There are certain biases embedded in the news coverage of this week’s Supreme Court decision to hear the union dues case, which may distort how readers understand the issue. For example, coverage suggests that the court will rule against the unions and in favor of Janus, though the court hasn’t heard the case yet. Media also imports moral judgments on the case: one outlet implies ruling against the unions would be good and correct a past mistake, whereas three imply that ruling against the unions would be harmful to workers and a bad decision.
Let’s examine how word choice and placement contribute to these biases.
Suggesting a predetermined outcome
All four analyzed outlets suggest the court is going to rule against the unions. For instance, USA Today says, the court’s “five-member conservative majority appears poised to rule” against the unions. The wording of “appears poised” biases readers towards that outcome.
Of course, ruling for Janus may be the most likely outcome. The last ruling on a similar case was 4–4, with the justices known as “conservative” ruling against the mandatory union dues, and the new justice, Gorsuch, is considered “conservative.” But it’s one thing to present ruling for Janus as a possibility, and another to bias readers towards that outcome, before the ruling has come in. After all, if the ruling were predetermined, the court wouldn’t even need to hear the case.
Importing bias on a potential ruling against the unions
Implying it’s a good decision: Breitbart’s headline reads: “Supreme Court Will Hear Major Free Speech Case Against Unions,” immediately framing it as a “free speech” issue, rather than first focusing on the collective bargaining, as some other outlets do. Since “free speech” is the plaintiff’s argument, this favors his side rather than the defense. And without exploring the potential downsides of ruling against the unions, who wouldn’t support more “free speech”?
Later, Breitbart calls the court’s 1977 ruling (which this case could overturn) “much-maligned” — suggesting that many people have opposed it and called it harmful, implying it was a bad ruling. In turn, reversing a “maligned” decision would be good.
Implying it’s a bad decision: The Los Angeles Times, NBC News and USA Today favor this perspective. The L.A. Times’ lead sentence, for instance, says the court “is poised to deal a sharp blow to the unions that represent millions of teachers and other public employees.” Since a “sharp blow” implies violence and the sentence emphasizes the ruling could affect groups that represent “millions of teachers,” it could suggest the ruling would harm people.
The Times also cites the unions’ perspective higher up in the article, such as their calling the case a “plot” to “further rig the economic rules against everyday working people.” The publication doesn’t provide the arguments for the other side until close to the end.
Why does this matter?
The cases that go before the Supreme Court involve complicated legal and ethical considerations, and generally don’t have simple, obvious answers. That’s part of why they’ve made it to the highest court. It’s then the court’s job to carefully weigh all sides of the case. The news isn’t doing this.
Instead, for the media to portray a future ruling as definite and import moral judgment on it oversimplifies the case and could bias the public before a ruling even comes out. It does a disservice to readers by not encouraging a deep examination of the competing principles involved, and understanding of others’ viewpoints.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News