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Unmasking biased writing

Updated: Dec 19, 2023


by Patrice Johnson December 19, 2023. Revised and reprinted from June 6, 2022


Friend,


If you’re like me, you grit your teeth and try to ignore the subtle biases that muddy today’s news. Then once in a while a headline crosses a bridge too far, and you feel the need to speak out. This happened to me after reading the headline, “Lawyer Who Plotted to Overturn Trump Loss Recruits Election Deniers to Watch Over the Vote” in the May 30 edition of the New York Times.

 

My father was a medical doctor, and Mom a nationally syndicated columnist, so I grew up sandwiched between the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm and the journalist creed to report the objective truth.

 

Give Alexandra Berzon the benefit of the doubt. I thought. She’s a Pulitzer Prize winner and new to the NYT. Maybe her editor loaded that headline with biased words in order to attract readers. I trained my attention on the lead sentence. 

 

In a hotel conference center outside Harrisburg, Pa., Cleta Mitchell, one of the key figures in a failed scheme to overturn Donald J. Trump’s defeat, was leading a seminar on “election integrity.”

 

The choice of the word, scheme, stood out like red pepper flakes on a cheese pizza. Former President was notably missing in front of Trump's name. The omission felt disrespectful and was likely a breach of NYT protocol.


Even more glaring, the author enclosed election integrity in quotation marks. No way was that phrase a direct quote. To write quotation marks without citing a source is equivalent to gesturing air quotes while speaking. The technique conveys sarcasm. This read like a cheap shot.

 

As a former newspaper editor, this writer felt compelled to hammer out an unbiased lead sentence.

 

Example of objective writing: In a hotel conference center outside Harrisburg, Pa., Cleta Mitchell, one of the key figures in contesting the results of the 2020 presidential election, was leading a seminar on election integrity. 

 

Prejudicial language marred the next few paragraphs, so I marked the bias and sleights of hand. To equip readers to identify and resist slanted writing, I drafted examples of objective newswriting that, to borrow the NYT's motto since 1896, was "“All the News That's Fit to Print."


First up, these two paragraphs repeated the same unusual tag:

 

We are taking the lessons we learned in 2020 and we are going forward to make sure they never happen again,” Ms. Mitchell told the crowd of about 150 activists-in-training.
She would be “putting you to work,” she told them. 

 

The redundant use of the word, told, was amateurish. Was it a mistake that slipped past the writer and editor, or was the word repeated for the purpose of planting the idea that Mitchell was bossy? 

 

In the days after the 2020 election, Ms. Mitchell was among a cadre of Republican lawyers who frantically compiled unsubstantiated accusationsdebunked claims and an array of confusing and inconclusive eyewitness reports to build the case that the election was marred by fraud. Courts rejected the cases and election officials were unconvinced, thwarting a stunning assault on the transfer of power

 

Loaded words peppered the entire paragraph. Words like unsubstantiated, debunked, marred by fraud, rejected, thwarting, stunning, and assault do not roll off the tongue and drop onto the printed page by accident.


Cadre carried a militaristic tone, and the adverb frantically imposed the author's opinion on unsuspecting readers. Professional writers strive to show rather than tell, so they avoid adverbs, particularly those ending in ly, like the plague.


At best, the use of this was lazy writing, a high crime among serious writers.


Objective writing: In the days after the 2020 election, Ms. Mitchell was among a throng of Republican lawyers who compiled an array of eyewitness reports and affidavits attesting to election wrongdoing. Courts refused to take the cases and many election officials remained unconvinced. 

 

Now Ms. Mitchell is prepping for the next election. Working with a well-funded network of organizations on the right, including the Republican National Committee, she is recruiting election conspiracists into an organized cavalry of activists monitoring elections.

 

Objective writing: Now Ms. Mitchell is prepping for the next election. Working with a well-funded network of organizations, including the Republican National Committee, she is recruiting citizens to monitor elections.

 

In seminars around the country, Ms. Mitchell is marshaling volunteers to stake out election offices, file information requests, monitor voting, work at polling places and keep detailed records of their work. She has tapped into a network of grass-root groups that promote misinformation and espouse wild theories about the 2020 election, including the fiction that President Biden’s victory could still be decertified and Mr. Trump reinstated.

 

Note the sleight of hand with the usage of titles. The writing shows respect to one president yet disrespects the other, referring to President Biden yet Mr. Trump. Former President Trump would be parallel and more appropriate.

 

Objective writing: In seminars around the country, Ms. Mitchell is shepherding volunteers to have a presence in election offices, file information requests, monitor voting, work at polling places and keep detailed records of their work. She has tapped into a network of grass-root groups that sprung up with concerns regarding election integrity after the 2020 election.

