Subtle Media Tricks You Don’t Notice

From lighting to body language, there are many ways that journalists’ biases can be hidden
Subtle Media Tricks You Don’t Notice
Randy Tatano

When I was a rookie TV reporter, I tagged along with a photographer who had a gig shooting video depositions. As he was about to set his lights, he asked the attorney, “Do you want him to look innocent or guilty?”

“He’s guilty. This is a slam-dunk case.”

The photographer nodded. He didn’t bother to set up a backlight, which always improves the video. Instead, he placed one harsh light directly in front of the chair. When the deposition was over, the guilty party looked like a guy from a horror movie.

Lighting is just one subtle trick the media uses. It can make an average person look great and turn Margot Robbie into a plain Jane.

Or make a good politician look almost evil. And an evil one look like a saint.

The country has become wise to media bias since most so-called “journalists” don’t even try to hide their personal agenda anymore. But a news organization can still slant a story with techniques a viewer or reader probably won’t notice.

Would you believe I can change the tone of a story with one word? It’s easy.

“State Senator Jones introduced a bill today.”

Nothing biased about that, right? Let me simply add one word to change your impression of the politician.

“Embattled State Senator Jones introduced a bill today.”

Now the viewer or reader begins to wonder. Senator Jones must be in trouble. He’s “embattled” and obviously under fire. Did he do something wrong or illegal? Why are other members of the legislature mad at him? Was there a brawl at the statehouse?

Don’t want to change the copy? Simply change the words on the bottom of the TV screen (called “supers”) that summarize the story.

Let’s say the president and the secretary of state aren’t on the same page regarding some issue of foreign policy. But the two politicians aren’t arguing and are close in agreement. Want to make them look bad? Just add this on the bottom of the screen:

White House in Turmoil!
And let the gossip and speculation begin.

Something as subtle as body language can tell you where a media person’s loyalties lie. This is evident in one-on-one interviews. Is the interviewer leaning forward, pointing a finger at the subject? If so, the interviewer is on the opposite side. Is the interviewer leaning back and relaxed while asking the questions? The interviewer supports the position of the subject.

The phrasing of a question is also a telltale sign. Media people often preface questions with phrases that indicate they’re on the opposite side of the subject. “With all due respect” basically means “you’re full of it.” When a question begins with “there are those who might say...” it shows the interviewer has already formed an opposing opinion.

We’re used to sound bites being taken out of context, but you might be interested to know that raw video without any sound can be used in the same way. Each second of video is made up of thirty frames, or one-thirtieth of a second. Want to make someone look good in a graphic for a story? Simply go through the video frame by frame until you find the most flattering image. By the same token, if you want to make someone look unattractive or angry, you can find a fraction of a second that will fit your needs. Want something drastic? An extended arm waving to the crowd can be frozen into what appears to be a Nazi salute.

Finally, the most obvious technique to tailor a story is the use of an “unnamed source,” who may or may not exist. “No source on the record, no story” was the rule when I started out. Now, you can use a rumor or a piece of gossip to take a story in the desired direction. Or simply make it up.

While it is often easy to determine if an agenda exists with any news organization, there are still ways to hide the bias. It’s never been more important to be vigilant about a news source. Make sure stories are objective and follow the rules of journalism, because the lack of objectivity is sometimes hidden.

Randy Tatano is a former local television reporter and network producer who now writes political thrillers as Nick Harlow. He grew up in a New York City suburb and lives on the Gulf Coast with his wife and four cats.
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