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.”

CARDINALS FAIL!!!!!

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.

UPDATE:

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.

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.

  • frjimt

    truth is, one has to consider where the ‘journalist’ was educated. I am finding, ever increasingly, that many are coming from the hostile confines of the ‘sissy chapels’ of modern colleges where, under the guise of opening minds, the halls of academia are filtered with a bias vs anything organized, unless it’s organized chaos.

  • Bain Wellington

    Sorry to be late on this post, but then again, it pre-dated by two days another piece from Pullella (with others) trailing clichés and errors http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/15/us-pope-idUSBRE92D05P20130315

    Here is the lede – same old leitmotif:-

    “Pope Francis on Friday urged leaders of a Roman Catholic Church riven by scandal and crisis never to give in to discouragement, bitterness or pessimism but to keep focused on their mission. Since his election . . Francis has signaled a sharp change of style from his predecessor, Benedict, and has laid out a clear moral path for the 1.2-billion-member Church, which is beset by scandals, intrigue and strife.”

    Then a bit of a flutter over what Bergoglio did or did not do or say during the Argentine Dirty War (1976-1983) before a segue into some side-swipes at Benedict :-

    “Francis has given clear signs already that he will bring a new broom to the crisis-hit papacy, favoring humility and simplicity over pomp and grandeur. On Friday he spoke to the cardinals in Italian from a prepared text but often added off-the-cuff comments in what has already become the hallmark of a style in sharp contrast to the stiffer, more formal Benedict. Francis called the princes of the church ‘brother cardinals’ instead of “lord cardinals” as Benedict did.”

    Improvising was a hallmark of Benedict’s style. If Pullella forgot the Q & A sessions so notable a feature even in the first year of Benedict’s pontificate, let him read this :- http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1336742?eng=y

    And Benedict called the princes of the Church “Lord Cardinals”? So far as my industry extends, he always called them “Venerable Brother Cardinals” (just as every Pope calls every bishop his brother).

    The piece then wobbles by admitting that Pope Francis paid tribute to Benedict (who gets hit two paragraphs later for being “aloof”, having been accused, higher up in the piece, of lacking a sense of humour), but it gets back on message with this reprise of the lede:-

    “Morale among the faithful has been hit by a widespread child sex abuse scandal involving Catholic priests and in-fighting in the Church government or Curia”

    That would be the child sex abuse scandal that no intelligent commentator attributes to any default of Benedict’s, of course. Just to recap, that’s “scandal and crisis” and “scandals intrigue and strife ” in the lede and “scandal and in-fighting” in the reprise.


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