Journalistic bias and Ethnocentric media

En San Juan, militantes pro aborto quemaron una imagen del Papa – Infobae.

It’s rare for news like this protest of 17,000 feminist activists against 1,500 male Catholics, protesting the Catholic church policies toward women, to trickle into the US media stream. Actually, I found this referenced as a throw-away line in a Salon article. I have more thoughts on why USians don’t get much in the way of world news, but first I’d like to break down the article according to my Journalism 101 class (I’m not an expert, and this is just basic, college level journalism deconstruction).

From the translation:

“Some 17,000 women marched Sunday through the streets of San Juan for the 28th National Women’s day. Feminists from around the country met over the weekend to discuss women’s rights, trafficking, violence, and abortion. Some activists marched in bras or topless.”

The aforementioned Salon article outlines the disruptive power of women’s autonomous nudity right here. I suggest reading it to understand why the protesters chose to march in bras or topless.

Back to the deconstruction of the news piece — early in the article, the protest was cast in a slightly more violent light. This is one way journalistic bias that can slip through, intentionally or not. Basically, most people don’t read through to the end of the article (and often not even the middle). So you put the eye-catching stuff in early on and hope it hooks them to read further.

However, oftentimes people don’t read further, so they’re left with the eye-catching mental image and not the more complex, layered truth that may be evident later in the article.

They could have chosen to put something different about the event that was also eye-catching, or something that cast those protesting the protesters in a violent light, but they opted to go with the narrative of violent half-naked women shouting slogans. So this is what was early in the article, I believe the 3rd paragraph: 

“While burning an effigy of the Supreme Pontiff, the free abortion activists were running in circles, jumping and shouting slogans against the Church such as, “Not one more death from illegal abortion,” “Get your rosaries off our ovaries,” and, “If the Pope were a woman, abortion would be law.”

Later, the description is less violent and more academic. The protesters did get angry and engage in physical protest activities, but they also met to discuss the academic and scholarly feminist/ gender theory.

In the original article, there’s a link to explain what “gender theory” is, which I find interesting and cool. I wish more USian articles would link to information about gender theory and language when discussing these topics, but perhaps it’s a result of differing journalistic styles or assumptions about the education of the reading audience? I’m not sure.

“During the meeting, the self-summoned women discussed in workshops on topics such as, “Women and bisexuality,” “Women of the native peoples,” “Women and Work,” “Women and Health,” “Women and trafficking,” “Women trans,” etc. An entire theme crossed by “gender theory.”

Now, this is pretty much one paragraph of the article — the rest is focused on casting the women as violent and discursive, as is the choice of photographs. Consciously or not, the tone of this article is reflecting a bias against women generally and feminists specifically.

Perhaps it is a bias on the part of the reporter, perhaps the editor. Perhaps it’s just that this bias/ tone is what has been guaranteed to sell the news in the past, so despite the personal views of the reporter and/or editor, they chose to write, edit, and run the story in a manner that depicts the feminists in a negative light. Whatever the reason, I admit that I am both amused and frustrated by the representation of the 1,500 Catholic men guarding the church:

“Opposite the cathedral, a group of Catholics who made a human wall to prevent the desecration of the temple had to endure insults, spitting, and paint stains.”

This is accompanied by a picture of men, arms linked and rosaries in hand, singing in solidarity as an enraged, wild-haired woman in a tank top screams in the face of one of the men.  The message (both verbal and nonverbal) is that these men are there in peaceful solidarity, protecting their values against the violence of out of control women.

The reality is that women are finally breaking under a 1,000 years of religious and political oppression which has been traditionally sanctioned and reinforced by the Catholic church (which at one point in history taught that women were not actually human beings with souls, and could not therefore be saved.)

What is interesting is that at no point are either of these narratives explicitly outlined — they rely on preconceived notions (ie, that you believe the women are violent and out of control, and therefore read the men they are opposing as peaceful and innocent in their protection of an institution that has historically damaged and even now continues to work against gender equality), or reader ignorance (a lack of awareness of the role of the Catholic church in suppressing gender equality, a lack of awareness on gender and feminist theory, a lack of understanding how gender stereotypes reinforce limitations on both men and women).

A pastor is interviewed, and he complains about the behavior of the women. The quote is actually, “Pero si no se respeta la vida menos se van a respetar los edificios, si no se respetan a sí mismas en sus acciones cómo van a respetar la vida de los demás,” which google translate renders (bolded) as:

“He also termed the graffiti they made of abortion on several walls of the city, “disrespectful,” saying, “life is not respected unless they are going to respect the buildings, if not respect themselves in their actions how they will respect the lives of others.

