“Scientific Rhetoric”: Kenneth Burke’s The War of Words and the Detection of the Conscious and Unconscious Biases of the Mainstream News Media

Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Tech


In The War of Words Burke uses the term scientific to describe the news “in the sense that it deals with information” but is also rhetorical since “it forms attitudes or induces to action.” In this essay I outline Burke’s major ideas in his “Scientific Rhetoric” chapter; present for consideration Burke’s assumptions about the press; and conclude with comments about how one might productively extend Burke’s insights into future studies of the news media.

Rare is the opportunity that Kenneth Burke’s posthumously published The War of Words offers us—to re-examine through Burkeian theory and rhetorical practices our view of mass mediated news communication. Within this context, I look specifically at the chapter on “Scientific Rhetoric” in which Burke examines in detail the reportorial practices of the American news media in late 1940s/early 1950s. In that chapter Burke states that news is scientific “in the sense that it deals with information” but is also rhetorical since “it forms attitudes or induces to action” (169), an observation certainly as applicable today as it was when he wrote it. This newly available work fits in well with Burke’s corpus, and opens doors of opportunity for scholars to expand their understanding of Burke’s work further into today’s world of news media studies and beyond. It is a world, unfortunately, dominated by social scientific approaches, one sorely in need of thoughtful qualitative assessments (Kuypers, “Framing Analysis”). Moreover, Burke’s work provides additional insights for those using his theories to better understand the workings of the news media, developing further the idea that facts are interpretations and the news is drama. I proceed in three sections. First, I briefly outline Burke’s major ideas in his “Scientific Rhetoric” chapter, positioning them within the context of contemporary news reporting practices; second, I present for consideration Burke’s assumptions about the nature of the press and reportorial practices, also positioning them within the context of contemporary news reporting practices; finally, I conclude with comments about how one might productively extend Burke’s insights into future studies of the news media.

Kenneth Burke’s “Scientific Rhetoric”

The initial thought conveyed in Burke’s chapter is that the American public could “call news ‘scientific’… in this sense in that it deals with information . . . and at its best this information is accurate” and purports to be objective. Yet the underlying truth is that it is not. As most rhetoricians know, and Burke stresses, “‘Facts’ are interpretations” (169).  Burke tangentially links his definition of “facts” to an Aristotelian understanding, so facts as inartistic proofs, and once in the hands of a journalist, they take on some qualities of artistic proofs, though also moving outside, and in some instances beyond, our general understandings of logos, pathos, and ethos. It is well known that a series of words can form the indicative (the stating or indicating as objective fact), but they can also be optative (or the verbal mood expressive of hope or desire). For Burke, the facts as stressed by reporters are generally their interpretation of the facts, and beyond this, many are “selections among his interpretations” (170).

To clarify how this works, Burke points out that the same “facts” are often reported differently in Moscow and Washington because reporters “have different philosophies, theories of motives, interpretations” (170). Even today in 2020 this is so. For instance, a major Russian state-owned news publication described the presence of the Wuhan Virus on board the U.S.S. Roosevelt, not only in terms of its harming the military readiness of the vessel, but also as yet another indication that the entire aircraft carrier fleet structure was “a futile show of strength” and that “seven out of eleven ships of this class proved to be unprepared for combat missions. Moreover, it was revealed that no aircraft-carrier was prepared for combat missions on the East Coast of the country” (Lulko). And this was certainly conveyed by the headline: “Coronavirus Causes US Aircraft Carriers to Sink to the Bottom of World Ocean” (Lulko). Concerning the same event, a major American news outlet focused on how “the coronavirus may strike more Navy ships at sea after an outbreak aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific infected more than 400 sailors. . .” (Burns and Baldor). The outlet speculated on how more cases will occur, and also focused on a minor political drama surrounding the ship’s captain who was relieved of duty. Military readiness of the U.S. fleets was never an issue as it was in the Russian story. Same fact (infections), different interpretation. With this in mind, consider how Burke suggests that when reading, consumers are “absorbing a philosophy, as written by reporters who probably despise philosophy, and take their trade to be the very opposite of it” (170). In one sense, for Burke, reading a newspaper (and today, consuming broadcast news as well) is a form of “meditation,” of “pondering ‘representative’ things” (170). And these things are an interpretation put together by a reporter, even if those reading (viewing) do not consciously realize this. Thus, the meditations of the Russian news audience is quite different from the meditations of the American news audience.

Understood in this light, facts certainly gain power because we believe they can speak for themselves, yet reporters provide (as do we as individuals), knowingly and unknowingly, interpretive frameworks through which to assess and judge them. We see this process in the cases above, and Burke suggests that we look not at the fact, but at the framework in which the fact is judged (Burke, “Scientific Rhetoric”; Burke, “Scope and Reduction”). Additionally, “the report must be given through the medium of terms.” Burke proposes here considering facts as “primary interpretations” and the arrangement of facts into a meaningful order as “secondary interpretations” (172), much like inartistic to artistic proofs.  This is, of course, larger than particular political bias (which Burke believes to be pre-existing).

Burke acknowledges that many people are, as is he, skeptical of the press in the superficial sense (in suspecting that their news is slanted in accordance with editorial policy). However, what is quite uncommon is skepticism in the more “radical, or methodic sense” that Burke is proposing (something also true today):

that “the newspaper, being not a set of ‘facts’ (which are things and situations), but [rather] a set of interpretations (reports of things and situations), is not antithetical to philosophy, but is itself the uncritical and unsystematic, or implicit, philosophy. (172)

Think here of philosophy, as well as the attendant meditation, as Burke uses it above. As a beginning to such an analysis (and I will suggest more later) Burke offers what he calls “headline thinking” and presents three main elements to explore that concept.

