Bias and Propaganda: Still More Reuters Follies UPDATED

Muzzled! Just like dogs!

There’s been some discussion on this post about whether Reuters is, in fact, biased in its reporting on certain subjects.

I didn’t realize that was still a subject for debate. Their consistent anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian bias isn’t up for question at all. It’s not a matter of “if” they produced biased news, but of how much and on what subjects.

Their anti-Catholicism is not of the same texture as their anti-Israel material, since antisemitism is a unique and perennial kind of hatred that has manifested itself without fail for millennia, often in the most vicious ways imaginable. It now dons the mantle of sympathy for the “Palestinian” cause, but it’s the same-old Jew-hate.

In the comboxes, Deacon Greg takes exception to my claim for institutional anti-Catholic bias in the mainstream media, citing his long personal experience. I would agree with him that we’re not looking at a virulent, overt bias, but rather a tendency of thought.

That tendency of thought often does not apply to the way reporters view individual Catholics, since most Americans assume (with some justification) that Catholics don’t pay much attention to what their Church teaches. The hatred instead is directed at the “institutional Church,” which is differentiated from the mass of Catholics and held up for special vilification for all the obvious reasons (eg, the usual pelvic obsessions).

Bias, then, does not mean insulting someone’s beliefs (although I’ve been on the receiving end of that from some mainstream colleagues), but in maintaining a persistent negative opinion on a subject, with an inclination to view that subject in the worst possible light.

Bias manifests itself in the media under the cover of objectivity. Objectivity is an illusion. A writer cannot be removed from the product of his or her own mind. The most we can hope for is to tame it a bit using various habits and techniques. In the end, however, through word choice, structure, flow, juxtaposition, and all the other tricks writers use–consciously and subconsciously–the bias will emerge, to a greater or lesser degree. The subjective view of the writer will bleed through the text. Major news organizations operate like hive-minds, with the vast majority of employees sharing an urban liberal outlook. Thus, the subjective outlook of the primary writer or writers is shared by editors. They become blind to it, and an institutional bias emerges.

Sometimes, bias is so persistent and so obvious that it shades into propaganda. Propaganda can be a subtle thing. It’s not all Der Sturmer. It can be merely in the words you choose. Here are today’s headlines:

  • AP: “More black smoke: Cardinals don’t agree on pope”
  • USA Today: “World watches as papal conclave begins second day.”
  • Washington Post: “On Day 2 of papal conclave, alliances could emerge.”
  • New York Times: “Black Smoke From Conclave Signals No Pope on First Day.”

Not bad. They’re on point, and without any nudging. The articles don’t always live up to objectivity of those headlines, but I have no problem with the headlines themselves.

Now we come to Reuters:

  • “Cardinals fail to elect pope after three ballots.”


Words matter. Positioning of words matter. No one–absolutely no one–expected a pope after 3 ballots. Benedict took four and John Paul II took eight.

Clearly, there is no “failure” here.

So, why the loaded word?

It’s not enough to say we’re just looking at people trying to sell papers and gin up interest with catchy headlines and scandal mongering. Sure, that’s a factor, but it’s not like they’re even-handed about it. They don’t run headlines that say, “Gays fail to convince majority of Americans about same-sex marriage.” Only certain subjects, people, and institutions are singled out for the gloves-off treatment. And the Church is one of them.

We need to put aside the idea that this is not the product of institutional bias. These articles and headlines pass through at least a dozen hands. The final shape is the product of many choices, and these choices lead to a negative–not a neutral–depiction of the church. The result is the creation of propaganda under the guise of objective news.

The question remains: is this conscious or merely habitual propaganda? Is there a direct, overt institutional desire on the part of Reuters to depict the Church in a negative light? Or is it merely the product of a habit of mind that views the Church negatively, and leads to a reflexive bias?

I don’t read minds: only words. I try to think well of people. In most cases of media bias, I think we’re probably just seeing a sloppy habit of thinking, and a tendency to get lodged in the echo-chamber of liberal groupthink. I’m not quite as confident that this is the case with Reuters.


Reader Bain Wellington offers several examples for the Reuters writer in the comboxes who keeps saying, “Bias? I don’t see any bias.” (You’ll have better luck if you open your eyes.) Here’s one lovely tidbit he found:

Check [3] Robin Pomeroy, 19 Feb (editing by Pullella and anor)

Headline:- “Rome’s gays toast the departure of an unloved pope”

Lede:- “Across the road from the Colosseum, the ancient Roman stadium consecrated as a holy Christian site, clients at a busy bar are raising a glass to the pope: toasting the departure of the worst Church leader they can imagine.”
The 750 word article reports the views of 2 of the bar’s co-owners, and of Franco Grillini (contacted by telephone) allegedly founder of Italy’s “biggest gay advocacy group”.

Because trolling a gay bar for opinions on the pope is “good journalism” and not just an opportunity to give someone’s Grindr app a workout.

Like Patheos Catholic on Facebook!


How I Imagine Mainstream TV News
Let's Choose Not To Be Manipulated
How Did CNN Report on the New "Charlie Hebdo" Cover?
The Gell-Mann Effect
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.