OK, class, today we're going to talk about how the news media craft the news to advance their own political agenda.
Turn in your browsers to this story
at Yahoo! News about Florida bill S436
. Read the article first for the content of the bill, then read it again for tone and bias. Please look up when finished reading.
OK, everyone ready? Let's examine the article paragraph by paragraph.
Florida eyes allowing residents to open fire whenever they see threat
MIAMI (AFP) - Florida's legislature has approved a bill that would give residents the right to open fire against anyone they perceive as a threat in public, instead of having to try to avoid a conflict as under prevailing law.
Notice the emotion-grabbing words "open fire against anyone". Also, by using the words "anyone they perceive as a threat", they seem to be leading one to wonder if each person can decide for themselves, including all the loonies out there.
The current law does say you must try to retreat, unless (a) you are in a place you have a right to be, such as your home or vehicle, or (b) retreating would increase your risk of death/bodily harm.
Outraged opponents say the law will encourage Floridians to open fire first and ask questions later, fostering a sort of statewide Wild West shootout mentality. Supporters argue that criminals will think twice if they believe they are likely to be promptly shot when they assault someone.
More alarm words, "Outraged opponents", "encourage Floridians to open fire", "statewide Wild West shootout". These phrases are design to make you feel empathy for these opponents. On the other hand, supporters are "arguing", but we still see the words "promptly shot", again suggesting that the law allows fire-at-will for everyone.
In my journalism class, I was taught that "said" is the only truly neutral word for attribution of quotes. Any other word (argued, urged, revealed, pleaded, maintained) expresses some bias of the author.
This relates back to the one, main responsibility of a reporter: to report
. Not to interpret, not to select what news is convenient or which voices are reported, but to accurately record all that was said or done. A reporter should never be talking in his own voice, but only repeating what others have said.
It's also more natural to state the supporters point of view first, but this can be a matter of editorial preference.
Republican Governor Jeb Bush, who has said he plans to sign the bill, says it is "a good, commonsense, anti-crime issue."
Notice how they emphasize that Governor Jeb Bush is a Republican? To many journalists, this is an insult only slightly lower than "Conservative" (or worse yet, "Conservative Christian"). They can't actually say it in so many words, but they can arrange their words in order to lead you to that impression.
The author has already done their best to imply that the bill, if passed, will lead to gunfire in the streets. Now he is trying to show that Gov. Bush is too out of touch with reality to see this.
Current state law allows residents to "shoot to kill if their property, such as their home or car, is invaded by an unknown assailant."
But it also states that if a resident is confronted or threatened in a public place, he or she must first try to avoid the confrontation or flee before taking any violent step in self defense against an assailant.
Notice, class, that the second paragraph above is a sentence fragment. This is a grammatical error often used to add emphasis. Putting the fragment in a paragraph of its own brings even more emphasis. In this case, the author doesn't want you to miss his point and his point of view. His point is that the current law is "sensible" because it requires people to think before they shoot, and the new law will permit people to shoot anyone, anywhere and say it was because they felt threatened.
It's a bit disingenuous to talk only about the "violent step in self defense", when the text of the bill clearly states that the force can only be used to protect against threat of death or bodily injury, or a "forcible felony". The text of the bill says the person using defensive force "is justified in using force that is likely to cause death or bodily injury against another when and to the extent
that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other's imminent use of unlawful force." (Emphasis mine). If he's only threatening to slap your face, you aren't justified in shooting him.
The bill, supported by the influential National Rifle Association, was approved by both houses of the Republican-run legislature on Tuesday.
By invoking "the influential National Rifle Association" and the "Republican-run legislature", he has, in his perspective, put the last nails in the coffin. By saying "Republican-run", he might as well have said "mafia-run" in some people's minds. He omits some details which would better allow the reader to evaluate the story for himself.
- What does it mean that the NRA supported the bill? Were they lobbying for this particular change, or do they simply support bills of this type as a matter of policy? The reader may tend to assume from this article that the NRA was the "silent hand" trying to get this bill passed.
- What was the vote in each house? Did the bill win by a landslide or a narrow margin? Was the bill opposed widely but pushed through, or was there a small but vocal "fringe" opposition?
- How many Democrats and Independents in each house voted for this bill? How many Republicans voted against it?
- For that matter, what does Republican-run mean? Are the houses split 51%/49% or 80%/20%? Do the parties work together well and get things done, or is the Florida legislature a logjam for anything except what the Republicans want? Are bi-partisan bills the exception or the rule?
- How many other states have passed a law like this? What effect has it had on crime, the murder rate, and victim survival?
It is important to remember that this is a newswire story, so space is limited. Not all the details above can be included in a 200-word story. It is dishonest, however, to include only the facts which paint the picture in an unfair light.
For instance, by referring to the "Republican-run legislature", he makes it sound as if the vote was largely along party lines. In fact, the vote was almost 5:1 in favor in the Senate
(94 Yea, 20 Nay, 6 not voting) where the bill originated, and all but unanimous in the House
(39 Yea, 0 Nay, 1 not voting).
According to another document on the same site, the Florida House contains 14 Democrats, 26 Republicans. To be sure, that's a 2:1 ratio, but it didn't look like there was much of a fight - after only a week on the floor, everyone present voted for the bill. I couldn't find a similar breakdown by party for the Senate, but I have to believe there are more than 26 Democrats (20 Nay, 6 not voting).
Consider the story if it were instead written as below. Note that this story is still not without bias. The point of this exercise is to examine how the same facts can be used to paint a different picture.
Florida extends self-defense laws to include personal assaults
MIAMI (AFP) - Florida's legislature has approved a bill that extends the current self-defense laws related to property to include personal assaults, permitting people to use appropriate force to defend against threats of death or bodily injury.
Supporters say S436 will close a loophole in current state law which has permitted victims of violent crimes to be sued by their attackers for using force to defend themselves against violent crime. Opponents say the law will encourage Floridians to carry and use firearms indiscriminately.
Current state law allows residents to "shoot to kill if their property, such as their home or car, is invaded by an unknown assailant," but does not include similar provisions for personal assaults. If passed, the bill will create a presumption of reasonable fear of death or bodily injury in certain circumstances, and allow the victim to meet force with force to protect against such attacks.
The bill was approved by both houses of the legislature on Tuesday, with wide bipartisan support. Florida Governor Jeb Bush says it is "a good, commonsense, anti-crime issue", and has said he plans to sign the bill.
This alternative version is only 193 words. Apart from the "Supporters say" line, it's all based on facts from the Florida Senate website, or facts from the original article. (Sorry, I didn't invest the time to look up a supporter to get a real quote, but I think this one is pretty reasonable.)
For your homework, please write your own 1500 word essay on bias in the news media, as I have done here.