Genius Headline Thinking

Burke acknowledges that there is news rhetoric that can be quantitatively assessed. For instance, the sheer volume and placement of news, the size of font, color, amount of headline, etc. He wishes to move beyond that, however, to explore what he in part calls the “Genius of the Headlines.” Headlines, of course, signal the substance of articles; they are ritualistic, reductionistic, and, Burke suggests, work like news tickers. The emphasis is often on first syllables, so a nervous or excited sense is imparted to readers. Additionally, Burke notes that the short words and common omission of both definite and indefinite articles also lead to this excited sense. The headlines capture the “essence” of the news in the article, its rhetorical nature. For examining the news itself, of which the headlines capture the essence, Burke offers three major and interanimated considerations: selectivity, reduction (or gist), and tithing.


Facts are selected (in conjunction with headlines) to make them rhetorically effective and done so in a way to guide possible interpretations. Facts selected by journalists and editors may well be true, but “could be falsely tendentious in the sense that they do not give a properly rounded picture of the situation reported but are ‘truths’ selected for a particular polemic purpose. Hence, although they could be placed in the category of science or knowledge, since they are ‘true information,’ the partiality of their truth makes them rhetorically persuasive in the worst sense” (177).

Of course, what facts are chosen, and subsequently “interpreted” are important to consider, and will be below. As telling can be what facts are omitted, and this “bias by omission” is a common example here also of how the press can frame and control our understanding of issues and events (Burke, “Scientific Rhetoric”; Kuypers, President Trump). Take, for instance, the sexual assault allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Certainly, a person being nominated to such a position deserves public scrutiny, and such charges should be explored, as they were in this case. Looking at the three major 24 hour cable news outlets we find that in September 2018, Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations were mentioned by one outlet 1,898 times, another 1,878 times, and the third 1,066 times. Of course, someone running to be a major party’s candidate for the office of President of the United States also deserves scrutiny and similar charges should be explored as well. Yet this did not happen to Joe Biden during the spring of 2020. Also in a one month period, mentions of Biden accuser Tara Reade’s name on cable news were almost nonexistent. Consider the three major 24 hour cable news outlets mentioned above. One mentioned her 57 times, another nine times, the third mentioned her just once (Leetaru). We see this same principle operating during the protests/riots/looting following the death of George Floyd in June 2020 when the mainstream news media (MSM) failed repeatedly to report the deaths (almost all black, including black police officers) that were occurring at the hands of the protesters/rioters. Of note is that the number of these deaths were higher than all the unarmed black American deaths at the hands of police the previous year (Watson; Krumholtz; D'Agostino).

Walter Lippmann provides us with insight into the importance of having all the facts, noting also the trend of the press to “make opinion responsible to prevailing social standards, whereas the really important thing is to try and make opinion increasingly responsible to the facts” (Lippmann 64). Importantly, he stresses that there “can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies" (64). And that it “may be a bad thing to suppress a particular opinion, but the really deadly thing is to suppress the news" (64). Moreover, “the press threatens democracy whenever it has an agenda other than the free flow of ideas. . . (64).

Thus, the importance for investigations into such practices is well noted by Burke and others. For Burke, the press desired attitude is grounded in “ever-changing procession of specific details (all different in their particularities, though similarly directed or weighted),” and if a reporter cannot range freely to gather new “facts” in the area to be “adversely reported” upon, thus providing new information daily, editors (and opinion writers) then must editorialize overtly and create news (177). One cannot help but see this as ever growing today in the world of a continuous 24 hour news cycle, especially during times of crisis. For instance, during the early months of the pandemic lockdowns the American press was swift to publish the latest on the situation, updating their website front pages every five minutes, even when there was no real “new” news. Speculation, editorializing, and repetitious droning ruled the day. From “the standpoint of an ulterior motive,” then, “the ever-changing details of each day’s news (when treated to perpetuate a fixed attitude on the part of the readers) are but the varied reindividuations of a single underlying form, concretions (in terms of particulars, or ‘images’) that bring the abstract ‘principal’ or ‘idea’ into the realm of feeling” (178).

Reportorially importantly here, “all such choices, besides resting on philosophical assumptions, invite readers to accept the same underlying assumptions” (178). As such, they are “inducement to action” (178). Clearly Burke moves beyond our contemporary notion of agenda-setting here to what I have called elsewhere agenda-extension, which postulates “an evaluative component to media coverage of issues and events. In short, the press not only tells us what to think about (agenda-setting), but it also tells us how to think about it (agenda-extension)" (Kuypers, Presidential Crisis Communication 188). With such an understanding, we move beyond merely representing a day’s events to discovery of the meaning and inducements behind what is highlighted in press reports. Burke offers in his chapter some initial ways into doing this, taking into consideration two areas, timing and quietus.

Selectivity: Timing. Here Burke considers how the release of stories can be timed to facilitate or hinder their impact upon other stories or the others’ impact. This can take the form of “organizational designs,” (178) or the timed release of a story to help (or hurt) a particular organization or candidate. Burke suggests here that a “rhetoric of juxtaposition” (178) can also operate, that a very different story (or photograph) could be placed so as to draw attention to certain aspects of the main idea the editor wants to push.  In this sense, some facts (in written or photographic form) brought in and others left out to realize editorial lean.

Selectivity: Quietus. A quietus is a subtle but powerful inducement to action, a small slighting of an emergent trend for which the journalist or editors hold disdain. It is considerably more effective than refutation. So, report on a trend, but with a slight negative tone, an “absolute quietus.” Yet if the trend gains ground, focus on it, provide fair (or even slightly negative) coverage, then drop it (it is no longer “important”), an “irruptive quietus.” In terms of its rhetorical workings, “the most effective use of headlines-in-reverse would be the absolute quietus. Next in effectiveness would be this ‘irruptive quietus,’ the lapse into silence after publicity. And if this in turn fails, there remains the standard resource of selectivity, the featuring of stories that represent the opposing philosophy, or terminology of motives, which the given newspaper favors” (182).

