Word (noun): a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.
When you read the definition of “word,” you get a sterile marginal concept of what a word in language actually is. When one starts to consider words, their meanings and intent, language takes on an entirely deeper and more fulfilling role in our lives.
Words have started wars and ended them. Words have created relationships and marriage or caused a breakup. Words can make us laugh or make us cry. Sometimes it’s merely the context in which the words are spoken that can cause an emotion or an opposing one.
The words that make up the language ultimately convey a meaning that may be behind what was intended by the speaker. There is a Budweiser beer commercial where the only word spoken is the word “dude.” Depending on the emphasis and the context, the meaning changes from scene to scene. If you haven’t had a chance to watch this commercial, it’s amazing how many different situations can result in a varying understanding of the word “dude.”
Then there is word usage that puts a particular word as a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective. Plus, we have to deal with some words that when put together convey a meaning totally different than the words used individually. This is commonly called a figure of speech. For example, “Jake is getting a little long in the tooth” usually means Jake is getting old, and “you can set your watch by him” means he consistently does the same thing at the same time. Words may also offer a larger meaning like the words Hollywood or Wall Street. These are much more than mere geographic locations; they convey much about the film or financial industry, money, power, or glamour, which may or may not be true.
When conducting an interview with a subject, the interviewer must consider the bias that individual may have to evaluate the truthfulness of his statements. This is also useful when examining articles and advertisements to discern what the speaker is trying to persuade the listener to believe.
In this column we are going to examine bias and opinions to assist in determining the person’s position on a particular topic. Once an interviewer is able to understand a person’s opinion and bias, he is better able to sort out what are facts and what are opinions being used to persuade during the story. We should examine the definitions of fact, bias, and opinion before we proceed.
Fact: a piece of information having objective reality or information based on real occurrences.
Opinion: a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.
Bias: an inclination of temperament or outlook, often personal and unreasoned.
The interviewer’s problem lies in the fact that speakers often mix facts, with bias and opinions in their narratives. Let’s consider how we can identify facts in a story.
“Armored is scheduled to pick up the deposit between 10:00 and 10:30 a.m. during the week. They are amazingly prompt and extremely easy to work with.”
When we look at the previous two sentences, we want to isolate the facts then examine other statements for bias and opinion. When we look for facts it is useful to ask two questions:
- Can the statement be verified independently by contracts, documents, or independent witnesses? In this case, there are likely internal documents, logs, and witness statements that document the armored pickups. If there is conflicting information about the pickups we must now question the truthfulness of our witness.
- Can the statement be observed to prove the fact? Here an investigator could watch the armored pickups to substantiate the fact offered.
If there can be no independent corroboration, we are likely dealing with a bias or opinion.
In the second sentence we could evaluate the word “prompt” as a fact verifying the carrier picks up at the specified time; however, the word “amazingly” indicates a bias for the armored carrier’s on-time performance. The second part of the second sentence—”and extremely easy to work with”—is an opinion presented by the speaker. Others may not find the carrier or its employees cooperative at all.
Let’s look at the way US presidents are portrayed by the media. Gerald Ford was a bumbling fool who was always falling. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer. George W. Bush was stupid and always misspeaking. JFK was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. And Obama is a constitutional law professor. Focusing on these aspects taints the picture of who these people really are and can bias a listener for or against a president. Looking to determine if a statement is a fact, bias, or opinion can help us root out bias in a story.
When we examine a story, we need to look for statements and words that indicate a personal position or an unreasoned judgment: Vice President Dan Quayle could not correctly spell potato, so he must be stupid.
The Whole Story
Sometimes the headlines bias and give the wrong impression about the real story. Read the following headline and then the story.
Headline: “Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem.”
What is your impression about the story and its contents? Was it a riot, unprovoked shooting of an unarmed man, accident, or a criminal act? If you don’t know the story behind the headline, we have to assume what happened since we only have the fact a man was shot by police.
Story: “Jerusalem (AP)—Israeli police say they have shot a man whose car slammed into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, in what they suspect was an intentional attack. On Wednesday evening, Oct. 22, a Palestinian deliberately drove his car into a crowd of people disembarking Jerusalem’s Light Rail, killing a three-month old baby and injuring several more, in what was clearly a terror attack.”
Reading the entire story makes an interesting difference. It’s the same way when listening to an individual’s narrative—when you get down into the detailed facts and the words used, your impression may change.
A story reported that the president “suggested he feels American consumers’ pain.” The key word here is “suggested.” The term “suggested” is one that seems not to have a strong feeling or commitment to a position associated with its use. For example, “I kind of suggested to her that I understood.” Look at the difference the following words make in the meaning of the sentence:
- Said he feels American consumers’ pain.
- Argued he feels American consumers’ pain.
- Expressed that he feels American consumers’ pain.
When people use the terms “attacked,” “under assault,” or “cripple our rights,” they are conveying an implication that they are victims. For example, one might say, “Finance is always attacking our departmental spending.” Translation: “Finance is picking on my department. We are being victimized.”
Effectively, the department is the victim of “unreasonable demands” by the finance department. “Unreasonable demands” is an opinion, and “always” is a bias unsupported by reason.
Here are some words to look for that indicate bias or opinion:
- Middle class
- Attack, assault, cripple
- Always, never
- Don’t contribute
Words are wonderful things. They help us to persuade, to compare, and to communicate our thoughts, opinions, bias, and facts. As listeners we must discover what the speaker is offering us with his words.