Word Choice

How many ways are there to tell the same story?

Words are very precise building blocks that form the basis for all communicated ideas. They can hold truths or lies but are always the products of expression. People express themselves not only through what they say but also by how they say it. Diction and syntax allow an idea to be established in any number of ways: some are basic, others are luxuriously flamboyant, some reveal secondary thoughts, others betray hidden emotions. It’s like the saying, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A whole sentence says more than simply what the individual words describe. Bias, in many forms, is not necessarily explicit in the words that have been used but can be recognized when seen in the fuller context that the words represent. Journalists do this by manipulating single words in such a way that whole sentences' meanings are subtly changed...and sometimes not so subtly.

Key Questions to keep in mind while reading the following examples of selective Word Choice:

  • What is the fundamental piece of information being presented?
  • Is there an easier or less insinuating way to express that piece of information?

Example 1

Here are the headlines and lead paragraphs of two articles which came out on the morning of March 11, 2003. They are covering the same incident:

The New York Times

USA Today

Iraq forces suspension of U.S. surveillance flights

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -Iraqi fighter jets threatened two American U-2 surveillance planes, forcing them to return to abort their mission and return to base, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.

U.N. Withdraws U-2 Planes

WASHINGTON (AP)-U.N. arms inspectors said Tuesday they had withdrawn two U-2 reconnaissance planes over Iraq for safety reasons after Baghdad complained both aircraft were in the air simultaneously.

Complete Articles: available on the Articles page

Word Choice Analysis:

Both of these stories are iterating the same piece of information: 'Surveillance flights in Iraqi air space were ended.' It is usually the case in journalism that more than one piece of information is squeezed into each clause. This is done both for stylistic reasons, and because journalists have a required amount of information that needs to be fit into limited real estate (time or space). However, as you can see, the decisions concerning diction, syntax, and what further information is added can lead to sentences being so altered from the basic idea that the same exact event can be depicted in two profoundly different ways. In the above example, the use of the word "forces" vs. "withdraws" and the phrase "Iraqi fighter jets threatened" vs. "Baghdad complained" impacts the way we read the articles.

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Example 2

Here are hockey game coverage headlines from the two home towns of the opposing teams:

The Denver Post
The Detroit News
red wings 5, avalanche 3
Injury begins Avs' tumble
Red Wings 5, Avalanche 3
Wings are too much for Avalanche

Complete Articles:

Word Choice Analysis:

Here we have a humorous example of how Geographic Bias can play out in word choice. This may seem somewhat of a trite example, especially since these sports writers do not pretend to be as unbiased as general news writers, but it serves as a good example to plainly show the same phenomenon as Example 1.

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Example 3
The following examples are taken from the context of the 2003 conflict in Iraq:

St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
Dar Al-Hayat
The Red Cross, one of the few aid groups with staff operating in Iraq, hopes to negotiate access to the main power station, which is said to be under control of U.S.-led coalition forces. But neither local staff nor specialists in neighboring Kuwait have been cleared to go because of continued clashes. Iraq said its troops were battling U.S.-led invasion forces inside Nassiriya and on the city's outskirts on Tuesday and inflicting heavy casualties.

American Sources such as CNN have labeled the conflict the "War In Iraq"

Copy of CNN's Iraq page

Arab sources such as Dar Al-Hayat regularly call the conflict the "War On Iraq"

Copy of Dar Al Hayat's Iraq page

Word Choice Analysis:

In many cases, the keywords of a sentence are manipulated to elicit an editorial comment without the reader being explicitly aware that an opinion is being stated. In this pair of examples, the difference of a single word changes the meanings to reflect opposing viewpoints. By changing the preposition "in" to the word "on," there is a subtle yet significant difference. In fact, by changing only one letter, the entire thrust of the military campaign changes from one of fighting dissidents within the political borders of Iraq to one of aggression against the entire nation.

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Example 4

This is an excerpt from an article printed on January 16, 2003. This sentence concerns the reaction of several leading democrats to President Bush's legal brief concerning the Affirmative Action lawsuit filed against the University of Michigan:

Democrats who are planning to seek Mr. Bush's job - Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont - expressed their dismay [at Bush's remarks].

Word Choice Analysis:

This excerpt provides us with the information that five democrats disapprove of President Bush's views on Affirmative Action but it slips in a little more while introducing the subjects of the clause. This example demonstrates another form of possible editorial bias. How do you think the identification of these men as potential presidential candidates affect their credibility as critics of President Bush? The information seems likely to have come across differently if the author had called them 'Leading democrats' or identified them in another way.

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Example 5

The examples below are excerpts of two different accounts of the same hockey game:

The Red Wings played the Flyers last night in a hockey game and they won 4-3.
The Red Wings executed a decisive win (4-3) over the tempered Flyers, in last night’s heated game of ice hockey.

Word Choice Analysis:

Here is one final thing to consider. One can fall into a pattern of looking for biased word choice in every word, every syllable. Suspicions can arise from an oddly placed semi-colon. What this fabricated example intends to demonstrate is that not all spurious word choice is biased. Sometimes non-essential words are used simply to make the language more colorful. Journalists are not just deceitful word jugglers, conspiring to make you think what they want you to believe. They are people who are trying to write to hold onto a job. So, when being critical of word selection, be sure to keep it in perspective. Sometimes the word 'cigar' just means 'cigar.'

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Labeling Opinions:

There is a common phenomenon in broadcast and print news when a journalist or anchorman will introduce an 'expert,' a person who has an opinion to give about a piece of news but was not actually involved in making the news. This person may be a former government official, a think tank spokesman or an academic. Regardless of their prior credentials, they are usually simply referred to as 'expert' or 'analyst' or 'political scientist' or any number of titles which give the appearance that they have no financial or political stakes in the issue on which they are commenting. However, a former Democrat party member is likely to give his "expert opinion" with a favorable bias towards his old party. Alternately, someone may be introduced as an authority on a subject, such as the economy, when in fact they may know less than for which they are given credit. Many 'experts' have built careers on being introduced as knowledgeable sources. Like any 'in vogue' fashion, a commentator who is used on Nightline and CNN will be asked to speak on many other shows.

It is important to be wary of these 'experts' who are called in to give opinions. The tendency to assume that these guys are fair and impartial simply because they are called experts is fallacious and dangerous. There is usually a good reason why a journalist has decided to source any particular 'expert.' For more information on what might go into such a decision, go to Sources.

(Top of Page) (Example 1: 2003 Iraqi War) (Example 2: Sports) (Example 3: 2003 Iraqi War) (Example 4: Affirmative Action) (Example 5: Sports5)