As an example of this quietus process recall in early 2019 when the top three Commonwealth of Virginia political leaders were embroiled in scandal--two involved with potentially racist actions and the third faced with credible accusations of multiple sexual assaults. As one MSM major daily paper reported, “In the space of a week in early February, the public was stunned by revelations about each of the three highest statewide elected officials . . . ; the racist photo in the governor’s yearbook; accusations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor; and the attorney general’s appearance in blackface at a party in college” (Campbell). The three major news networks had a combined coverage of barely over 116 minutes for the first week as all three scandals broke, followed by a combined coverage of just over 96 minutes the following week as all three scandals were in full cry (Houck). Reporting during this time exhibited classic quietus characteristics, with there being more minimization or dubiousness than explanation and fact-finding exertions. Of note, however, is that, even with no resolution to the scandals, this reportorial period was followed in the third week with only “an additional eight minutes and eight seconds devoted to the Virginia officeholders between two newscasts” (Houck). Additionally, the networks, after initial reports mentioning the Democrat party affiliation of the three office holders, dropped those labels from coverage that followed.

Reduction (Gist)

“Gist” is put into headlines. Although Burke did not use this specific language, in contemporary terms it could be considered an announcement of the primary “frame” for each news story. For Burke, this process of reducing the news event to its gist allows the press to amplify a particular point of view, and it is accomplished through two means. First, explanatory motives (motivations), or the apparent purpose of the act/event being reported upon are employed. Second, behavioral descriptions could be used, manipulating the “facts” in such a way that the preferred take of the press is advanced (184). Burke brings in an example of a debater starting the debate with the statement, “I will prove,” and ending it with, “I have proved.” In a sense, Burke argues, headlines are both “exordium and peroration rolled into one, without being formally recognized as either” (185). In making this observation, he points out to us the overlooked aspect of headline power through its function as “thesis of an argument masked as the ‘gist’ of some ‘facts’” (185).

Inattention best facilitates the working of gist, and its potent influence is best seen through the skimming of headlines, or only reading them and a first few sentences (very often with each sentence as its own paragraph). It is well known that a plurality of news reading Americans only read headlines, and of those who do read beyond that, only the first few sentences are usually read—perfect for the working of gist. And this is something that holds true in today’s world of online reading as well (Manjoo) and is something well-known by the MSM (Cillizza; Unnerman).

As an extended example of this process, let us take a look at reporting during the spring of 2020 on the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of the Wuhan Virus. The Lancet, a leading popular medical journal, published a study on the administration of hydroxychloroquine to already seriously ill COVID-19 patients, and limits its comments to those hospitalized patients only, with no mention of zinc, a major consideration in studies showing the positive effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine (Mehra, et. al). Looking at the headlines and then initial sentences of three stories from MSM outlets about this newly published study we find that all three fail to mention zinc’s important role in recovery and effectiveness, and none mention that it is already known that hydroxychloroquine results have been best with mild to moderate cases that include zinc treatment as well.

Headline no. 1: “Drug touted by Trump as Covid-19 treatment linked to a greater risk of death, study finds.” (Gumbrecht and Cohen)

Here are the first few sentences: “Seriously ill Covid-19 patients who were treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine were more likely to die or develop dangerous irregular heart rhythms, according to a large observational study published Friday in the medical journal The Lancet. President Donald Trump has been a frequent cheerleader for a combination of the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin as a Covid-19 treatment” (Gumbrecht and Cohen). This particular outlet also produced a mocking montage video of President Trump saying, dozens of times, the word “hydroxychloroquine” and placed this immediately following its headline for viewing prior to reading the story.

Headline no. 2: “Antimalarial Drug Touted by President Trump is Linked to Increased Risk of Death in Coronavirus Patients, Study Says: An analysis of 96,000 Patients Shows Those Treated with Hydroxychloroquine Were Also More Likely to Suffer Irregular Heart Rhythms.” (Cha and McGinley)

Here are the first few sentences: “A study of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents found that those who received an antimalarial drug promoted by President Trump as a ‘game changer’ in the fight against the virus had a significantly higher risk of death compared with those who did not. People treated with hydroxychloroquine, or the closely related drug chloroquine, were also more likely to develop a type of irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, that can lead to sudden cardiac death. . .” (Cha and McGinley).

Headline no. 3: “Hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine linked to increased risk of death in hospitalized coronavirus patients, study finds.” (Hein)

Here are the first few sentences: “A study of hospitalized coronavirus patients who were treated with hydroxychloroquine – the drug President Trump said he has been taking daily for about two weeks to stave off infection – as well as chloroquine, another drug recently touted as a possible COVID-19 antidote, found an increased risk of death associated with both medications. The findings, published in The Lancet on Friday, focused on exploring the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine both alone and in combination with a second-generation macrolide, and the associated safety and benefit in patients diagnosed with COVID-19” (Hein). This was the only study to mention “hospitalized” or seriously ill patients in the headline. Additionally, the article did mention, half way in that, “The drugs were thrust into the spotlight by Trump, who said he requested hydroxychloroquine from his physician. . . . He said he had been taking it daily, along with a zinc supplement, after the pair decided the potential benefits outweighed the risks” (Hein). This was the single mention of zinc in the stories. Of note is that none of these outlets reported the importance of zinc that was stressed in studies showing hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness in treating outpatient COVID-19 sufferers (Louise).

After imparting a particular gist to the Lancet study, a little over a week later the three outlets minimally reported that the original study, which the outlets had used to belittle hydroxychloroquine, was retracted by the researchers due to seriously flawed data (Mehra, et al.). This was a major news item given the importance placed on the original study. One outlet, for instance, had given 90 minutes in one day to reporting the original study, in a tone clearly reflecting the headline no. 1 example, but spent only one minute and 45 seconds on its retraction (Houck). The outlet publishing headline no. 2 published a story about the retraction, but kept it behind a paywall, whereas the original story was and still is several months later free to view, with no mention of the study’s retraction there. The third outlet reported the retraction as news, and had no paywall. Thus, in a real sense, the initial gist was negative, and in a large sense, maintained by at least two of the three outlets even through the retraction, with all outlets failing to mention retroactively in the original story that there was a retraction, even as emendations to news stories posted online are commonplace. Again, though, in all the retractions, zinc remains unmentioned.

