When I saw how close Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were in the race for second place in the Iowa caucuses Thursday night (30% to 30% at one point before Edwards edged ahead by a percentage point), I wondered whether that would be reported differently depending on whom was doing the reporting.
The answer was yes, of course. In the Washington Post Friday morning, the deck on the story proclaiming that Iowa had chosen Obama was "Edwards Edges Clinton For Second." When I listened to another account on the radio while driving into work, this time from a conservative commentator, it was described as a "distant third-place finish" by Clinton.
Both were accurate. Edwards did just beat Clinton, and though she was not distant from second place, Clinton was nine points out of first after most were expecting it to be a lot closer than that for the former First Lady. Or does calling her the "former First Lady" make her seem less battle hardened than "veteran New YOrk Senator?"
Word choices can make a big difference in perception and leave a powerful impression one way or the other. For example. Say I have a friend who was born only minutes before me on the same day. It is accurate to say that we are only minutes apart in age, or even the same age. It is also accurate to say that I am closer to 20, while he is closer to 60.
While I don’t think most news organizations have an institutional bias, there can be a more subtle one conveyed by the difference in the choice of only a few words.
Have your language detectors out and humming as the campaign wears on and if you find any similar examples, send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.