Avoiding bias, oversimplification in reporting on masks, vaccines and other controversies

 
 
Updated 7/22/2021 11:26 AM

At the Daily Herald, like most other conscientious news organizations, we make great efforts to report news stories, and especially news stories about controversial topics, with an even hand. And we learned long ago, the challenges of achieving that objective go beyond merely ensuring that all relevant sides of an issue are included in stories about it, as difficult as that goal is on its own. They also include striving to avoid use of language that can subtly mislead readers or subconsciously imply positive or negative impressions about the people advocating for or against an issue.

So, for example, regarding stories about abortion, we avoid the terms "anti-abortion," which, among other problems, can inaccurately suggest that the other side is "pro-abortion," and "pro-choice," which can appear to skirt an unpleasant acknowledgment of what is being chosen. Instead, we refer to abortion rights and describe people involved with the issue as either favoring or opposing those rights.

 

Now, thanks to the politics of the pandemic, we find ourselves with new tensions involving masks and vaccinations. Do we refer to people who oppose mask or vaccine requirements as "anti-mask" or "anti-vaccine" or their counterparts as "pro-mask" or "pro-vaccine?"

No, the issues are more complex than such simplified terms suggest. For example, many who are refusing vaccines or fighting mask mandates, for example, are worried about personal health conditions or intrusions on their independence, so the issue for them is not a criticism of the practices themselves or of people who adopt them but a desire to control the choice. Likewise, those who promote use of vaccines and mask mandates in many cases do not simply embrace them for their personal protection but argue they are necessary in protecting society as a whole.

Whether the interests of advocates for one position or the other should take precedence is a matter of judgment that we may take up on our Opinion pages, but we don't want our news stories to appear to support a particular preference. In general, our writers and editors strive to use language in news stories about these issues that is more expansive and more respectful. We refer to people who oppose mask requirements, for instance, or to people who support restrictions on others who are not vaccinated.

Such distinctions can be subtle, but they are not lost on the people most ardently involved in the issues. Aside from simply being insulting or inaccurate, unregulated language can actually make achieving consensus more difficult by personalizing the debate and distracting us from the most important questions.

Almost every controversial topic -- immigration, gun control, health care and taxation, to name a few -- requires special care with a range of factors including headline size, photo play, story location and much more. So, while we take all of these things into account nearly every day, it is impossible to eliminate altogether the role of judgment in presenting news stories. But by taking care with words, we hope we can help at least a little bit to keep discussions focused on the crux of an issue rather than on perceptions one way or the other about it and the people most actively concerned with it.

jslusher@dailyherald.com

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