Tithing by Tonality

Tonality is, as is gist, an exceptionally subtle modality of bias, and one that could easily circumvent social scientific means of detection. According to Burke, it is the

journalistic building of animus by countless strokes of style, each so trivial that you can hardly bring yourself to point out its tiny inclination. As you see the infinitesimal but endlessly repeated reinforcement of an attitude, by different particulars, through months and years, you collect a body of testimony each item of which is as microscopic as bacteria, yet so powerful in the mass as to threaten the very foundation of human society, particularly in an age which has so many new means of destruction as ours, goading us in our unimaginative moments to try using the new weapons as a cure for economic ills inborn to our society” (185-86).

Thus, small items over time build up within news audiences an attitude toward an object, a person, a policy; thus, tithing over time. For Burke here, “the power resides not in the brilliance of the message, but in the efficiency of the technology by which an idea can be institutionally amplified until it is equivalent, in its suasiveness, to an evangelical doctrine like Christianity, vibrant with intellect and poetry. This is the rhetoric of small profit made stupendous by big turnover” (186). And in the age of digital news and social media, as well as a narrowly branded, monolithic MSM culture (Kuypers, Partisan Journalism), Burke’s observation takes on even more poignancy. Keep in mind as well that tonality is “a kind of implied identification” (190), and once established, even a “correct reporting of an adversary’s statement can be a further step in deception” (192). To sum, then, tithing “is the establishing of an attitude by trivial effects that become important in the aggregate. The very triviality of the device adds to its effectiveness, if there is a constant opportunity to repeat it, in varying details” (187).

I believe Burke correct when he writes that it “is difficult to cite examples, because they are in their very essence made not for close attention but for inattention” (187). Moreover, this process can often work through the omission of information (which we discussed above), which is practically impossible to detect save one has exposure to oppositional information or prior knowledge (Kuypers, President Trump).

Although Burke was talking primarily of radio broadcast, we can easily enlarge his comments to include broadcast news when he asserts that tithing also involves physical tone of voice. So we have not only headlines and news story content, but also actual tone of voice and inflections of announcers to consider when discussing tithing by tonality. These are elements rarely examined in bias studies where overwhelmingly the emphasis is on textual, not paralinguistic, features.

Consider again motivational versus behavioral reporting. A focus on behavioral reporting can also support tonality. When focusing on the behavioral, the act itself, not the purpose or motive behind it is highlighted. This could also be, for instance, a focus upon what happened today versus the day before. So, leaving out motives (context) can add to or detract from the tone, particularly in relation to a specific news audience. (One might consider here enthymematic structures in relation to the cultural, social, or ideological make-up of a particular news outlet’s audience.) Tonality is more than simply using censorious terms, or terms with the force but not form of argument. For instance, what is described as foolhardy action in an enemy might be described as bravery in an ally. Or, for instance, when President Obama used the term “thugs” to refer to the Baltimore rioters the MSM accepted it; when President Trump used the term to describe the Minneapolis rioters the MSM condemned it (Post Editorial Board). Tonalities can go beyond these types of usages and also weight terms. They impart an emotional weighting by use of tone. For Burke, there are two choices here, 1.) either a choice between two terms (material or idealization) or 2.) tone, (same word, but choice between different weightings, as in the “thugs” comparison above). And keep in mind that “without tonality, no tribal cohesion”; thus tone can be used to examine press cohesiveness across media outlets (197). This tonality has implications for news audiences and also journalists since rhetoric “as a pragmatic means of inducing collective action begins in tone” (197). Although applicable to all, consider especially here a novice journalist: “A newcomer ‘belongs’ when he has mastered the tonal subtleties of his group, when he knows spontaneously what he is expected to mention in accents of approval, scorn, boredom, apprehension, amusement, and the like” (197). Thus tonalities in the newsroom is a quick way of enculturating new reporters, and the pressures for reporters to ideologically conform to the group mentality are greater today than ever (Tiabbi). Tonalities are also a way of enculturating news audiences, as shown by the political leanings of audiences who routinely consume publications whose ideological leanings match their own, as was mentioned above.

Part of the reason tithing by tonality works is that papers and broadcast news thrive on the inattention of audiences. As Burke pointed out then, and is true today, audiences are generally “inattentive” and “distracted” (198), so a great deal of tithing is necessary for impact. Tonality works especially well with persons passive about their news consumption, those who simply accept uncritically what the MSM tells them, which, of course, would magnify the impact of omission of oppositional information as well. We can easily see this process at work by looking at some recent headlines and their subsequent changes in response to the violation of the tithing expectations of the outlets’ audiences (Golding). In one example, a major MSM daily paper changed its Sunday edition lead story headline not once, but twice in response to reader criticism concerning Democrats in Congress initially blocking a 2020 pandemic relief bill:

Initial headline: “Democrats Block Action on $1.8 Trillion Stimulus.”
Changed headline 1: “Democrats Block Action on Stimulus Plan, Seeking Worker Protections.”
Changed headline 2: “Partisan Divide Threatens Deal on Rescue Bill.” (Barkoukis)

Concerning this same issue, when an additional $250 billion emergency relief fund for small businesses was set for a vote, a major cable news outlet provided this story headline on its website:

Initial headline: “Democrats block GOP-led funding boost for small business aid program.”
Changed headline: “Senate at stalemate over more COVID-19 aid after Republicans and Democrats block competing proposals.” (Wulfsohn)

In another example, a major MSM daily responded to reader criticism by changing its front page headline about President Trump’s response to the 2019 El Paso shootings.

Initial headline: “Trump Urges Unity VS. Racism.”
Changed headline 1: “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.” (Greve)

In each case we see the changes made to comport with the “tithing” expectations of the news audience. Of note is that editorial explanations for the changes were generally an apology for rushing that led to an initial inaccurate headline, even as the initial headlines were factually accurate. In short, the corrected headlines reflected the ongoing, deliberate tithing of the news outlet.

