries’ website as “A policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory.” The forceful language and detailed argument in the article is compelling, even if some terms must be looked up.
Because this article chooses sides on the issue, presenting a tension in which there is an antagonist and a protagonist, it is a more accessible and interesting read than the others. Readers are drawn to narrative, not just presentation of facts and events, and this article creates a narrative around the Ukraine situation. It also makes the importance of the issue clear: Mr Putin, The Economist claims, will continue to try to annex countries if the West does not stand up to him. Because The Economist is a long-standing and well-respected publication with a readership in many countries worldwide, its writers are able to take a clear stance on the issue without receiving backlash from readers. Readers trust it to present well-researched and thoroughly thought-out information.
All of these articles use rhetoric in different ways. The New York Times uses rhetoric to appear informative and objective, but cannot keep from displaying a hint of opinion. Al Jazeera uses rhetoric similarly, but goes further to give analysis and background information on the larger story, and creates a narrative centered on Barack Obama as a man with a difficult choice to make. Like the others, The Economist’s article uses rhetoric to establish itself as a reliable source and make logical arguments, but goes even farther, giving more appeals to logos and certainly more to pathos while making some bold claims as to how Putin’s actions in Ukraine should be viewed and what should be done about them.
Each article, perhaps, has its place on the newsstand. The Economist’s is certainly the least objective, at least by the standards journalism is often held to. Though it gives Putin’s point of view, it gives it in a deliberately negative light, not just giving the facts but analyzing those facts and making a claim based on that analysis. The New York Times, in contrast, gives a fairly stripped-down version of facts and events, quoting both sides in a carefully balanced way. Al Jazeera also tries to show multiple perspectives, and though it does make the claim that Obama faces a difficult choice, it does not make the bolder claim as to what choice he should make.
The articles in the New York Times and Al Jazeera allow readers to make up their own minds as to how to analyze the facts. However, they also allow readers to do something more dangerous: not make up their minds at all. Seemingly objective texts that only present the bare facts give little to interact with, thereby presenting less opportunity for readers to consider the matter deeply. The New York Times asks no questions and looks at the big picture only in passing, if at all: it simply tells what happened at a U.N. General Assembly vote. Will readers do the extra work to find out why the vote really matters, what Russia’s actions may mean for the future, what Russia has done in the past or what the West has done in similar situations? Many readers may not care enough to do this extra work, but perhaps there are also many who do. However, among those readers who do care, it is not a given that they will have the time or the resources to do so on their own, and the New York Times article does not tell them where to look for that information should they want to.
The Al Jazeera article looks at things on a larger scale, exploring questions about the issue and the ways other countries are major players in this situation. This gives readers something more to grasp onto, and the central focus on Obama’s struggle almost creates a narrative. Narrative creates interest and draws readers in as much in news reporting as it does in novels. And though it almost starts to appear in the Al Jazeera article, it is in The Economist that we see a more complete narrative, a story of Russia and the international community in the past, present, and future. Appeals to pathos are used to great effect, and the reader is presented not just with the facts but also with reasons to care about those facts.
Some will argue that this is a detrimental loss of objectivity, that a popular news publication should not make an argument but should simply state what happened. However, The Economist’s approach is a more effective way to present the news, though readers are still free to disagree with the opinions presented. The story of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine is interesting, and it matters. Whether or not one believes Putin’s actions are right, there is a great deal at stake in the possible outcomes, and The Economist crafts this news as a narrative with distinct power players and a fairly gripping plot line. It also gives context, describing not just what happened in this instance, but also other events that may be related or predictive. Readers may argue that these other events do not mean what the writers of The Economist think they do; for example, that Russia’s past actions in Georgia cannot be used to accurately predict the outcome of the present situation. Yet context is important, as no event ever happens in isolation.
If it means readers will be more likely to read, understand, think critically and research further, then a less objective, though still informative, approach to journalism is actually desirable. Factuality remains important, but if there is a bias, the bias should be made clear and supported with evidence rather than lying under the surface. Readers will hopefully be critical enough to know that they can disagree with a news article’s analysis, and to consider whether the opposing viewpoint may be worthwhile. However, there is still the danger that readers will simply believe everything they read in the news, taking any arguments put forward as “facts.” The solution is not to do away with the kind of journalism that marries facts with opinionated analysis, but rather to redefine journalism as a practice that can, even ought to, present an argument in cases where there are clear choices to be made. The news will be a more useful and engaging resource, and as readers adapt, they will grow to be better critical thinkers and better-informed citizens.