Forty-nine. That’s the number of men in entertainment, media and politics who have been accused of sexual misconduct since the Harvey Weinstein allegations were first reported last month, according to the Associated Press. The recent coverage of one of these men, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), demonstrated a bias that appears common among news outlets reporting on these allegations. That is, a bias that favors the perspective of the accusers and their supporters. Let’s call this the articles’ main perspective.
The accusations are indeed a critical part of the story. Furthermore, building awareness and solving the issue of sexual harassment is important, as is seeking justice for true victims of abuse. But there is another part of the story that was largely missing in the coverage: the importance of due process, and how, in some cases, the accused are subjected to a trial in the court of public opinion, as opposed to a trial in a court of law. In this case, the Conyers allegations have been debated in the media before the House Ethics Committee concludes its investigation into the matter.
First, let’s look at two examples of how the articles support their main bias.
1. Guilty by associationIn his book “Influence,” psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini explains how associating someone or something “with either bad things or good things will influence how people feel about” the person or thing. He calls this the “association principle,” and you can see it at work in advertisements where a celebrity is wearing or using a product, say, a watch. People tend to associate the celebrity (the “good thing”) with the watch, which can increase the likelihood that people will buy it.
This same phenomenon can happen in the news. When the main subject of a story is a person — Conyers in this case — any information or opinions in the story have the potential of being associated with that person.
Here’s an example from The Washington Post:
There are “growing accusations and revelations about members of Congress that are similar to those involving powerful men from Hollywood, the media and Silicon Valley.”Here, the Post draws a direct similarity between a “bad thing” — the sexual harassment accusations “involving powerful men from Hollywood, the media and Silicon Valley” — and certain members of Congress. Given that Conyers is a member of Congress who has been accused of sexual misconduct, and he is the subject of the story, there is also an indirect association made between Conyers and the “bad thing.”
Moreover, no distinctions are drawn between Conyers and others who have been accused, which is important since the allegations range from inappropriate comments to rape.
2. Favoring one point of viewAs part of our Slant ratings, The Knife measures how balanced an article is: the more an article disproportionately supports a particular view, the more biased and less balanced the article.
The articles we analyzed lack balance, particularly those by the Associated Press and the Post. Here are our Balance ratings (0 percent means no bias, i.e. completely balanced, and 100 percent means completely biased):
The Associated Press: 87 percent
The Washington Post: 55 percent
Fox News: 44 percent
The Hill: 32 percent
Giving credit where credit is due, The Hill was less biased than the average article we rate, though there is still room for improvement.
Here are two examples of sentences that support the main viewpoint:
The Associated Press
“Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. … said Congress must show a greater commitment to addressing sexual misconduct”The Washington Post
“Members of Congress have said that the ‘due process’ system is outdated and biased toward insulating the lawmaker from suffering penalties for misbehavior.”Here’s an example of a balancing sentence that supports an alternative view, namely the importance of due process:
The Associated Press
“Denying the allegations, Conyers … urged lawmakers to allow him ‘due process.’”Due process vs. the court of public opinionOne of the constitutional rights of all Americans is the right to due process. This includes principles such as innocent until proven guilty, standards for admissible evidence and the right to an unbiased trial. However, some accused men like Conyers are instead subjected to a trial in the court of public opinion. In this court, the media reports evidence without adhering to rigorous standards, and without impartiality, as we showed above. Based on media reports, the public may then decide whether the person is guilty and how he or she should be punished. In these cases, the presumption of innocence is sometimes flipped and the principle becomes guilty until proven innocent.
Is the justice system perfect? No. Sometimes, guilty people go unpunished and innocent people are wrongfully imprisoned. Do these imperfections provide a logical justification for going around the justice system? Not necessarily, especially not without considering the potential consequences. Neglecting protections afforded by due process can lead to situations where a mere accusation of wrongdoing, one that may even be later proven false, can end up destroying a person’s personal and professional reputation. Not only is this unjust for the accused, it potentially undermines the legitimacy of efforts to remedy systemic sexual misconduct.
It can be difficult to objectively explore issues involving sexual harassment, given the nature of the allegations and how damaging sexual abuse can be. But it is also important to consider the consequences of abandoning the principles on which the justice system is built. The balance between protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty is not an easy task, but it is, in The Knife’s opinion, an important one.
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