News as Drama

Drama, as Burke uses it here, does not mean dramatistical, unfortunately, but rather dramatic, with Burke enjoining us to consider situational elements beyond the verbal when studying the rhetoric of the press (200). In this sense, shock and scare tactics make for more “newsworthy” stories; they are dramatic. However, journalists also promote this, thus we move beyond just sources or the occasional true dramatic story. One cannot help but think of some of the contemporary biases of the press--money bias, sensationalism, visual bias--ultimately helping sales as well. Burke brings up the press generated horserace frame used for political campaigns, and also the practice of relaying negotiations as a prize fight; thus, step-by-step, blow-by-blow, not as neutral announcers, but rather laced instead with tonalities. For Burke, “not human nature, but ‘journalistic nature,’ must be held responsible for the excesses of dramatization in the news” (206). In highlighting the importance of this “nature,” Burke intones:

the essence of journalistic dramatization is real in this foible: The first estimates of damage and death in reports of a catastrophe are usually much higher than the final accounting (which, of course, rates small headlines). Usually, catastrophe is minimized only when there are political reasons for weakening the purely dramatic value of the event. . . . (203)

One cannot help but think of the MSM coverage of the 2020 pandemic in this instance. Initial grossly overly-inflated rates of infection and death were hammered into the American psyche (I am certain those reading this recall the initial estimates of over 2.2 million U.S. deaths figure), and given that New York City was the area hardest hit, journalists, so many of which nationally are centered in that area, transferred their own fear onto their reportorial practices. Such reporting existed throughout the worst of the pandemic, and continued even into the reopening phases of the recovery. Take, for example, the MSM’s initial cries of catastrophe when Florida’s Governor announced he was beginning the process of reopening Florida. Instead of responding with measured reporting of the science and logic behind the decision (medical and economic forecasts, avoiding ruin, and civil liberties considerations), the MSM responded with tales of doom and gloom, going so far as to accuse the governor of actions designed to turn Florida into New York City and Italy at their worst. Yet weeks after the re-opening, and the press was wrong (Caruso), and spikes seen in late July across the US also showed a steep lowering of the rate of death. Yet to this day the MSM continues to report to induce panic (I&I Editorial Board). The fear engendered by such reporting is, for Burke, not so much public opinion driving the news, but “public response to the rhetoric of the news” in many cases (203).

Of importance, Burke asks, How do the motives of journalistic dramatization operate? Again, though, it is not so much a dramatistically understood notion of motives working here as it is actual dramatizing. The principle of reduction is in play: policy measures linked with headlines of the day for their dramatizing qualities, and with today’s press, the journalistic bias to focus on negative news leads, coloring interpretations and headlines. Tonality is still at play, of course, and continues to thrive through variations on a theme, which may include what Burke calls the Principle of Ill Will: antithesis used as a means of dramatizing, and also adding tonality. Certainly, when a story first breaks it can be featured by dramatic value alone, then combined with tithing and tonalities in later iterations. Burke also asks us to consider that when a story first breaks, and might counter the news media’s rhetorical policy, it can be combined with “another story which reaffirms the tonalities” (210).

Another way this can work is through the Principle of “Failing to Realize” the position of one’s opponent. Burke suggests here that a journalist could “damn by faint reporting” (210). Accordingly, “Whenever a speaker is eloquent in a cause you do not favor, and you would report his speech factually without allowing him the persuasiveness of his eloquence, tell it in your own words, reduce it without quotation, or select for quotation sentences which, without their proper preparation in the address, are lame or even repugnant” (211). An example of this occurred in late July 2020 when the press secretary for the White House was asked about the White House support for opening public schools in the fall. Her entire reply explains the White House stance:

[T]he president has said unmistakably that he wants schools to open. And I was just in the Oval talking to him about that. And when he says open, he means open in full — kids being able to attend each and every day at their school.

The science should not stand in the way of this. And as Dr. Scott Atlas said — I thought this was a good quote — “Of course, we can [do it]. Everyone else in the…Western world, our peer nations are doing it. We are the outlier here.”

The science is very clear on this, that — you know, for instance, you look at the JAMA Pediatrics study of 46 pediatric hospitals in North America that said the risk of critical illness from COVID is far less for children than that of seasonal flu.

The science is on our side here, and we encourage for localities and states to just simply follow the science, open our schools. It’s very damaging to our children: There is a lack of reporting of abuse; there’s mental depressions that are not addressed; suicidal ideations that are not addressed when students are not in school. Our schools are extremely important, they’re essential, and they must reopen (White House).

Many MSM outlets, and reporter twitter feeds “highlighted [this] sentence only, ‘The science should not stand in the way of this,’ while deliberately ignoring the rest of the quote… that the science supports reopening schools. [Many major MSM print and broadcast outlets] deliberately took her out of context in their headlines” (Margolis, “Media Deliberately”). Reading through the original there is absolutely no doubt but that the Press Secretary “never meant to say or to imply that schools should reopen despite science saying it isn’t safe” (Margolis, “Media Deliberately”)

I see this practice linked to the interanimation of political animus and to what political communication researchers have called the Incredible Shrinking Soundbite. In the late 1960s the average soundbite from politicians was a bit over 40 seconds. Today that has “shrunk” to just about 8 seconds today. Into this void we have both the reporters and their so-called “experts” offering more interpretation of the news event or particular person being covered. In particular, the use of “experts” or news shapers, is going up in both print and broadcast (Soley), filling the gap left by reducing the length of quotes from the primary news makers; this diminution of primary source time empowers reportorial interpretation and contextualization of both primary and “expert” remarks, making it increasingly easy to “fail to realize.”

Polls, Forums, Accountancy

On these topics Burke offers only a short, incomplete section, although some of his observations are borne out by more contemporary work in these areas. Burke sees forums as often bland, and organizers able and often willing to plan for one side to be more strongly defended. For instance, in the weeks leading up to the 2020 Presidential election, one of the major broadcast networks intentionally masqueraded several anti-Trump activists as “uncommitted voters” (Anderson) and another network labeled several known pro-Biden supporters as “undecided voters” (Moore). In another contemporary example, a major cable news outlet intentionally snubbed then-Democrat presidential primary candidate Tulsi Gabbard by not allowing her participation in early Democrat town halls. Additionally, this outlet’s long history of planting Democrat party operatives in town halls is a way of controlling the outcomes (Steinhauser and DiRienzo; Malkin; Laila).

