Student guest post: The subtle bias of metaphors in the media

by andybechtel

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Shannon Coffey is a junior journalism major with a focus in editing and graphic design. She enjoys going on kitchen adventures that sometimes turn into catastrophes, trying to keep up with her Twitter timeline and daydreaming about the future, when she will design textbooks for ESL students.

Editors approach their copy with a long list of things to check for, ranging from spelling and grammar to fact errors and potentially libelous content. And while bias is on the list of things to be edited out, it can often slip in unnoticed, thanks to the subtle opinions present in phrases and metaphors that are commonly used in our communication today. It is all too easy for mainstream media outlets to take sides on issues or become advocates simply by using phrases and metaphors that the general population is accustomed to and takes for granted as an accurate description of the way that things are.

Take for instance the term “illegal immigrant.” This term, though recommended by the AP Stylebook, has met outrage and criticism from immigration advocates because it criminalizes undocumented immigrants, creating an immediate bias toward them even if they have committed no crime. There are various arguments [] as to the nuances of the phrases “illegal immigrant,” “undocumented worker” and “illegal alien,” but the fact remains that referring to a person or group of people as illegal introduces an element of bias to the news coverage.

There is also an often incorrect leap made by writers from “illegal immigrant” to “immigrant” or “Hispanics” as though they are all the same, as can be seen in this 2009 News & Observer article. The writer discusses how illegal immigrants are willing to do “lowly and dirty” jobs that Americans won’t, but then widens the discussion by saying that American workers “can’t compete against immigrants who are willing to work for low pay and under unreasonable conditions,” suggesting that any immigrant from anywhere in any circumstance is willing to do menial work that takes away from the opportunity of American citizens. Further, the writer only discusses Hispanic workers in the article, suggesting that her broad blanket terms “illegal immigrants” and “immigrants” apply to Hispanics exclusively, eliminating discussion of other immigrant populations.

Metaphors may also be used in ways that introduce bias to mainstream news, but often go unnoticed because they are so engrained in the way that we speak. Otto Santa Ana discusses the ways in which language used by the media can create and maintain negative images of groups of people in his book “Brown Tide Rising.”

“Public opinion,” he writes, “is no longer seen to be independent of mass media sway” (Santa Ana 49). The way in which writers discuss populations matter, and their metaphors about the growing Latino population as “an overwhelming flood” or a “foreign invasion” resonates with readers and builds an image of a looming threat that is certain to overcome them (Santa Ana 71-3).

The language of articles regarding growing Hispanic immigration, whether they adhere to AP style or not, must be closely monitored by editors to ensure that news contains as little bias as possible when presented to the public. Readers who use articles like the one in the N&O as their only source of news become susceptible to believing that all immigrants are illegal, Hispanic and taking jobs away from Americans.

It is important for editors to keep a tight rein on phrases such as these in order to ensure that entire groups of people are not described or categorized incorrectly. Avoiding blanket terms to describe these groups and staying away from metaphors that convey threatening behavior will help eliminate bias in the discussion about immigration.

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