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Posted at 04:26 PM ET, 06/15/2012

Reader Meter: Bias and propaganda in headlines

A May 29 New York Times story about how President Obama and White House officials draw up their “kill list” of terrorist suspects to be targeted by armed drones prompted a spate of e-mails to the ombudsman this week.

The Times revealed that under the administration’s working definition, a “militant” is, in effect, any male of military age killed in a strike zone unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving him innocent.

Glenn Greenwald, a left-leaning blogger, then spun off that story to criticize The Post, the Associated Press and other media outlets for parroting the administration’s use of the term “militants” in reporting the number of casualties from drone strikes.

And when an Associated Press story ran on The Post’s Web site on June 2 with the headline “U.S. missile strike kills two militants in Pakistan tribal region along Afghan border,” The Post received dozens of e-mails from readers encouraging the paper to dig a little deeper to find out the actual identities of those who die in these drone strikes.

One reader said:

“Please stop…from slavishly using the word ‘militant’ to describe every man slain by drones; there’s simply no way of knowing if the label is accurate.”

Many also accused The Post of engaging in propaganda for government and military officials:

“Without verifying exactly who has been killed and what their association may be to any ‘terrorist’ network, your reporting becomes highly suspect. In fact, it could be argued that your news organization is feeding into a propaganda campaign being perpetrated by the American government.”

A few days later, the e-mails and phone calls came pouring in once again as a result of a different sort of headline. This time, it was about the Wisconsin recall election and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s victory.

“Wis. governor Walker survives recall election” was the Post headline, with the subhead “Long lines and a close vote.”

Walker won by a margin of 54 to 46 percent, a result readers felt was hardly “close.” And readers felt The Post was being biased against Walker by saying he “survived.”

“Scott Walker wins by seven points and The Post’s headline is he ‘survives’ with, a subhead that says ‘close vote.’ Obama beat McCain by the same margin and The Post called it a mandate,” one e-mail read.

The ombudsman agrees with the critics that the headline should have made clear Walker’s comfortable margin — not necessarily a landslide but a pretty easy victory.

The ombudsman will address the use of language in describing drone strike casualties, whether “militant” or “terrorist,” in a future column or blog post.

By Alison Coglianese  |  04:26 PM ET, 06/15/2012

 
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