Polls are similar, with the way questions are worded playing an important part in knowledge generated (Hogan; Choi and Pak). Burke also alludes to an assertive nature in the quality of questions; the more they seem purely truth seeking, the more there is a level of sheer assertion, or underlying assumption, lurking. This might not be dissimilar to “factual” (as opposed to optative) style questions. One may also take the way a question is delivered into account, as in the command form as a question. Much of the insight about polls can be applied to forums, and Burke admits that much of accountancy is actually best considered as Bureaucratic Rhetoric (a brief and incomplete chapter in War of Words), although at its core, as presented in the news, it is a way for journalists to use different accounting methods to make the same amount seems greater or lesser depending upon how they wish to engage in tonality.

Burke would not have been familiar with Darrell Huff and Irving Geis’s 1954 classic, How to Lie with Statistics when he wrote “Scientific Rhetoric,” yet his observations fit in well with their concerns: “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify. . ." (10). One can see accountancy in action looking at recent examples of the reporting on the pandemic in America. MSM reports for months during this time highlighted the daily increase in both number of cases and deaths from the virus. Focusing on the number of cases, such reports stressed a total number comparison, often made to other countries, with the MSM stressing that the United States had more cases than any other country--which in one sense is a fact--implying, one could say tithing, that our country was doing a poor job at mitigating the crisis. Here is one such example of cases from late May, using Johns Hopkins University of Medicine figures:

1.USA (96,046)
2.UK (36,757)
3.Italy (32,735)
4.Spain (28,678)
5.France (28,218)
6.Brazil (22,013)
7.Belgium (9,280)
8.Germany (8,275)
9.Iran (7,417)
10.Netherlands (5,841) (Margolis, “Don’t Buy”)

Burke though did, in his chapter, use the term tendentious in pointing out the way that facts can be applied by the press. As pointed out by an alternative media outlet, here is what happens when you adjust the above figures on a per capita basis, with deaths per million of population considered:

1.Belgium (791.76)
2.Spain (573.38)
3.UK (558.95)
4.Italy (524.58)
5.France (415.90)
6.Sweden (391.87)
7.Netherlands (338.01)
8.Ireland (309.86)
9.USA (288.74)
10.Switzerland (226.80) (Margolis, “Don’t Buy”)

These figures, showing the United States doing considerably better than other nations, are comparatively rare in MSM coverage of the pandemic. Going even further, taking into consideration the New York City-centric reporting by the MSM during the crisis, one could factor out lower New York state, the hardest hit area of the US, to even better see the contrast. When one theoretically considers lower New York state as a separate country, one finds this:

1.Downstate NY (1,771.86)
2.Belgium (791.76)
3.Spain (573.38)
4.UK (558.95)
5.Italy (524.58)
6.France (415.90)
7.Sweden (391.87)
8.Netherlands (338.01)
9.Ireland (309.86)
10.USA sans downstate NY (233.44) (Margolis, “Don’t Buy”)

Usually left out of coverage of numbers is that the United States, at 330 million, is the world’s third most populous country. Moreover, the world’s two most populous countries—China and India—as well as Russia and Iran, are known to undercount both cases and deaths, which could also factor into the total counts. Yet with all of this, the MSM overwhelmingly uses the total case count daily, like a prize fight announcer, announcing each uptick in total cases without contextualization, making America seem to be the winner at obtaining the most cases. Or, adding to the tithing on this subjest, as one cable news outlet in mid-June 2020 sensationally put it, “more than 8 million coronavirus cases have been diagnosed worldwide, more than 2.1 million of which are in the U.S., the most impacted country on the planet” (Ciaccia).

Burke’s Assumptions Concerning News Bias

As one reads “Scientific Rhetoric,” it becomes increasingly clear that Burke does not believe the press is objective; although to what degree conscious versus unconscious reporter partisanship plays, he leaves unclear. Regardless, let us examine the more direct assumptions Burke makes in his chapter:

  1. Tellingly, he throws out almost casually the thought that so many in the general public, in a “superficial” sense, suspected “that the news is slanted in accordance with editorial policy. . .” (172). That is, the public expected that hard news stories (in the golden age of press objectivity no less) are slanted to reflect the ideological predispositions of editors and even at times owners. This is opposed to the “radical” sense he describes as philosophy, that we discussed in the earlier section.
  2. He identifies contextualization as a tool of reportorial bias: “A news item reporting a bad situation in some quarter which it is the editorial policy of the paper to denigrate may be quite literally true; indeed, a whole series of such articles may be quite literally true; yet the articles could be falsely tendentious in the sense that they do not give a properly rounded picture of the situation reported but are ‘truths’ selected for a particular polemic purpose” (177).
  3. He notes “journalists’ insistence upon full freedom to gather information in areas which, for political reasons, are to be presented in an unfavorable light.” He explains that reporters and editors are in “effect … but demanding a better opportunity to work adversely upon the imaginations of their readers. For if they have a few stories on which to base the attitudes which they would inculcate, they confront a technical embarrassment. They must ground the desired attitude in an ever-changing procession of specific details (all different in their particularities, though similarly directed or weighted)” (177). He highlights that when reporters cannot obtain enough new information to continue along, that editors end up relying “too greatly upon overt editorializing. . . .” in the areas to be “adversely reported” (177-78).
  4. Writing of the actual production of the news, he argues that “from the standpoint of an ulterior motive, the ever-changing details of each day’s news (when treated to perpetuate a fixed attitude on the part of the readers) are but the varied reindividuations of a single underlying form, concretions (in terms of particulars…) that bring the abstract ‘principle’ or ‘idea’ [wished to be conveyed by journalists and editors] into the realm of feeling” (178).
  5. He recognized the effort at the time in 1948, following the aftermath of WWII, of the press to “promote popular ill will” toward a particular government, providing as examples three different broadcasts of negative stories specifically cast “as an item of general news interest” by the press (180).
  6. He provides as an example how candidate G for public office could give a stellar speech, with only one small error, and then, with intentionality, “the headline writer for a newspaper backing a rival candidate [Candidate S] could ‘honestly’ report, as the essence of [Candidate G’s] address, that one erring paragraph in a speech” (182).
  7. He specifically states of one paper, “it’s an editorial policy to keep alive a feeling of ill will toward that nation…” (186).
  8. He speaks to the “anti-labor ‘tithing’ in which our press was then exceptionally active” (194).
  9. He provides as another example the deliberate attempt to influence the political process, when “the press began a new campaign, attempting to prevent further legislative reform” (197).
  10. He offers this rather telling statement, particularly so when viewed in light of the reporting of the 2020 pandemic: “catastrophe is minimized only when there are political reasons for weakening the purely dramatic value of the event, as in reporting of losses suffered by the journal’s own side in battle” or for “exaggeration . . . if there are factional reasons for playing up the disaster as a basis for criticizing the persons in authority” (203).
  11. He suggests that the biasing process can often be seen when an unusual or startling story first breaks: the story may be featured for dramatic value alone, in which case “several days may elapse before editorial policy crystallizes” (208).
  12. He demonstrates how journalists can sustain a long “sequence of tithing by tonality, which at once exploits and confirms a popular prejudice in accordance with editorial preferences, [that] can be justified purely as dramatic expediency or can as properly be condemned as tendentious selectivity dictated by ulterior motives” (209).
  13. He also addresses “tonalities maintained as rhetorical policy . . .” (210).

