By Rob Roper
In my last article, A picture says a thousand words about Vermont media bias, we looked at how manipulating photographs can have an impact on how people view candidates, and also reveal the bias behind the publication. But what about the words themselves? Two headlines in Vermont Digger caught my attention in the state treasurer’s race. The first on September 27 stated, “Wilton attacks overtime expenditures in treasurer’s office.” The second, on October 23, stated “Pearce goes on the offensive, accuses Wilton of ‘inconsistencies.’”
The Republican, Wilton, “attacks.” The Democrat, Pearce, “goes on the offensive.” The language used is important. “Attack” has a negative connotation. “Goes on the offensive” implies something positive. Here, the headline writer has puts a thumb on the scale.
Curious about this, I went through all of the Vermont Digger headlines categorized under their “Election 2012” file dating back to the beginning of the campaign season on May 11 with the headline, “Let the games begin.” Games indeed. Here are all the headlines that describe in some way candidates or parties going after one another, with all emphasis added:
June 1, “Vermont GOP [R] ATTACKS Shumlin’s health care plan”
June 26, “McMullen [R] TAKES SWIPES at Sorrell”
August 1, “Brock [R] QUESTIONS whether Shumlin administration misled lawmakers about FEMA funding”
August 13, “Brock [R] ACCUSES Shumlin of mismanaging state government in made-for-the-Web ad campaign”
August 23, “Gekas [D] CALLS SCOTT ON THE CARPET … for not doing something he’d already done”
September 4, “Hoffer [D] CRITICIZES Salmon’s $5,000 payment of former campaign manager for health initiative”
September 10, “Brock [R] BLASTS Shumlin for agreeing to speeches instead of debates at several forums”
September 26, Hoffer [D] CRITICIZES $158,000 cost per performance audit as excessive”
October 2, “Brock [R] launches ad SLAMMING governor’s single-payer health care plan; says he’ll repeal reform law”
October 23, “Democratic senators PAINT Wilton as an extremist”
So, in Digger’s world, Republicans attack, take swipes, accuse, blast, and slam. Democrats, on the other hand, paint, criticize, call on the carpet, and go on the offensive. The only neutral verb used with a Republican is Brock “questions” on August 1.
Perhaps the most egregious example here is the August 23 article, Gekas calls Scott on the carpet … for not doing something he’d already done.” The figure of speech to call someone on the carpet is defined as, “to reprimand a person. (When done by someone of clear superiority…)” Clear superiority! The body of the story goes on to show that Gekas was completely wrong in her attack on Scott… but she’s clearly superior to him.
Words matter. Words mean things. If Vermont Digger claims to be an unbiased news source, it ought to be using unbiased language in its headlines. It’s not.