Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Why a (conservative) duck?

Here's another one for the Great Meedja Bias file. It's worth noting for two reasons:

1) Ideological slant, like framing effects in general, can show up anywhere in the paper. It's not restricted to political stories about political activities.
2) Readers can't be expected to know what you think. But they can form very good ideas about what you do.

Here's the top of the tale, from this morning's IndyStar.com:

Mallard Fillmore creator charged with DUI
Star report

Hoosier Edward Bruce Tinsley, creator of the conservative comic strip Mallard Fillmore, was arrested in Columbus on Dec. 4 and charged with operating a vehicle under the influence -- his second alcohol-related arrest in less than four months, according to the Bartholomew County Sheriff's Department.

Brief detour into the land of newsroom sociology. Part of what "news" does is transmit facts, often quite accurately and impartially. Another part of what it does is transmit cultural norms and standards. There's nothing unusual or awful about that; indeed, if it's your culture being transmitted, odds are you won't even notice it. It's like being given a map and being asked to show where they speak good English: Your area is normal, but everybody else talks funny.

The upshot of that is that news isn't a naturally occurring element. It's one that arrives in a culturally constructed framework. News couldn't be about what's unusual if there wasn't a "usual" to deviate from. So transmitted alongside the data (votes for Bush, votes for Kerry; runs, hits, RBIs; changes in the federal funds rate) is a separate stream of information setting out or reinforcing the boundaries of what's normal and what's not.

To get back to the subject at hand, then, what you mark as unusual or deviant in a news text says as much about you as about the subject. In this case, it's the nature of the comic strip. And the implication, in a nutshell, is that conservative isn't normal. A conservative comic strip is so deviant that it needs to be marked -- the same sort of thinking that produces ledes like:

An American male nurse was convicted Monday in the arson deaths of billionaire banker Edmond Safra and a nurse, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

... and cop-report sentences like:

Fruitland School District officials got an anonymous tip last week that a 45-year-old female driver might have been driving a loaded school bus while drunk, said J.D. Huff, a Fruitland Police Department detective. When the woman finished her route, Huff said, school district administrators had her undergo alcohol breath tests through a private testing company.

By the time the main clause of the second sentence begins, you have a noun ("woman") and a pronoun ("her") to tell you it was a female driver. But apparently newsrooms still have cultural assumptions about killer nurses and school bus DUIs. And right-wing funnies. Old Mallard isn't singled out for being sublimely clueless and unfunny (which, of course, would make it way too easy to confuse with "For Better or for Worse"), or even for being political. What makes it deviant is its brand of politics.

Tinsley, 48, Columbus, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14 -- almost twice the level at which a driver in Indiana is considered intoxicated, the Sheriff's Department said. He posted $755 bond.

On Aug. 26, Tinsley was arrested on a charge of public intoxication, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Mallard Fillmore, about a conservative duck, appears in almost 400 newspapers nationwide, including The Indianapolis Star.

Wow. Four grafs and we get the damn duck's politics twice. Interesting, too, to compare this report with another DUI story in the same issue:

Roncalli High School head baseball coach John Wirtz faces drunken driving charges after his arrest over the weekend.

Nothing about his priors in the lede, though readers who hang on for the third graf will note that he had a drunken-driving conviction (not just a charge) in July. You don't suppose there's one set of cultural norms in IndyStar World for high school coaches and another for unfunny conservative cartoonists, do you?

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