Is Neutrality a Worthy Goal?



In 1927, the Federal Radio Commission introduced the first iteration of what is known as the Fairness Doctrine. The one that most radio stations are familiar with is the one that was updated in 1940. Some radio stations still operate under a form of fairness doctrine despite the FCC rule being abolished in the late 1980s.


"In the ensuing decade [from 1940 onward], the FCC laid out a twofold duty for broadcasters under the fairness doctrine. First, broadcasters were required to cover adequately controversial issues of public importance. Second, such coverage must be fair by accurately reflecting opposing views, and it must afford a reasonable opportunity for discussing contrasting points of view" (Perry and Vile, 2017).


Note that I'm using an article that relays a summary of the Fairness Doctrine as opposed to the wording itself. I notice the use of the adverbs, "adequately" and "accurately" being used to describe the coverage of various viewpoints.


Who is it that determines whether the topics were adequately covered?


How is it ensured that all points of view are represented accurately according to those who assume different views?


What happens when the point of view is dangerous?


If there were a radio show operating under this fairness doctrine that discussed the topic of mental health, unfortunately, there are people who would seek to argue against it. Some don't believe in the complexity of mental health. Some don't believe that specific diagnoses can exist.


In cases like these, giving air time to claims against mental health could cause serious damage. Among other things, it would strengthen existing stigma and adversely affect those struggling with their mental health. All that to say, there are consequences to being neutral.


Despite the FCC abolishing the Fairness Doctrine, there are networks and outlets that operate under similar constraints, much to the chagrin of their contributors.


The fifth chapter of Ali Almossawi's An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language is what I would consider an essential read entitled, "Language the Feigns Objectivity With Apparent Neutrality" explains how this is done in news outlets.


I want to draw attention to the very end of the chapter first. "The desire to merely appear rational, or to appeal to the rational, leads to this most contemptible type of dissembling--seemingly benign, but in truth deeply destructive. It pollutes our discourse, sows cognitive dissonance in the reader, and is the chosen method of a disproportionate number of people whose broad reach allows them to influence public opinion" (Almossawi, 2021).


To be as unbiased as possible in a given situation, objective, is an admirable goal. However, because unconscious bias affects every aspect of our lives, we can readily assume that those delivering the news day to day have unconscious biases as well. So, to use what can be read as neutral language comes across as disingenuous at least and harmful at most.


One method that Almossawi describes is false equivalency, a method by which two or more things are framed as equal when they are not, usually two.


A lovely illustration on the left side of the page has the caption, "Local fish describe the pond as half empty, while neighboring cranes see it as half full. The debate continues" (Almossawi, 2021).


More simply, as much as fortune has favored one species over another, we must still debate over the adequacy of the quantity of water in the pond. Unfortunately, the same has been true about the false equivalencies made in news outlets and popular media.


Another method that's not discussed as often is the use of the quotation marks versus the "scare quotes." Even if it is unintentional, since quotation marks are used to lend legitimacy to a work by providing source material from other parts of a given conversation, they can also deceive.


Almossawi gives some excellent examples, but I will give one in which the headline of the article does not match the article's content. Jo Yurcaba of MSNBC writes, "Doctors and advocates brace for Alabama's 'inhumane' trans health care ban". Being familiar with the views of the network under which this is published, I have a good idea of what this headline means, but the quotation marks (even the single quotation marks), are enough create very different implications for some people.


As Almossawi shows, quotation marks can be used to imply an argument, cast doubt, or create ambiguity. People have absolutely called the aforementioned trans health care ban inhumane and for good reason, but that doesn't change the fact that the headline does not correctly portray the purpose of the article.


The most important part of the headline is "Alabama's trans health care ban," so I would suggest putting that first. For example, "Alabama's trans health care ban faces opposition from doctors and advocates" if that wording needs to be kept.


There are also more substantive quotations [of a reasonable length] throughout the article that would have served the headline very well. In sum, the article is mostly well-written, at least researched and informative, but it suffers from what might be seen as a deceptive first impression and some vague wording.


By no means is this to shoot the proverbial messenger. If writers for news outlets are under similar constraints to an FCC Fairness Doctrine, it's possible that they have to use language that makes it difficult for people to attain the objective facts they'd want from their news. Otherwise, they might mistake an untrue argument for objectivity.

 

Thank you very much to everyone who has given feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!


This was a very exciting chapter, and I found that I had more to say about it than I originally thought. Because the dissemination of fact exists in this way, people must be taught how to analyze it and what to look for, and I think that this book points out a lot of interesting methods of using language that usually go unnoticed.


In the future, I'm looking forward to some collaborations with friends and colleagues and, next week, I plan to look at some samples of college scholarship essays.


As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Sources:


Almossawi, A., & Giraldo, A. (2021). An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language: Learn to Hear What’s Left Unsaid (Bad Arguments). The Experiment.


Perry, A., & Vile, J. (2017, May). Fairness Doctrine. The First Amendment Encyclopedia. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/955/fairness-doctrine


Yurcaba, J. (2022, March 24). Doctors and advocates brace for Alabama’s ‘inhumane’ trans health care ban. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/nbc-out/out-politics-and-policy/doctors-advocates-brace-alabamas-inhumane-trans-health-care-ban-rcna21372


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