Anatomy of a Biased Headline: Part Deux

September 19th, 2008 5:11 PM

We've covered it here before.  It's akin to that old child's game where one person whispers something into another's ear, passes it on to several others, until the final statement is no longer vaguely recognizable as being related to the first.

So, here we go again with Anatomy of a Biased Headline...

Let's start with a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation, in which researchers lay claim to this finding: 

Some Political Views May be Related to Physiology

Science Magazine's actual headline was similarly non-insulting:

Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits

Seems pretty neutral right?  Let's see how the media took that headline and ran with it...

The Toronto Star took words from the very same study, placed then in a hat along with a few other descriptors, shook it up, and out came:

Liberals flinch less, conservatives more, study finds

Of course, the NSF study measured how hard one blinks in response to startling pictures.  No word on how much dust was in the room of the subjects, or whether or not they were allergy prone.  Or, if they just tend to blink more in general.  That said blink speed can also be affected by fatigue, eye injury, medication, and disease, and I'm sure all of these things were taken into account. 

But with such a vast pool of subjects to choose from, surely those other factors become watered down.  Well, the NSF revealed the large sample group actually contained:

46 people who identified themselves as having strong political opinions.'

That's 46 people from the Lincoln, Nebraska area by the way.  Hardly a sprawling, representative sample.

But wait, wasn't it the liberals (specifically, Andrea Mitchell) who had an issue with Sarah Palin's lack of blinking in a recent interview, when asked of the prospect of running for vice-president?  As it says in the article, blinking is a sign of wisdom for liberals.  Now I'm really confused.  And blinking.  Heavily.


National Geographic took up the conservatives = cowards theme with their headline:

Conservatives Have Stronger Startle Reflexes?

This one struck me as a little more clever than most.  The bias is mildly concealed by calling the startle reflexes ‘stronger.'  Hinting that a group of people are weaker by using the adjective ‘stronger' is very clever indeed.  My paltry conservative mind barely noticed the subtlety, or should I say, I overcame my strong lack of intelligence.

The Daily Mail went with this gem:

Right-wingers more startled by sudden noises and spiders than liberals, study finds

See, one of the images in the study was that of a person with a very large spider on their face.  Somehow, the fear of spiders can be linked to opposition to gay marriage, I guess.

Sky News decided this would be fair and balanced:

Nervy? You're Probably Right-Wing

Were you aware of how nervous conservatives are as a people?  Neither was I...

ABC News had this to say:

Easily Startled? It Could Reflect Your Politics

Those Who Startle Easily More Likely to Favor Iraq War, New Study Says

Now it seems, ABC would like you to know right off the bat that those who are easily frightened support the war in Iraq, according to the study.

Wired Science decided to dispense with the theatrics, and just cut to the heart of their biased viewpoint, flat-out referring to conservatives as ‘scared.'

Conservatives Scare More Easily Than Liberals, Say Scientists

Odd, that's a far cry from the first two headlines above.  And it should also be noted that the NSF article makes no mention of either the word scared, or nervous.  They were simply attempting to measure reactions to what they deemed to be startling images, by counting the number of involuntary blinks.

But why is this such a big deal you ask?  What does the headline matter, as long as the article itself is presented factually?

This site, which tracks the effectiveness of news Web sites in attracting viewers, sums up the tendencies of readers here:

‘With a headline larger than the blurb and on a separate line, people tended to view the headlines and skip the blurbs; they scanned the headlines throughout the page...'

We live in an on-the-go society.  People get their news by scanning headlines.

Yet through all of this conservative bashing comes a lone ray of hope.  Hope that exemplifies the entire conservative versus liberal debate in nearly every facet.  New Scientist saw things a little differently and chose this headline:

Voting Republican may be a survival response

Ain't that the truth?

Photo Credit:  Sky News