 

One concern is the group’s intent to research the backgrounds of local and state officials to determine whether each is a “friend or foe” of the movement. Many officials already feel under attack by those who falsely contend that the 2020 election was stolen

 

Use of passive voice, made apparent through the use of by, is taboo among professional writers. Its use here portrays the officials as victims. 

 

Objective writing: One concern is the group’s intent to research the backgrounds of local and state officials to determine whether each is a “friend or foe” of election integrity. Citizens who suspect malfeasance in the 2020 elections express concerns that officials are often unaware of the laws or so overburdened or ill-instructed that they are unable to perform their jobs. 

 

An extensive review of Ms. Mitchell’s effort, including documents and social media posts, interviews and attendance at the Harrisburg seminar, reveals a loose network of influential groups and fringe figures. They include election deniers as well as mainstream organizations such as the Heritage Foundation’s political affiliate, Tea Party Patriots and the R.N.C., which has participated in Ms. Mitchell’s seminars. The effort, called the Election Integrity Network, is a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a right-wing think tank with close ties and financial backing from Mr. Trump’s political operation.

 

Objective writing: An extensive review of Ms. Mitchell’s effort, including documents and social media posts, interviews and attendance at the Harrisburg seminar, reveals a loose network of groups and individuals. They include concerned citizens as well as mainstream organizations such as the Heritage Foundation’s political affiliate, Tea Party Patriots and the R.N.C., which has participated in Ms. Mitchell’s seminars. The effort, called the Election Integrity Network, is a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a think tank with close ties and financial backing from Mr. Trump’s political organization.

 

Ms. Mitchell says she is creating “a volunteer army of citizens” who can counter what she describes as Democratic bias in election offices.  

The use of superfluous language, what she describes as, implies Mitchell’s claims of Democratic bias are her less-than-trustworthy opinion. Delete: what she describes as.


Objective writing: Ms. Mitchell says she is creating “a volunteer army of citizens” who can counter Democratic bias in election offices. 

 

“We’re going to be watching. We’re going to take back our elections,” she said in an April interview with John Fredericks, a conservative radio host. “The only way they win is to cheat,” she added. 

 

Objective writing: Mitchell’s quote is powerful on its own. Adding the tag, she added, diffuses what would otherwise stand as a powerful periodic sentence. Delete: she added

 

The claim that Mr. Trump lost the election because of improper conduct in election offices or rampant voter fraud is false. Mr. Trump’s defeat was undisputed among election officials and certified by Democrats and Republicans, with many recounts and audits verifying the outcome. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud. Mr. Trump lost more than 50 of his postelection challenges in court.

 

Objective writing: This paragraph is entirely biased editorializingUse of the word audits is misleading, as risk limiting audits are audits in name only. Referring to the Justice Department as Trump’s implies the DOJ was loyal to the sitting president rather than to the law. (President’s Obama’s Eric Holder might agree—Yes, this writer is editorializing.) There is no saving this paragraph. Delete it.

 

Campaigns, parties and outside groups from both sides of the political spectrum regularly form poll-monitoring operations and recruit poll workers. And Republicans have in the past boasted of plans to build an “army” of observers, raising fears about widespread voter intimidation and conflict at the polls that largely have not materialized.

 

Objective writing: And Republicans have in the past announced plans to build an “army” of observers, prompting the Democrat Party to voice fears about widespread voter intimidation and conflict at the polls that largely have not materialized.

 

Some former election officials say they are hopeful that when election skeptics observe the process they may finally be convinced that the system is sound. But several who examined Ms. Mitchell’s training materials and statements at the request of The New York Times sounded alarms about her tactics.

 

Objective writing: The reference to unnamed sources and complete absence of attributed quotes is a red flag to bias and propaganda. Delete paragraph unless quotes can be attributed to credible sources. 

 

Ms. Mitchell’s trainings promote particularly aggressive methods — with a focus on surveillance — that appear intended to feed on activists’ distrust and create pressure on local officials, rather than ensure voters’ access to the ballot, they say.

 

Objective writing: Buried in this sentence’s excessive complexity is a fundamental lack of logic. In what world does a focus on surveillance indicate particularly aggressive methods? Who is they? Delete paragraph.

 

A test drive of the strategy in the Virginia governor’s race last year highlighted how quickly the work — when conducted by people convinced of falsehoods about fraud — can disrupt the process and spiral into bogus claims, even in a race Republicans won. 

 

Objective writing: The point of this sentence should be that the strategy led to victory. No evidence is cited to support the claim of spiraling bogus claims.

 

The remainder of Berzon’s article contains self-evident bias. Perhaps whoever was going to the trouble to subtly infuse the slanted language grew tired and dropped any pretense of impartiality. 


 

For election integrity in Michigan,

 

 

Patrice Johnson, chair

Pure integrity Michigan Elections

Michigan Fair Elections



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