How to Spot Political Bias

When conversations turn to politics, how can you know when it’s political spin?   How can you tell when you’re being manipulated?

Well, frankly, it’s mostly all spin.

When pundits and pols speak, they are trying to convince you of something. And when someone is trying to convince you of something, they will select their words very carefully.

It’s called framing.  When someone has a political agenda, they will often use words that frame an issue in a way that is favorable to their position.  A frame is a word or phrase that biases the meaning of some issue in a way that serves the interest of the speaker.

Language Affects How We Think

We typically that that the words that we use simply refer to uninterpreted objects and events in the real world.  This, however, is simply not the case.  Our words do not simply describe the world as it is.  Words communicate interpretations of the world.

Words help structure how we perceive the world and how we think about the world.

What is happening in this picture?

One car bumped the other.

One car hit the other.

One car ran into the other.

One car smashed the other.

Which of the statements describes what is happening in this picture?  Well, to some degree, they all do.  Each statement frames the event in a slightly different way.  I could be talking to you about the same event. However, if I tell you that the cars bumped, you will get a very different impression than if I said that the cars smashed. Each of these words frames the event in a different way. [i]

How Words Create Political Bias

The same effect occurs in political discussions.  In any political discussion, the words that people use will bias the discussion in one way or another.   This is inevitable, and it occurs on all sides of the political spectrum.

Sometimes the bias in political language is obvious.  By the language he or she uses, the speaker has exposed his or her bias.  This happens most often in opinion pieces — and that is the place, of course, where we should expect explicit political bias.  Here are some examples.

In the War on Consumers, Will California Politicians Ever Surrender?

This is Peak College Admissions Insanity

Biden, Democrats Hate the Constitution

The Greatest Liar of All Time Gets a Conviction

The Bankruptcy of Bidenomics

The terms “War on Consumers”, “Admissions Insanity”, “Democrats Hate the Constitution”, “Greatest Liar of All Time”, and “Bankruptcy of Bidenomics” These statements are obvious opinions. They reflect an obvious bias.  And none of them, of course, is literally true.   Regardless of what is going on in California, there is no “War on Consumers”.  Whatever one thinks about admissions policies in higher education, they cannot literally be “insane”.  It is absurd to say that Democrats (or Republicans) “Hate the Constitution”.  Trump may lie, but no one can show that he is the “Greatest Liar of All Time”. And, of course, Bidenomics cannot literally be bankrupt!

All of these phrases make use of metaphors that frame issues in question in a negative light.  Even though it may be obvious, we must be aware of how the writer is trying to manipulate our ways of thinking.

Less Obvious Examples of Political Bias

Here are some phrases that are used all of the time by people on the left or right.  Each of these terms is used to as if it were a mere “description” of an event, group or people or the like.  However, each of these terms – regardless of their origins — reflect a particular ideological bias.

Illegal Aliens vs. Undocumented Immigrants

Affordable Care Act vs. Obamacare

Tax relief vs Fair Share of Taxes

Riots vs Protest

Fatcats vs. Generators of Wealth

Needy vs. “Welfare Queen”

Underserved vs. Poor

Opportunity Gap vs. Achievement Gap

Affirmative action vs. Quotas

War vs. Conflict vs. Battle vs. Military Action

Examples of Political Bias in New Articles (Not Opinion Pieces)

Here are some recent examples of news reporting that uses words in way that bias the reader’s interpretation in some way.

Despite gains, women still lag far behind men in the little-regulated industry of college sports. (With Payments to College Athletes, Another Fight Looms for Women)

Regardless of whether one believes that women should earn as much as men in college sports, the italicized words create the default impression that woman should be paid as much as men.

Poster boy for trans inmates moved out of women’s prison after rape charges.

Regardless of one’s position on issues of transgender individuals in prisons, the phrase “poster boy for trans inmates” reflects an explicit bias in an ostensively journalistic article.

Billions in taxpayer dollars are being used to pay tuition at religious schools throughout the country, as state voucher programs expand dramatically and the line separating public education and religion fades. (Billions in taxpayer dollars now go to religious schools via vouchers).

Regardless of one’s position on the relation between church and state with regards to educational funding, the phrase “the line separating public education and religion fades” frames the issue in terms of a particular bias.

What to Do When You Detect Political Bias

You might read these examples and ask, “How can I eliminate the bias and just talk about what’s real?”  The answer is: “You really can’t”.   All observations are biased by the very language that we use to express them. We can’t eliminate the bias. However, once we become aware of our biases, there are several ways to deal with them.

First, when you recognize an instance of political bias – even one that expresses your own bias — be skeptical.  Know that the writer has an agenda, and that you may or may not be able to believe what is being written on face value.

Second, simply ask yourself, “What does this say about the author’s or the speaker’s political perspective?”  Then, simply be aware that whatever is being written is being expressed against the backdrop of that perspective.  You might ask, “how would someone with a different perspective think of this?”  Simply being aware of the perspective of the writer will help you detect what you should believe and what you should not.

Third, ask yourself: How does the writer’s perspective differ from mine?  What is he or she assuming?  How would I think about the issue if I were to adopt the perspective of the writer?  What would happen if I rejected it?  Should I consider changing anything about my perspective? Or am I content with how I am currently thinking?

Get Concrete

Finally, perhaps the best way to respond to political bias is to get concrete.  That is, instead of accepting the spin and interpretations that people make when they advance some political position, insist on concreteness.  That is, demand that the other advance specific evidence, focus on the specifics, and give particular examples.

For example, a recent New York Times article on Senator Menendez’ corruption trial indicated that:

[Senator Menendez] has spent at least $3 million of his campaign contributions on lawyers working to defend him against charges that he meddled in criminal investigations in New Jersey, steered aid to Egypt and obstructed justice by trying to make bribes appear to be loans.

Regardless of whether or not one believes that Menendez is guilty of the charges against him, instead of merely accepting the term “meddled”, ask, “Exactly what did Menendez do?” “What are the concrete events that constitute meddling?”  Instead of “steered aid”, insist on knowing, “What aid? From whom to whom?  How was it “steered”?  Instead of the abstract, “obstructed justice”, what exactly are the acts that are said to be such obstructions?

Or consider this line from a Washington Times article:

The House on Wednesday passed a $147 billion spending bill for Veterans Affairs and military construction but lost most Democratic support because it axed climate change and woke policies.

The term “woke policies” sounds like a mere description of an event.  It is not – it is an interpretation – a way of framing the policies.  Instead of accepting the phrase “woke policies” at face value, it is better to insist on knowing “To what specific policies are you referring?”  “What specifically do they say?”

Until You Get the Details — Suspend Judgment

Whenever you see words that judge, interpret, characterize, or frame an issue, be aware that someone is trying to convince you of something.  I never believe anything that is framed using a politically loaded term. I simply reserve judgment until I know more details – then I can judge for myself.

[i] Now, you might be asking, which of the words describes what really happened in the picture. You might say, well, that depends. We’d need to know how fast the cars were moving, how much the drivers were paying attention, what the roadway was like, and so forth.  Knowing all of that, of course, would help us choose a suitable word. But none of this knowledge would help us find the “correct” word – the word that describes “what really happened”.  That’s because there is no one word that is the correct one!  There is no such thing as an uninterpreted observation.  The moment we use a word, we are making an interpretation, and we cannot do otherwise.  Yes, this does make things more complicated – but it does not mean that “anything goes”.   All it means is that we have to be even more careful to try to understand what someone means (or what we mean ourselves) when they are using any particular term.


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