Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Angles or agendas?

THE RECENT U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision has highlighted how subtle shifts in language can affect the way we understand the world. Depending on where you get your news, you might have read of “pro-lifers” rejoicing while abortion campaigners lamented, or “anti-abortion” campaigners celebrating while “pro-choice” activists expressed concern.

Of course, a certain amount of shorthand is needed to be able to convey ideas and concepts efficiently. Still, the choice of words for describing them is significant. Typically, to be “anti” something in this day and age smacks of intolerance and bigotry. That is, unless it’s in regard to a stand that is widely accepted—maybe environmentalism—in which case it’s noble and brave. To be “pro,” on the other hand, is generally taken to mean charitable and caring. Then there’s the issue at the heart of the matter. Are we talking about a fetus or an unborn child? Is it an abortion or a reproductive health procedure?

All this isn’t new, but it has become heightened in recent times as many news organizations have become increasingly partisan. It’s part of the shift in the news world from having an angle to having an agenda.

Having an angle, in old newspeak, didn’t mean bias. It was shorthand for how a journalist was approaching a story; how were you going to frame it for your audience? Was it that two people died when a plane crashed or that 48 people escaped uninjured in a plane crash that killed two?

This was never a precise science, but it was a decision based not only on the facts you had to convey, but their context and the audience to which you were communicating. How best to help them understand what happened?

Having an agenda is different than having an angle. It’s not shaping the information you have to fit your audience; it is shaping the information you have to fit the story you want to tell.

Which mean readers (and viewers) need to be alert. Take a recent example from Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. It reported on the case of a man born in Fiji who has lived most of his life in the United States, where he was recently released from jail after 27 years behind bars. Upon his release, he was detained by authorities with a view to being deported to Fiji—where, the man says, he fears for his life because of his sexual orientation.

The article’s angle was that this endangerment seems unreasonable, and I’m not disputing he may have a legitimate case. But the writer, in my view, tipped over into an agenda in the article. We read, “At 22, [the subject] took someone’s life during an altercation and was convicted of second-degree murder (and) handed a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 20 years.”

While there’s no evidence presented to question the legitimacy of his conviction and sentence, it’s presented in a way that minimizes the facts that might make the subject seem less pitiable. It’s not clear why that was necessary, because the article does go on to explain how the man had been praised for his rehabilitative work while inside prison.

But “took someone’s life during an altercation” paints an incredibly passive, almost accidental sort of picture of an event that was deemed to be second-degree murder—unlawful killing without premeditation or intent to kill but with intent to harm. For which he was “handed” (hinting at unreasonableness) a life sentence.

It brings to mind the cynical old journalism adage: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

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