ENG 3U: Information, Bias, and the News

Just the facts. On the surface, this is all that news seems to be. What happened? Where did it happen? Why? Who was involved? Unfortunately, simple questions don’t always beget simple answers. The more important the event, the less likely that a simple answer will do. In some cases, simple answers can be downright dangerous.

This problem can be compounded by language. Words are rarely objective. The way we define a word is a reflection of our experiences.  This explains why words like Liberal or Conservative, Democrat or Republican, can elicit wildly different responses based on the nature of the audience.

Sometimes, the impact of language on our perception of a news story is more obvious:

  •  are protesters citizens exercising their democratic rights or are they law-breakers challenging authority?
  • is a devastating hit in hockey an example of hard-nosed play by the home team or a dirty hit that changed the momentum of the game?
  • are stories circulating about a politician important issues that he refuses to address, or unsubstantiated rumors?

Let’s take a look at this site which compares the use of language in news sources.

Consider the following graph that compares the use of language on FOX News and CNN during the conflicts in Gaza. Though you have not watched any of the broadcasts, what can you infer from the language use?

From Linguisticpulse.com, by Nic Subtirelu, PhD student at Georgia State.


Your Turn

Now, it is your turn to examine two versions of the same story.

  1. Find two stories about something in the news (sports? music? politics?) from two different sources. For example, choose the coverage of an NFL game in newspapers from the cities represented in the game, or the coverage of a tense international situation in newspapers of two countries involved.
  2. Compare the language used in the two news stories. Where is the language different? How does this language use impact meaning and understanding? If you wish, you can arrange your work in a way that mimics the chart about language in coverage of conflict in Gaza. Don’t worry about percentages; instead, use the extreme left and right of the chart to track the strongest language used by either source.
  3. In a few sentences, explain the value messages (intended or unintended) conveyed by the language used in the sources.

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