Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Nuance and Neutrality (or, why your favorite news outlet isn’t as unbiased as you think)

- a post by Jeanna Mason Stay

Here’s a little pet peeve of mine (and I promise it comes around to writing advice, not just political complaining): All the loudest people on any side of the political spectrum are always entirely certain (loudly, remember) that their media of choice is far superior to those others’ media. Because of course their media is brilliantly unbiased while the others’ is simply packed full of lies.

I’m going to break some bad news to you, and I will admit that it’s possibly more cynical than necessary. But here it is: No news reporting is really all that unbiased anymore. (If it ever was, which I doubt.)

Now, originally when I planned to write this, I was going to carefully sift through news articles from a variety of sources and shared quotes to prove the point. But there were two problems with this: 1. I was unwilling to put that much research into it. 2. My purpose here is not to complain about news media (well, except peripherally).

So what is the point? The same sneaky techniques that most news outlets use to subtly nudge their readers in a given direction can also be very useful for us as fiction writers.* Here are some suggestions:

1. Do you carefully consider whose words you use? I recently read some reports in which there were several people/groups both for and against a certain event. Now, the obvious thing to do would be to only tell one side of the story (which, in fact, several of the reports did). But that’s pretty clearly biased.

Here’s the sneakier thing to do (which at least one report that I read did). Person A and Person B are against the event. Person A is a fairly reasonable individual with some informative, thoughtful points. Spend about three sentences on him. Person B is liable to insult everyone within hearing range every time he opens his mouth. Spend at least three paragraphs on him. By the end of the article, your readers will be for the event and think everyone against it is a horrible person.

How does this apply to fiction? You can lead your readers by who says what about something. When a likable person likes something or someone, you don’t have to say, “This thing is likable.” Your readers intuitively feel it. Here’s a perfect fictional example: Sherlock Holmes. Generally speaking, Holmes himself is sort of an arrogant, egotistical twit (yes, he’s brilliant, so he is at least somewhat justified in his self-opinion, but it’s still arrogant). So why do we like him? There are various reasons, of course, but one of those reasons is because Watson likes him.** And Watson is rather likable.

Now, if you want to mislead your readers, you can be really sneaky. You can make someone seem likable and then show them liking something that eventually will turn out bad. Or you can have a truly likable person just be terribly mistaken. There are lots of ways to manipulate readers’ emotions based simply on the face time that you give a character, how readers are likely to feel about that character, and how that character feels about other things.

2. Do you use words with the desired nuance? Denotation (the strict meaning of a word) is not everything; connotation and nuance are really useful in leading the unconscious emotions of a reader.

Here’s a basic example that comes up quite frequently. Every time a news article interviews someone, they have to give a speech tag. Consider the following speech tags: said, claimed, alleged, stated. Each of these suggests a certain level of truth. Try this:

“He alleged that the woman stole his bike.”
“He stated that the woman stole his bike.”
“He claimed that the woman stole his bike.”

How much do you believe the unnamed man in these sentences? The man who stated something is more believable than the man who claimed it or, even worse, alleged it. “Said” is generally the most value-neutral speech tag, but you can use the others to suggest a conclusion to your readers.

Here’s another example, from a book I recently read. Consider the difference between these two statements:

“She hasn’t spoken to me for a week.”
“We haven’t talked for a week.”

I confess, the book I read used the first sentence, and it took me about three pages to realize that it wasn’t because she was mad at the protagonist. It was just because they’d both been busy. Because when the author wrote sentence #1, she actually meant sentence #2. “Spoken” came across as formal and cold, and of course the directionality of the sentence contributed to a feeling that the character was angry.

There is far more to word choice than simply definition, and a sneaky and subtle writer will take advantage of that.

So, learn some lessons from the news! And go out and create better fiction.

* Look at how virtuously I didn’t say anything about news reporters also writing fiction!
** Fyi, I completely stole this example from the Writing Excuses folks. But I think it’s so perfect that it stuck in my brain.


  1. This is a great way to look at the news positively :). Bias has uses.

  2. Fantastic article- my husband and I just had an argument about this very thing. He thinks that saying, "Somebody took my comb," has the same meaning as "My comb is missing." I had to explain that no, the first sentence means that depending on where the comb is found, somebody is likely to get chewed out; whereas the second sentence invites a friendly search party. Which one will get the comb found faster?

    It's all in the wording... ;-)



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