Media Beat, Mar. 10, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Advice for Reading Between the Lines

Many people prefer to read the news. That's understandable, since print media offer more substance than TV and radio newscasts do. But readers should be alert to hazards of an inky news diet.

News shouldn't be swallowed without healthy doses of skepticism. When reading daily papers and news weeklies, we need to keep asking ourselves some key questions:

Is the headline out of line?

Often we skim the headlines to catch up on what's happened. But that way we're apt to turn the page with a skewed impression of what the article actually says. Sometimes the gap between headline and story is laughable.

During the Moscow summit in June 1988, headline skimmers may have moved on after seeing "Reagan Impresses Soviet Elite" in big type in the New York Times - without reading the text of the article, which indicated that President Reagan had fallen asleep while meeting with Soviet officials.

In another summit article, the Times quoted Britain's Margaret Thatcher as saying of Reagan, "Poor dear, there's nothing between his ears." The headline: "Thatcher Salute to the Reagan Years."

Why THOSE photos?

Newsweek ended 1992 with a cover story on "Women of the Year," describing female "power players" who are "going to reshape the way Washington does business." But the photographs sent a different message: In four of the nine carefully composed photos, the women were pictured with children (either their own or someone else's). In five of the photos, the women were lying on the floor or otherwise horizontal. It's hard to picture a similar photo spread about male "power players."

Who are the sources?

Lengthy articles provide lots of facts, quotes and analysis. But exhaustive appearances can be deceiving.

Many news stories are built on official sources - often identified only as "senior administration officials," "informed sources," "Western diplomats" and the like. When official sources dominate an article, they tend to determine its slant, especially in the absence of contrary views from policy critics.

Who gets the space every day?

Routine imbalances are taken for granted, even though they're based on no particular logic - only power and precedent.

Virtually every newspaper publishes some kind of "Business" section each day, attuned to the outlooks of corporate executives. But newspapers don't have daily "Labor" pages, focusing on the concerns of working people - who are far more numerous than business managers and investors.

Don't assume that business sections are written for a cross section of readers. As Philadelphia Inquirer reporter David Johnston told us, "The financial pages of the newspapers of this country see the world through the eyes of bankers as opposed to through the eyes of bank customers."

Are euphemisms being deployed?

Sometimes grim historical events receive quite a face lift in print.

Even colonialism can get plastered with a happy face. Last November, a New York Times article described the British Empire as having brought "British managerial skills" to India, helping the natives run their plantations. A week later the Times reported that British colonial rule in Hong Kong has been a "benign dictatorship."

Human rights abusers can be prettified by journalistic euphemisms. While the U.S.-allied government of Turkey engaged in torture and murder of dissidents during the 1980s, a Washington Post news article characterized those activities as "controversial measures." According to the Post, Turkey's ruler pursued a "down-to-earth approach" to deal with "the rough and tumble of everyday politics."

Are the labels biased?

"Military leader" may not be a negative reference, but "military strongman" certainly is. Panama's Manuel Noriega was always a dictator, but it wasn't until he fell out of favor with Washington in the late 1980s that "military strongman" (or "dictator") became his first name in news dispatches.

In domestic politics, "moderate" is a pleasant-sounding media label to describe politicians unwilling to rock the status-quo boat. But for many people the status quo means suffering that is anything but "moderate."

In coverage of events overseas, U.S. news media are inclined to call a regime "moderate" if it has good relations with the White House. So, Saudi Arabia is "moderate" - which would surprise the torture victims who are inside Saudi prisons due to their political beliefs.

The most difficult biases to detect are the ones that are so common we don't give them a second thought - they simply blend into the familiar media scenery. If we take a fresh look at what passes before our eyes every day, "the news" may never be the same.

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