Limiting Debate

Is there no limit to News Bias?

People in positions of power often try to use the media to promote their positions or their "spin" on events. Sometimes, especially in cases of national security, government officials have an interest in limiting or eliminating debate. They hope that their interpretation of events is accepted, rather than questioned, by the media. They would have us believe that their view of events should be shared by all right-thinking people. Sometimes the media, or at least some media, wittingly or unwittingly act as debate limitting agents. They accept the official position without adequately scrutinizing the assertions of those officials.

Key questions to keep in mind while reading the following examples of Limiting Debate:

  • Is the claim made in the headline adequately substantiated in the text of the article?
  • Does the reporter accept the official U.S. government position as fact or are there indications that he sought independent confirmation of official claims?
  • Do you think the reporter is susceptible to being used by government officials to further their policies or do you think he demonstrates enough independent thinking to make that unlikely?
  • Journalistic codes of ethics urge journalists to use anonymous sources as sparingly as possible. The writer of one of the articles below uses an anonymous source. Does it seem justified in this case? Is it clear why the source wanted to remain unnamed?
  • Do you get the sense from reading the article that their may be more than one way to view the events? In other words, does the article serve to limit or eliminate debate? Do you think that's justified given the situation described?

Example 1

The following article deals with the 2003 War with Iraq:

Limiting Debate Analysis:

It is often said that the "first casualty in war is the truth." While to some it may seem unpatriotic to challenge what our government is telling us in times of war, history should teach us that it is important to do so. If you have any doubts about truth being the first casualty in time of war you should read Philip Knightly's book, "The First Casualty." He provides plenty of examples of governments in times of war abandoning the truth. All too often journalists have been their willing instruments.

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Example 2

The following articles appeared on the same day in the New York Times. They are not written by the same reporter:

Complete Articles:

  • JOHNSON DECRIES DRAFT PROTESTS; PRESSES INQUIRY: http://www.umich.edu/~newsbias/LBJdecries.pdf
  • ANTIDRAFT GROUP MAPS NEW EFFORT: http://www.umich.edu/~newsbias/SDS.pdf
  • Limiting Debate Analysis:

    More than 50,000 Americans ended up dying in Vietnam. The number of Vietnamese killed was, of course, much higher. Many of those who were so critical of those protesting the war would, in time, come to oppose it themselves. While there were certainly communists active in the anti-war movement the focus on it that we see in these articles was not justified.

    In publishing articles like the ones above the New York Times acted to limit the range of acceptable debate and perhaps helped prolong the first war the United States would lose.

    (Top of Page) (Example 1: 2003 Iraqi War) (Example 2: 1965 Draft Decision)