Wednesday, October 15, 2003

More on Media Bias

Below, I referred to the bias evident in CBS's stories on homeschooling. In this post, I offer a few more thoughts:

When I was at Harvard Law School, I took a seminar on Supreme Court litigation with Charles Fried, who was the Solicitor General for the United States during Reagan's second term. The twelve people in the seminar were divided into teams of two, and then charged with writing a brief for one of three cases. My teammate and I were playing the part of "Respondent" for our case, which meant that our brief would be written in response to the Petitioner's brief.

When we looked at the rules, it seemed that our brief did not technically need to have a "Statement of Facts" section. So we decided to rely on our opponents' statement of facts, and just open our brief with the Argument section, which we thought more important anyway.

Fried was horrified. In our first meeting with him, he refused even to discuss the brief with us. The Statement of Facts, he said, is one of the most important parts of any brief, and probably contributes 50% to the likelihood whether you will win or lose.

Why? you might ask. A Statement of Facts, after all, is just a recitation of what happened in the case. Ahh, but it's not that simple, he said. Most cases are complicated, and have lots and lots of "facts" that one can choose to write about. The Statement of Facts is the one section where you can win the trust of the Court, by presenting a piece of writing that is, by all appearances, perfectly neutral and objective and unbiased. Yet if, at the same time, you can subtly highlight and focus on all the facts that are most helpful to your client, while providing dispassionate explanations for any harmful facts, you can probably accomplish more for your client than if you wrote an argumentative screed.

That was Fried's view, based on litigating dozens of cases before the Supreme Court. What's essential to learn here is that an admittedly argumentative piece of writing may be, and often is, less effective at persuading people, simply because they know it's an argument and they are prepared to discount what you say. But a seemingly straightforward presentation of facts can be, and often is, more effective, simply because people are more likely to trust what you're saying when you appear neutral.

So that's one of the main reasons why I took offense at the CBS stories. They come across, to an unattentive viewer, as a straightforward presentation of pure "facts." But there are many ways in which the stories highlight the "facts" that help CBS's agenda, while minimizing any contrary "facts."

For instance, the second story presents a handful of anecdotes involve purported homeschoolers who murdered their children. This is all factual, but the choice of emphasis leaves a misleading impression that homeschooling parents are particularly likely to murder their children.

Then the story says:
Unlike teachers, in 38 states and the District of Columbia, parents need virtually no qualifications to home school. Not one state requires criminal background checks to see if parents have abuse convictions.
This is exactly the sort of straightforward presentation of "facts" that a skillful lawyer would write. No explicit argument has been made, but the viewer is left thinking, "Gee, why don't states have such laws? Maybe we should start requiring background checks, or minimum qualifications, etc." And this has been done while the viewer's guard is down, precisely because the piece was presented as "factual" rather than as argumentative.



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