Slippery Slope to Slant Bias: Word Choice is Everything

Courtesy of The Mackay School

Not all words are created equal. In any field, word choice is imperative, but the marketing, media, and journalism industry relies more heavily on their language than meets the eye. Slanted news bias via “WCL” (word choice and labelling) is one of the most common, yet subtle forms of bias we encounter on a day-to-day basis. The recounting of the same event, but with slightly different wording, can drastically change your opinion of what is being described. Political stances often use this kind of bias to describe their causes. The terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” for example, both seem like honorable ideals. Nobody wants to be anti­-choice or anti­-life; the words themselves act as a selling point. Another great example of bias by WCL is in headlines, which tend to cater to the desires of their readers.




In a comparison between two headlines covering the same incident in March of 2003, the New York Times and USA Today depicted two very different pictures.

    NYT: Iraq forces suspension of U.S. surveillance flights

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -Iraqi fighter jets threatened two American U-2 surveillance planes, forcing them to return to abort their mission and return to base, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.

    USA Today: U.N. Withdraws U-2 Planes

WASHINGTON (AP)-U.N. arms inspectors said Tuesday they had withdrawn two U-2 reconnaissance planes over Iraq for safety reasons after Baghdad complained both aircraft were in the air simultaneously.

In this case, one can see a difference in tone between the words “force” and “withdrawn,” as well as, “Iraqi fighter jets threatened” and “Baghdad complained.” The first describes Iraq as imposing, domineering, and the United States as more submissive, while the second depicts Baghdad as almost childish, causing the United States to abide and voluntarily recall their planes.

In a piece on President Bush, CNN used the following:

Before departing the White House early Monday for a farewell tour of Europe, President Bush stole a page from his predecessor and suggested he feels American consumers’ pain.

The word “stole” here, replacing the usual saying of “take a page from the book” which has no particular connotation, creates a negative association. The concept of the president “stealing” anything makes him appear immoral. The following sentence, with the word “suggested” also creates an image of him. Consider these other examples:

  • Bush said he feels American consumers’ pain.
  • Bush expressed that he feels American consumers’ pain.
  • Bush claimed that he feels American consumers’ pain.

Each of these sentences creates a slightly different impression of the understanding of the event.

Other instances of poor WCL include “spin” media bias, which uses high-intensity words to prevent the reader from gaining an accurate impression of the event. “Pedestal” words, i.e. crucial, landmark, monumental, significant, etc., heighten the importance of the event, while incensed wording, like “mocked,” “bragged,” “gloated,” dramatizes the emotionality of the event. Sensationalism/Emotionalism itself is also cited as a prominent tactic to influence readers. The general omission of facts, or derived opinions stated as facts, continues to be an issue within the world of journalism. Educating and recognizing the biases within media is the key to avoiding them, and developing arguments based in well-researched and produced facts.

What exactly creates “tone” in the first place? How can this be used to form a bias? The answer is found in the classic terms, “denotation” vs. “connotation.” Denotation refers to the dictionary definition of a word. “Janice and Alexa got into a fight,” implies no direct blame or responsibility for the altercation. “Janice attacked Alexa,” however, places the blame on Janice, despite not changing the event itself. Connotation refers to our understanding of the words, usually with the added “positive” or “negative” connotations. “House” vs. “Home” have two very different understandings. “Inexpensive” and “cheap,” “moist” and “soggy,” are each associated with specific feelings, whether we recognized it or not. Hence how word choice matters – every word contributes to the overall tone of the article, and therefore how we feel about it.




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