The nuance of bias

Yesterday the New York Times released some particularly excellent reporting on President Trump’s entire financial history. This multi-part narrative, which I can only assume took a team the better part of a year to research, write and produce, includes highly detailed accounts of tax evasion and other schemes the Trump family took to pass on massive amounts of wealth to their children.

As the article points out, our President Donald Trump appears to be the biggest benefactor of that inherited cash infusion. More times than not, he is co-conspiring with his father Fred Trump on clever tactics to reap the financial benefits without paying an otherwise would-be-required tax.

To be clear, I think this is an extraordinarily important story that I hope garners the attention it deserves. But I don’t want to talk about the what; I want to address the how. Because while I did find clear facts for the most part throughout this story, there were a few clear moments for me that revealed something prominent: That the people writing the story do not like this guy.

And that alone makes it a bit biased.

Here’s a passage that stood out to be in particular in its description of Donald Trump:

ORIGINAL TEXT:
“Constructing that image required more than Fred Trump’s money. Just as important were his son’s preternatural marketing skills and always-be-closing competitive hustle. While Fred Trump helped finance the accouterments of wealth, Donald Trump, master self-promoter, spun them into a seductive narrative.”

To me, this part, and in particular the last sentence crossed a line for me. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t disagree with the sentiment. But I was a little disheartened in thinking that it’s sentences like this where opinions are inserted (however subtly) that will make it harder for people to change their minds.

And while the facts may be true, I personally find that the opinion creeps out in the colorful language that surrounds them. See below in bold.

POTENTIALLY BIASED LANGUAGE
Constructing that image [FEELS ACCUSATORY] required more than Fred Trump’s money. Just as important were his son’s preternatural [CONVEYS AN ODD OR NEGATIVE TONE] marketing skills and always-be-closing competitive hustle. [ALLUDES TO CLASSIC SALESMAN ARCHETYPE AS CONMAN] While Fred Trump helped finance the accouterments of wealth, Donald Trump, master self-promoter [NICE WAY OF SAYING SOMEONE HAS AN EGO PROBLEM], spun them [ASSUMES WE AGREE HE KNEW HE WAS LYING] into a seductive narrative. [IMPLIES DECEIT]

To further illustrate this point, I can go so far as to change just those bold words in this section and convey an entirely different meaning.

Here’s how I might have written this section if I were a pro-Trump advocate:

PRO-TRUMP VERSION:
Maintaining that esteem required more than Fred Trump’s money. Just as important were his son’s extraordinary marketing skills and ceaseless resiliency toward the business. While Fred Trump helped finance the accouterments of wealth, Donald Trump, marketing visionary, weaved it into his origin story.”

I know this seems subtle. And like all bias, that’s because it is. But if we are truly taking on this gargantuan challenge of removing bias from the news we read, we need to write and convey arguments that allow readers to form their own opinions.

In other words: Don’t tell me he’s a crook; give me the facts, and let me come to my own conclusions.

As one final example, I’ll show you one last version of this excerpt, in which I attempt to convey this information without any bias at all — just the facts.

ATTEMPT AT OBJECTIVITY:
Demonstrating this persona required more than Fred Trump’s money. Just as important were his son’s keen marketing skills and business acumen. While Fred Trump helped finance the accouterments of wealth, Donald Trump assumed ownership of the value of his father’s investments when describing his personal wealth to the outside world.”

It’s not perfect. But it feels closer.

It’s fine to have opinions. It’s fine to write your opinions. But there’s a fine line between presenting facts and projecting a narrative or agenda onto those facts.

This is a very important story that deserves the attention of every American. However it’s clear to me that we need to be more careful about how we present information so that it’s equally accessible from both sides.

And I think we still have a long way to go toward presenting content in a way that empowers our readers and audience to make decisions on their own.


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