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Common Sense: Less filling vs. tastes great

January 21, 2013

By Brent Davis, editor of The Saline Courier

Accusations of bias in reporting are something that every reporter, editor and publisher will face. That's ok. The written word, while often times inspiring and dramatic, has several inherent flaws. As opposed to listening to the spoken word, reading the written word does not contain the intent of the writer which is determined by the filter of the reader.
This isn't to say that bias does not make its way into the mind of the writer. To say that it doesn't proves the bias of the person making the case. The difficult part of defending a charge of bias where it doesn't exist is difficult, at best.
The best way to illustrate is to give examples. One of my favorite examples of charge of bias in a story I had written during an election season was that I intentionally attempted to drum up votes against a candidate. The candidate in question came to my office, sat across from me at my desk and said to me "You are trying to get me defeated."
Puzzled by the statement, I asked "How?"
"You intentionally put in the story that I was running for re-election!" said the candidate with strong emphasis on "re."
"Yes, I did." was my response. "Isn't this the second time you are running for the office?"
The candidate tilted his/her head, furrowed his/her brow and looked at me as if I had just fallen off the turnip truck. "Yes, I am." the candidate responded. "And you know it. That's why you put it in the headline. You did it on purpose!"
Clearly, I had not taken my multi-vitamin on this particular day. I still was as clueless as the candidate seemed me to be. Then, the explanation of bias was presented.
"You know there is an anti-incumbent attitude going around and office holders are getting voted out." he/she said.
Wait for it.
"You intentionally put that in the headline to promote my opponent so that I would lose the race!"
Stunned, the only thing I could think to say in my defense was "But aren't you running for re-election?" I asked the question as a means to clarify the issue, not as a smart-alec remark as the candidate clearly took it to be.
"Well!" the candidate said as he/she rose in a snap from the chair. "This job is over your head!"
"Sit down. Help me understand." I asked.
"No. I learned a long time ago that you don't make enemies with someone who buys ink by the barrel!" He/she left my office, never to cross the threshold again.
Right now, many of you thinking one of two things.
First, there are those who will be thinking "The candidate is right! It's right there in black and white. The paper wrote the headline to stir votes against the candidate. Does the paper not remember the sweeping broom of the 2010 elections?"
Second, there are those of you who are tilting your head, squishing your eyebrows and saying "What?"
Therein lies the rub. We filter what we read through our personal bias.
The best illustration I could think of was to use the old Miller LIte commercials from the late 1970s. Lite Beer was new to consumers and men just weren't interested in a "girly beer." To gain sales, Miller ran an advertising campaign under with the slogan "Tastes Great, Less Filling." In the commercials, ex-athletes would take one side or the other in the debate. Each had a particular viewpoint of the beer based upon their experience with it.
But what both sides seemed to forget was, it's just a beer. The virtues of taste vs filling was placed upon this little can by those on the outside, not by the maker itself.
If you really think about it and stand back a bit, those little 30-second bits of beer debate teach a much larger lesson of perspective.

Brent Davis is editor of the Saline Courier. He can be reached at bdavis@bentoncourier.com.

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