The way someone tells a story affects how we understand it. The same is true when the news media tells stories. There are facts, but those facts are biased by how an outlet presents them. So let’s do an experiment. Compare the following versions of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ response to a DOJ intern’s question about marijuana.
Version 1: How media interpreted the interaction. In this version, Sessions is portrayed as insulting the intern. (Biased language marked in red.)
Politico: Attorney General Jeff Sessions … taunted a woman who said guns were more fatal than marijuana, calling her “Dr. Whatever Your Name Is.”
ABC News: At one point, he seemed to mock a Justice Department intern for questioning whether marijuana is dangerous. … But when the intern challenged that assertion [that marijuana is not healthy], Sessions seemed dismissive, addressing the intern as “Dr. Whatever Your Name Is.”
Washington Examiner: Sessions called a Justice Department intern “Dr. Whatever Your Name Is” during a tense exchange on marijuana policy over the summer.
The Hill: Sessions got into a heated exchange with Justice Department interns this summer over marijuana…
Version 2: An alternative interpretation. We wrote this version ourselves as an example. It demonstrates that there can be a different bias on the same facts.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions showed a more playful side when answering questions from interns. He lightheartedly teased one woman who said she didn’t agree with the American Medical Association’s view of marijuana, calling her “Dr. Whatever-Your-Name-Is.” He smiled. A roar of laughter filled the room. At the end of her question, the woman thanked the attorney general for his answer, showing that there were no hard feelings between them.
Version 3: Just the transcript, with no additional opinion. How do we interpret the interaction if there are no opinions to color the facts? (The excerpt has been edited for length; to read the full question and answer, jump down to Context.)
Intern: … Statistically guns kill significantly more people than marijuana…. Since guns kill more people than marijuana, why lax laws on one [Sessions laughs off-screen] and harsh laws on the other?
Sessions: … the Second Amendment, you’re aware of that, [audience laughs]guarantees the right of the American people to keep and bear arms.…
Umm, look, [pause] there is this view that marijuana is harmless and it does no damage. … Marijuana is not a healthy substance in my opinion. The American Medical Association is crystal clear on that. Do you believe that?
Intern: Uh, I, I don’t.
Sessions: Okay [audience laughs]. So, um, Dr. Whatever-Your-Name-Is, so you can write to AMA and see why they think otherwise. …The ONDCP… used to drive the message of what the science is on these drugs. … I think…we should be talking about some of the dangers of marijuana as we go forward….
Intern [off-screen]: Thanks for answering my question.
What’s the problem? Version 1 and Version 2 are both clouded by opinions. This can make the story more engaging or further a particular bias, but it does not follow objective journalism. In the case of Version 1, which is what the news outlets actually reported, the opinions could bias readers against Sessions or his answers by painting him as callous or rude. Although some may have felt that way about his responses, others might not. It’s subjective to say he “taunted,” “mocked” or “seemed dismissive.” The transcript sticks to what was said.
The opinion that someone is being insensitive or insulting could disparage that person’s character, no matter who he is. But when it’s the top law enforcement official in the country, that dishonor could be particularly harmful. It could hurt his public reputation or even the public’s view of his office. Also, when the media presents opinions about people as if they were facts, as is the case here, people may be more likely to assume they’re true without critically evaluating what was actually said.
It would be more responsible for the news to just report what was said and let readers draw their own conclusions.
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