I wish I knew more Spanish, because I don’t know nearly enough to translate that accurately. I’m assuming the pastor said something along the lines of, “These women are not showing respect for the buildings, which means they don’t respect anyone else, which means they don’t respect themselves.” I cannot think the pastor is actually trying to say he doesn’t respect their lives unless they respect his buildings. That would be insane, because buildings are buildings. They’re objects, not people. Women are people. Clearly the two do not correlate, so I’m going to assume this is just some weird fluke in translation and give that pastor the benefit of the doubt on this quote.

Anyway, despite the problems in translation there is a clear message that comes through at the end of the article. After complaining about the graffiti and how ungrateful the women were to the city for hosting their conference (because they protested sexism at the church), the article then reports that government officers in San Juan are cleaning up the damage done by the feminist protesters — the clear message being that responsible men are cleaning up after irresponsible women who damaged the city.

It’s a pretty interesting article, and journalistically it’s structure in a fairly basic manner. It utilizes the appearance of non-bias (hey, just reporting what happened, here!), but the language, tone, and events they chose to report are steeped in bias. Notice that the protest is cast as women vs. men — women are only mentioned in terms of the conference and active protest, while men are only mentioned in terms of resistance to the activities. The women’s slogans are quoted (but no individual woman is interviewed). Men were interviewed for response quotes.

Women of the city were not interviewed to give their perspective. Male feminists involved in the conference and/or protest (if there were any) were not interviewed or acknowledged. Conference organizers were not interviewed. Even for such a short article, the focus could have been altered, but they chose to present a gender divisive narrative of peaceful (protecting) men vs. violent (damaging) women.

This is a perfect example of how a seemingly unbiased, straight-news article can be rife with bias through the presentation, assumptions, and writing style. No matter what news you’re reading and watching, be aware that there is always bias. Always. Liberal, conservative, documentaries, whatever. The reporter has to choose what to record/ report, and in doing so they are also (consciously or unconsciously) choosing what not to report.

This is true everywhere in the world, of course, but the problem is amplified in US media. We have several issues facing us: First, the major media outlets (all of them, liberal and conservative) are own by six corporations. Second, our media/ entertainment laws have been relaxed, and certain entertainment programs are often mistake as news programs by average USians.

Many of the daytime pundit programs on American news channels are not allowed to run on the “news channels” of other countries, because they’re not news. They’re opinion. They can run on entertainment channels, but not news channels. In the USA, the media corporations have successfully lobbied for a blurring of those lines, which means that news and opinion are all mixed up in programming and channels.

A USian can turn on their television or computer at 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock at night and watch the reporter who usually reports their 6 o’clock news opining on what that news means. Because the reporter is the same face and voice that reported the actual news, and because the reporter is sitting at a desk on a set that is either the same as their news desk, or very similar to it, the USian subconsciously views the reporters opinions as having the same factual weight and validity as an unbiased news broadcast. 

Finally, the news circulated in the USA is very ethnocentric. The major news outlets as whole do their damndest to keep the news stream focused on USA drama and gossip and weather and politics. And of course, it’s all reported with the inherent bias I discussed earlier, which furthers divisive attitudes in the USA so that the USian people are working against each other instead of together.

Which means that I — and other USians — need to actively educate ourselves and keep up on outside news media sources in order to be a true citizen of a global, international world. And the difficulty with doing that is that news is depressing, which means most people get kind of burnt out just on the USian news cycle and don’t bother to look outside our country for news.

Why is the news depressing? Well, my journalism professor says the reason is that because puppies and kittens and love and acts of kindness don’t make the news cycle — the out of the ordinary stuff is what makes the news cycle, the fires and tragedies and protests and murders and deaths. He said the silver lining to this is that because news documents change, “new” things, a changing world, the constant coverage of tragedy means that we still live in an inherently un-tragic world.

In other words, when stories like, “Happily wed couple welcomes a baby into the world,” dominate the headlines, it would be because it is news. It is out of the ordinary. It is something people do not personally experience on a regular basis, and therefore will pay money to read or view a story about. As long as tragedy dominates our news cycle, the inverse correlation is that happiness and peacefulness tends to dominate the daily life of the average world citizen.

That was my journalism professors view, which I like … but I also think is a bit simplistic and rosy, honestly. I think that what would actually happen if the tragedy overran the daily happiness and peace of citizens is that the news machines would stop functioning, because one of the first things to go in a downfall of a society is communication systems. And because USians turn a blind eye to world news, I don’t know that we would even notice if the news media stopped functioning in any other country, or if we could even tell.

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