Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Inescapable Bias

I'm looking at news results on the Web for today's ruling by U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in the Zacarias Moussaoui death penalty trial. [I'm not going to link directly to these, because the links and the heads will change over the next few hours.] Here's the headlines currently at the top of the list:

Judge Penalizes Moussaoui Prosecutors by Barring Major Witnesses
[New York Times]

Judge to Let Feds Seek Moussaoui's Death
[AP via Yahoo! News]

This is the sort of situation where the media can reveal its bias, or where watchdogs of the media will invariably detect bias. I doubt there's much deliberate bias involved in writing these particular headlines.

True, if you hate Shrubbie McChimplerburton as much as many of my co-workers do, you will naturally (by which I mean without deliberate malice) write the type of headline that emphasizes how the government screwed up and how they are losing.

But even if you don't you'll have to write it one way or another. Because Judge Brinkema in her ruling said X. And she also said Y. Life often is like that. The news often is like that. Iraq is like that every day. So is the economy. So is your kid's report card.

Even if you write, "Judge says X but she also says Y," or "Judge says Y but she also says X," you have to put one first. It's impossible to write them both at the same time unless you overlap the print and make it illegible.

So you write a headline that says, "Judge Says X." Or "Judge Says Y." Depending which thing, as you see it, is more important. It can be slightly more important or dramatically more important, but that doesn't matter. You wrote headline X or headline Y and let the lede of the story say both.

And therein lies a bias, real or perceived.

The headline on the AP story (the one Yahoo! is running) as it appears on my newswire at my desk is In blow to Moussaoui prosecution, judge bars some witnesses but leaves death penalty option which attempts to say both things in the headline, but this sort of headline can only exist on the wire desk. It's far too long for a newspaper, or even a Web news story. So it gets edited, as Yahoo! did. And there it comes out Judge to Let Feds Seek Moussaoui's Death.

Other headlines to various versions of this story on the Web right now:

Judge deals blow in Moussaoui trial

Which is poor because it doesn't give any indication of who suffered the blow.

Moussaoui case postponed until Monday

Which lamely punts the whole crux of the story. Yes, she did that, but it was because she did these other two things that were more important.

Some of the headlines on the wire tonight look like this:

Judge bars tainted testimony from Moussaoui trial
[Scripps Howard News Service]

Moussaoui Judge Bars Testimony of Coached Witnesses

Judge Axes Big Chunk of Moussaoui Prosecution's Case
[McClatchy News Service]

Moussaoui Judge Rules Out Aviation Evidence
[Los Angeles Times]

Judge Rules Prosecutors Can Seek Death for Moussaoui
[The Washington Post]

The bias will be on the pages, whether or not it is in our heads and hearts.