These specific items, taken together within the context of the book, demonstrates Burke’s belief that news construction, in both headlines and article content is guided (to a greater or lesser degree) by the partisan politics and worldviews of the journalists and editors involved with the story telling. Burke does not ascribe bald faced lies to editors and journalists in shaping the interpretation of the “facts” (although he does not rule those out, either). He says instead that, in general, “We are discussing not lies, but the tendentious selection of ‘hard facts’” (221). Keep in mind that tendentious here is not a synonym for mendacious, necessarily, but it rather highlights news reporting which is partisan or prejudiced, or that favors a particular point of view. Importantly, though, we can detect this bias, whether strong or weak, intentional or not.

Burke also hints at the role the news audience plays in the biases presented by the press and offers some observations to suggest that audiences congregate to MSM outlets that comport with their views. This observation is certainly not new; it is well known that papers in the early days of the Republic attracted like-minded partisans, and that today certain outlets attract audiences with similar ideological leanings, although this is not exclusive (Kuypers, Partisan Journalism). Although not “proof” of an ideological bias of those outlets, there is a strong correlation. Regardless, Burke does suggest that audience is an important consideration for interpreting news in that their perspective can turn “scientific” reporting to exhortation (169). For example, “But if your report is read by a reader for whom the tonalities have already been set… your behavioral account both exploits and confirms these tonalities” (193). One might think of Edwin Black’s notion of the second persona here, only with the construction of news stories hinting at the persona of the audience (Black). Also on audience, “often the king’s ambassadors told him not just what was, but what he wanted to hear—and we can expect ‘confidential’ advice [to readers] in new services to show a like trend” (199). And studies have shown that audience members with certain ideological leanings (conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive) do tend to read/view news from particular outlets that are reputed (although some would argue “proven”) to have certain ideological points of view, with traditional or legacy MSM audiences largely left of center (“Ideological Placement”; Attkisson).

It seems easy to believe Burke’s “taken for granted” observations from the late 1940s and early 1950s, but what about today? Do editors and journalists today actually engage in the very behavior Burke took as truth then? Survey data and much academic literature on this subject strongly suggests that if one is an academic scholar (Langbert and Stevens), journalist, someone who identifies as liberal/progressive, or a Democrat, the answer is most likely no, that there is minimal political bias in MSM reportorial practices; or if it is seen, it is of a particular kind, not seen by the general public.

The journalistic body today is itself, however, a quite the monolithic culture. In terms of church attendance, voting habits, political affiliations, political donations, etc., mainstream journalists are far to the left of average Americans (Kuypers, Partisan Journalism). The key question is, however, does this overwhelming progressive culture leak out into reportorial practices? Americans in general seem to agree that it does, although the more to the left of the political spectrum, or the more similar to journalists one is, the less one sees such bias operating. For instance, numerous surveys show that moderates and political independents generally see the same bias as Republicans and those leaning right on the political spectrum, suggesting strongly that something other than perception is the cause of observed bias. Although we ought not rely on one Gallup poll for the formation of our opinion on this (or any issue), the results here are within keeping of other such polls and my own observations so I feel are worth noting to establish a general sense of this subject.

  • In 1984, 58% of Americans said that the news media was careful to separate fact from opinion; it is down to 32% now.
  • In 1989 only 25% of Americans saw political bias in news coverage; it is up to 45% who see “a great deal” today. The percentage is considerably higher when asking for any degree of political bias.
  • A majority of Americans cannot name a source that reports news objectively. (Jones and Ritter)

Looking at Republican, independent, and Democrat interpretations of news coverage one finds that

  • 53% of Democrats, but only 27% of independents and 13% of Republicans, believe the media are careful to separate fact from opinion.
  • Whereas 67% of Republicans perceive a “great deal” of political bias in news coverage, only 26% of Democrats do.
  • Independents fall in between Republicans and Democrats on this consideration, with 46% saying news coverage has a “great deal” of political bias. (Jones and Ritter)

Of note is that when those identifying as Democrats and liberals/progressives see bias operating it is not a conservative political bias, but rather a bias in terms of supporting one candidate over another (i.e., Biden over Sanders) or a bias toward supporting the ideological status quo (Herman and Chomsky). Additionally, the more one has political leanings similar to that of the journalists producing the mainstream news, the less one sees political bias favoring one ideological view over another in the reporting of political issues by the MSM.

