Bullshit As Fact
Mar 17, 2010
As anybody who has ever wistfully imagined Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly fighting to the death over a pit of lava knows, most media outlets are biased. Usually it’s not part of anybody’s grand scheme to brainwash you, but rather just the result of newsrooms being staffed by fallible, opinionated humans.
The problem is they’re generally not allowed to come right out and say they think the subject of their news story is a flaming douchebag, so they have to rely on subtle and sometimes downright dishonest methods to gently sway you one way or the other.
When someone uses language that implies a definite fact without stating it outright, they’re using weasel words. The most common are when you attribute opinions to unnamed strangers. Ads include statements like, “Combined with diet and exercise, many experts agree that this pill could drastically increase the size of your penis and raise your credit card score.” The “many experts agree” are the weasel words there.
How Can This Be Used For Evil?
If you’re writing a news story, and want to insert your own opinion, you simply attribute the opinion to some unnamed person or group. Such as “many people”:
The writers do not explain who is saying, asking or arguing. Their friends? God? The homeless man outside ranting about the government stealing his thoughts? Who are these people and how numerous are they? What are their qualifications?
We don’t know, and in their own mind the reporter can always rationalize it with, “Well, surely there’s somebody on planet Earth making that point. Why waste time actually finding them?”
Weasel words can also be used in another way, similar to the way a Straw Man is used in a debate: to introduce an anonymous but supposed common opposing argument which the writer can then rail against, as we have here:
Dude, that is not the reason we’re against letting robots operate on us. It’s because they’ll rewire our brains and turn us into slaves, as we have plainly stated many times.
Implying Without Saying
As humans, we want to know the “why” behind everything, and we get frustrated when we don’t have it. We see two things–a good harvest after we’ve sacrificed a virgin to the gods, or our luck changing for the worse after that strange man gave us a monkey paw–and we naturally think they’re connected. Where there’s correlation, we want causation.
This is particularly the case with bad news, which we are usually desperate to find a simple explanation for so that we don’t wind up thinking that we live in a random, Godless universe full of cursed monkeys. This can be used against you, however, since a lot of persuasion techniques involve letting you fill in that gap yourself.
How Can This Be Used For Evil?
If you play video games, headlines like this drive you nuts: “Boy, 13, Fired Shotgun Into Cousin’s Face After Playing Gangster Game”. The “Gangster Game” of course being one of the Grand Theft Auto games. Or perhaps it’s, “Teenager Stabbed at Midnight Launch of Violent Video Game Grand Theft Auto IV.”
Nothing in these headlines is technically untrue, but in both cases you find out from the story that there is absolutely no indication that the video game had anything to do with the crime.
In the first one, you can replace “playing gangster game” with anything the kid did that morning. “Boy Fired Shotgun Into Cousin’s Face After Eating Cheeseburger.” “Boy Fired Shotgun Into Cousin’s Face After Watching Spongebob Rerun.” Oh, they’re not saying the game caused the crime–they have absolutely no way of knowing or proving that. They’re just wording it in a way so that you have no choice but to make that connection yourself.
Never mind that the majority of young males play video games on a regular basis. If the attacker had even one edition of the GTA series sitting out at home, that shit goes right in the headline, baby! Otherwise you get a generic headline like “Teenager Arrested Over Stabbing Death,” because we fall back to the normal rule that what that teenager did in his spare time is utterly irrelevant to the story.
It’s not that the news media necessarily hates video games, by the way. It’s far more likely they just threw the video game aspect into the headline to grab attention, since it’s just a random, boring crime story otherwise. Like when you see the headline, “Ex-prostitute ‘still loves’ Becks” (“Becks” being the cute tabloid nickname of soccer superstar David Beckham) you say, “Holy shit! Superstar athlete! Prostitute! Scandal!”
Only when you read the very, very end of the story do you realize that 1) only the woman claims to have had a relationship with him; 2) she wasn’t a prostitute at the time and in fact; 3) had only been a prostitute once, for a couple of months, years earlier.
Not many people will read that far, which by the way brings us to another common technique…
Burying Inconvenient Facts
Let’s face it, most of us don’t have much time to read. If you get your morning headlines on Drudge or Yahoo! News, you almost certainly don’t devour every word of every link. You browse headlines, you skim stories, you get the gist of what’s going on in the world.
For that reason, journalism schools teach writers to format articles like a backwards version of an M. Night Shyamalan movie: The only part worth seeing comes first. So, you have the headline which is written to grab you, even if it’s mildly confusing (see “US Court Rules ‘Zombies Have Free Speech Rights'”). And after that comes the first sentence or lede, which summarizes all the important facts of the story that follows (“A court has allowed a group of protesters dressed as zombies to continue with a lawsuit against police who arrested them for disorderly conduct.”)
As the story goes on, the information supplied becomes steadily less and less important, a style some call the “inverted pyramid.” They used to do this for stories appearing in physical newspapers where space was limited, because editors know it’s safe to cut from the end without losing anything crucial.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work, anyway.
How Can This Be Used For Evil?
Obviously if you’re a reporter and you have a certain bias one way or the other, the method is simple: Just make sure that whatever facts contradict your point are buried. Nobody can claim you left the facts out, yet you know that most of the readers won’t see them.
The most blatant, yet frequent, use of this is just flat out doing a headline that doesn’t match the story. After all, people who surf portal sites like Digg or Reddit often read the headline and nothing else. So for example: A news outlet runs the headline, “The Internet Will Make You Smarter, Claims Study.”
Most readers will simply scan the headline, and miss the fact that 1) the “study” was just a survey of random people and 2) it was an “online” survey at that. That makes the study about as reliable as a poll on nuclear physics conducted via Tila Tequila’s Twitter feed.
But at least the part that gives it away is near the top. That’s opposed to this article from a Seattle newspaper with the provocative headline, “Police Insist: When Huskies Win, There’s More Trouble.” The “Huskies” here are the local college football team, if you were wondering, and headline seems to say that when they win, crime goes up. Holy shit! Better put a stop to that!
The first hint that the headline might not be accurate comes in paragraph four (that “the stats may not necessarily bear it out”) and the information that actually completely contradicts the headline’s claim doesn’t pop up until freaking paragraph eight (that this very paper did an analysis that showed no increase in police calls on game day, whether the team wins or not).
That’s right; without changing a word of the article, the paper could just as easily have run the headline as, “Study Shows No Increase In Huskies Violence.”
Keep that in mind as you browse headlines today.
By C. Coville