A little word, a big effect

By Barry Tucker          January 16, 2013

I sometimes pick up on some sloppy reporting, deliberate spin or bias in the mainstream news media (MSM). It always creates huge interest on Twitter because many people are aware of the decline in professional standards and bias throughout the MSM.

I refer to it occasionally. But I could make a full-time career of it, so widespread are the examples of biased, unbalanced and unprofessional reporting.

To some degree, a process of correcting a perception of Left-bias in Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News and Current Affairs has been under way for some time (since the last Liberal government of former Prime Minister John Howard, in fact).

At the same time, Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited (at least 70% of Australia’s news media outlets) has been running a Right-wing Conservative agenda against the federal Labor government, which is probably related to mining taxes, environment/pollution control, news media regulation, construction of a National Broadband Network and control of Australia Network News (now operated by the ABC).

Now that you have the background, let’s look at a specific example I picked up yesterday afternoon. It was still being discussed on Twitter late this afternoon. But if I hadn’t referred to it I imagine it would have gone unnoticed.

On the ABC’s website, Simon Cullen (ABC Chief Political Correspondent) produced a report that referred to a story published earlier in the day by The Australian. The story referred to the latest Newspoll figures. Now, you need to know that The Australian has exclusive rights to publish the Newspoll results and The Australian is 100% owned by News Limited, which also owns 50% of Newspoll.

Labor figures are quoted in three paragraphs, Newspoll chief Martin O’Shannessy gets two paras and Opposition front bencher Greg Hunt gets four. Two Labor politicians and one Opposition politician commented, with slightly more quotes. Let’s call that a draw because it’s hard to strike a perfect balance.

My attention was drawn to one little word in the third last paragraph. It doesn’t need to be there and the fact that it is there can be seen as an attempt to influence the reader. That is either careless or deliberate writing, or lazy clichéd writing, or amateurish sub-editing. Here are the last three pars; my comments continue below.

Despite recording a six-point bounce in Labor’s primary vote, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s personal satisfaction rating increased only two points to 38 per cent.

That compares with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s personal satisfaction rating of 29 per cent.

More people are dissatisfied than satisfied with the performance of both leaders, with Ms Gillard recording a voter dissatisfaction rating of 49 per cent, while Tony Abbott is on 58 per cent.

The word that caught my attention was “only” in the first of the three pars above. “Only”, used in the context of the highly charged atmosphere of the relative popularity of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, is a serious breach of professional ethics. It is a subtle attempt to influence the reader.

But it gets worse. Simon Cullen, the ABC’s Chief Political Correspondent, ought to know how the Newspoll works and what it measures. He has made the mistake of comparing the government’s popularity with the Prime Minister’s popularity. They are two distinctly different measurements. Mr Cullen seems to think if the government’s popularity is up by six points then the Prime Minister’s popularity should have risen by about the same amount. This is demonstrated by the use of “Despite” and “only”.

He does not emphasise the fact that the Prime Minister’s personal popularity has risen by another two points, continuing the upward trend that we began to see some months ago.

By separating the second par from the first, Mr Cullen (or the sub-editor) is separating the good news from the bad — avoiding a direct comparison of the two. Mr Cullen begrudgingly points out, by using “Despite” and “only”, that the PM’s rating is up two points, but he does not point out that the Opposition Leader remains stuck on his historically low rating of 29.

I could also take issue with the use of “while” in the third par. If I was subbing that par I’d rephrase it to avoid any accusation of bias, like this:

People remain dissatisfied with the performance of both leaders. Ms Gillard’s voter dissatisfaction is 49 per cent. Mr Abbott’s is 58 per cent.

How much of those dissatisfied ratings is due to policy debates we are not having and how much is due to sensationalist, sleazy and sloppy reporting, along with rampant bias, is something that keeps me awake at night.

Read Simon Cullen’s report here:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-01-15/support-for-labor-surges-in-latest-newspoll/4464788

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4 thoughts on “A little word, a big effect

  1. “…How much of those dissatisfied ratings is due to policy debates we are not having and how much is due to sensationalist, sleazy and sloppy reporting, along with rampant bias, is something that keeps me awake at night…”

    You’re not Robinson Crusoe here…

  2. Excellent analysis Barry! Points out the subtle aspect of a single word to influence. It’s easy to pick out the ‘sledgehammers’, e.g., today’s Herald Sun front page and two page follow on a car/bike accident involving the Dep Opp Leader and his wife. Journalism so low they’ll have to dig a trench to reset the bar. It’s the subtle ones that go through to the keeper that hurt most.

  3. Very well put Barry. The other aspect to the “little details” are the photos MSM uses for the PM and Abbott. There seems to be a bias towards unflattering pictures of Julia Gillard and flattering and at times “heroic pose” pictures of Tony Abbott.

    The visual cues create a subconscious predisposition of positive vibes about Abbott and negative ones for the PM.

    My cynical side says that MSM is consciously using these subliminal skills along with one or two words that qualify quantitative data into positive / negative sides. Together, the visual – text qualifiers bias the LNP.

    My less cynical side says that MSM does not know what it is doing and creates this bias quite unconsciously because of fear that a social democrat government will not bend as far as the conservative parties do for big corporations. These corporations own MSM either through advertising or shares. Their fear is well founded – look at the carbon price, mining super profits tax and much more.

    Thanks for your post.

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