Going Beyond Burke: Suggested Extensions

There are numerous ways of examining MSM reports for the qualities Burke mentions, as well as for tendentiousness and countless biases; some of these flow from contemporary work in political communication and, more to our point in this essay, some flowing from Burkeian theory. To potentials using Burkeian theory we now turn. These are just what the subject heading implies, “suggested extensions,” and certainly only hint at the potential of applying Burkeian thought to journalistic artifacts; I do not intend it as a comprehensive literature review of Burkeian theory that has been used in some manner to examine the MSM. These are rather some suggestions for using his work that flow organically from his chapter, “Scientific Rhetoric,” in which he wrote: if one is “skeptical in the radical, or methodic sense” that he is proposing, then one can see that “news papers” (or a news report), “being not a set of ‘facts’ (which are things and situations), but a set of interpretations (reports of things and situations), is not antithetical to philosophy, but is itself the uncritical and unsystematic, or implicit, philosophy (172). So how might one go about exploring this undercurrent of reportorial philosophy today using Burkeian ideas to study news artifacts?

Cluster analysis is one way that Burke’s insights may fruitfully be used to examine a wide range of artifacts. For instance, looking at crisis leadership portrayals by the news media, Robert S. Littlefield and Andrea M. Quenette used cluster analysis to specifically explore how news outlets interpreted authority figures during a time of crisis. They found that through clustering of terms that the press could frame leaders in a positive or negative light. Adriana Angel and Benjamin Bates used this type of analysis in their critique of Columbian radio conversations surrounding the word “corruption.” Their analysis consisted of four steps. First, they focused on the terms that “guided the consecutive search for other terms” (Angel and Bates); thus, they found main terms that radio hosts used when they defined or described the term corruption. Second, they explored corruption talk by identifying terms used by the speakers when referring to corruption. Next, they identified clusters of terms that showed patterns of meaning, which were based on similar ideas that speakers use when referring to corruption. Finally, they determined the rhetor’s motives behind the meanings associated with key terms, although they did not explore the philosophical implications of their worldviews.

There are, of course, other such instances of Burke being used to examine news media productions, but such analyses stop far short of determining the worldviews of the journalists or how such views influence reportorial practices. Neither do these get into political bias as revealed and enacted through “motivations,” in the dramatistical sense, although they are important considerations about how language use shapes our understandings of events and issues. I have long used rhetorical framing analysis for examining how the news media act to shape public awareness, understanding, and evaluations of issues and events in a particular direction (Kuypers, Framing Trump; Kuypers, Presidential Crisis), yet this methodology is limited in terms of discerning any dramatistical elements to reportorial practices, although it could be used to determine “tithing,” “selectivity,” and perhaps “tone” in news reports over time, especially in comparative analyses if MSM and non-MSM reports are used. Regardless, with these shortcomings in mind, I began exploring the use of Burkeian ideas to examine the less obvious elements in press bias. I found motivational analysis a particularly fruitful approach to use here. Moreover, it seems the next logical step given Burke’s discussion of press practices, and his a priori assumptions about press bias. Even as motivational analyses tend to focus on single textual instances, one can enlarge the scope to look at aggregates of discourse, meta-narratives, or other combinations of discourse (Kuypers, “News Media Framing”).

My interest in using Burkeian perspectives to analyze the content of news stories saw its first publication in 2012 in an essay focusing on the troubled Martin Luther King, Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center, now rededicated as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Behavioral Health Center. My co-author and I first focused on “the journalists’ actions in writing the series and then conducting a similar analysis of the dramatic world that they created within King/Drew….” By doing this, “we were able to explore how King/Drew’s scene allowed for persistent medical malpractice actions that prevented the hospital from fulfilling its purpose of healing and serving the community. Finally, by uniting both pentadic analyses, we were able to identify the missing piece to resolution despite many attempts to solve the hospital’s problems” (Gellert and Kuypers). Still, although showing the dramatistical power of reportorial practices, the analysis fell short of getting at a deep motivational level of analysis.

More recently, I undertook a two-stage project in which I subjected the presidential nomination acceptance speeches of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to a dramatistic analysis with the goal of ascertaining the expressed worldviews of the speakers. The results were telling in that both speeches strongly presented specific pentadic elements and terministic screens, ultimately providing a philosophical clarity about the differences between the two candidates (Kuypers, “Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speeches”). Although illuminating, it was certainly not a radical application of Burkeian dramatism. For the second part, however, I subjected the MSM coverage of both speeches to the same style of analysis, taking into account the multiple voices of the journalists and quoted sources, and also the differences between editorials, opinion essays, news analyses, and hard news stories. Looking over the results of the analysis it was clear that the press coverage of Trump was inconsubstantial with him; however, that same press was clearly consubstantial with Clinton. In short, the worldview expressed by Trump was not conveyed to the American people, whereas that of Clinton was. Moreover, the press reporting actually acted to extend and amplify Clinton’s worldview (Kuypers, “News Media Framing”).

In terms of implications, as I have noted elsewhere, the “tendency would be for those consubstantial with each other to see reality is much the same manner, and with the press, to report the same as true” (Kuypers, “News Media Framing,” 118). In Burkeian terms, the “terminological screens of the press prevented it from fairly and accurately covering both candidates. The implications for this are stunning when considering the power of terminological screens to select, reflect, and deflect our attention from one aspect of reality toward another” (Kuypers, “News Media Framing,” 118). Keep in mind that these screens are “indicative of the internal thinking of the communicator” and affect the very “nature of our observations. . . .” Or as Burke puts it, “many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made” (Language as Symbolic, 46). And here we see the heuristic power of Burkeian theory to illuminate areas of journalistic practices that the social scientific method cannot begin to adequately examine.

These are but a few examples of possible uses of Burkeian thought gleaned both from previously published works and also the ideas contained in the posthumously published War of Words. There certainly are others. I am convinced that used in combination, Burkeian dramatistical theory and the press related insights expressed in “Scientific Rhetoric” can do much to enhance our analyses of the news media. Certainly, using them can extend and provide insights that numerically oriented social scientific approaches simply cannot achieve. Burke was incredibly inventive, imaginative, and open minded in how he approached news artifacts, and his examples can help to expand the perspectives available for examining the reportorial products of the news media, thus breathing new life into what has to some become an area rather narrow in terms of methodological acceptance.

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