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Creating bias

Watch as Luke Pearce illustrates how making different grammatical choices allows the writer to express different perspectives.
OK, so hello again, and now we’re in week three and we’re looking at a few non-fiction texts. And in the previous few steps you’ve already started looking at this activity where we’re looking at newspaper headlines and how different newspaper headlines can create different effects.
So as we already saw, when we are looking at language in the classroom, we want to make sure we’re talking about the context. So in a previous step and with your students, you should talk about newspapers, headlines and what they are trying to achieve, what particular effects they’re trying to create, and how readers might respond to them. And of course, that’s going to bring up ideas about grabbing the reader’s attention. and using a very short amount of words. The appearance of the text on the page. And the thing we’re going to focus on today is looking at bias in particular. So bias. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept and how it relates to the text.
This is created through linguistic highlighting, so it’s using language to highlight or obscure different aspects of an event, so that’s a very clear way we can create bias. So each of these headlines we’ve looked at puts a different emphasis on what we can call the actions and the agents, or and put another way, who is the hero and who is the villain and what was done by whom, to whom, and that might already be giving you a clue about the language which we are going to be working up to be looking at.
So let’s take another look at those for headlines and maybe the situation would be a newspaper journalist has written an article and is deciding on which headline is the best to use and considering the effect on the reader and what they want to achieve. So the four headlines number one, Protesters destroy shops in night long chaos #2 Police overcome protesters in nightlong battle. #3 Shops destroyed in nightlong protest and #4 Protesters and police in night long battle. So considering we’ve already talked about the context and the reader response some questions to ask to lead into language could be who or what is the doer of the action and how is that expressed through grammar.
Or we could say, how is that expressed through the the syntax or the the ordering of the sentence and through these activities, now we’re starting to introduce some grammatical terminology. We’re going to focus on grammatical function. You and your learners should already have your responses to those four headlines and how each one paints a slightly different picture. Now we’re going to analyse how that each effect was achieved through the language and through the grammar. So let’s take a look at the first one and we’re going to use some colour coding in lots of these activities.
Protesters destroy shops in nightlong chaos, so here it follows a subject verb object, adverbial form ‘in nightlong chaos’ being the adverbial and this is written in the active voice. What effect does that have? The protesters are the agent performing the action to destroy, and the shops are receiving that action. So we could say what’s the outcome of that? Well the protesters are the ones who are blamed and the police are ignored. #2 similar sentence, but now our subject and object have been switched. ‘The police overcome the protesters in nightlong battle’ Again the same subject, verb, object, adverbial in the active voice.
But this time it’s the police who are the active agent performing that action, and the protesters are receiving it. So the protesters come across as a more passive group, and the police are portrayed as victors over the protesters.
3 Shops destroyed in night long protest. So here we just have the object and the verb. So this is what we could call the passive voice. Being a newspaper headline, the verb is not there to sort of save on space and makes it sound a bit more immediate. So it would be, shops were destroyed or shops have been destroyed in night long protest, the patient of the action, the receiver of the action, the shops. So if that is what’s foregrounded, this newspaper article is focusing on what happened to the shops, but the action of the agent is concealed. So what does that tell us about the journalist and their potential biases that they’re avoiding assigning blame?
Although probably the reader might be able to fill in the gaps.
4 Protesters and police in nightlong battle. So here we have a subject and the object, but no verb, just that adverbial at the end. So again in newspaper writing to save space, to grab the reader’s attention we might have these kind of fragment, not quite full sentences, but the reader can normally piece that together. And what’s the effect of this? Well that puts both the participants, the protesters and police, are there together in the subject as equals, but it’s concealing the action that took place.
So again, thinking about the journalist and what they might want to achieve and their bias, all these different headlines, reporting about the exact same events and actually not that different of sentences are having quite different effects. Now, you might be thinking there’s some things we haven’t talked about and we did say one of our principles or things to avoid is not to overload on the grammatical terminology. So in this lesson so far we’ve just focused on things like subjects and objects and adverbials and the orders of the sentences.
But of course, there’s more we could be talking about, as I’m sure many of you have noticed, we would also want to talk about the choice of words, the choice of language. But you can see how these two things have been separated out and focussed on one by one instead of asking the learner to to talk about all the nouns or all the verbs at once. So looking at this from a different point of view, we can say ah what else? What other effects was the journalist trying to achieve in their choice of verbs and nouns? So you can see how the verbs things like destroy overcome are quite emotive verbs and then same with the nouns and the
adverbials: chaos, battle, protest. How is that painting the picture and how could we swap out some of those words? Those verbs and nouns for different types of words and be more neutral or more biased in favour or against a different group. So there you go. An example of how we’ve looked at bias and headlines, and how by starting with that topic of bias and the context of newspaper headlines, that’s led us into grammar and and how the grammar achieves the effects rather than starting with, you, know, a lesson on subjects and the active voice and passive voice, which might not come across as so interesting. So thank you for watching this video on the topic.
Let me know in the in the comments in the discussion area below. What do you think about this type of activity? Is it something you might use in your setting? And then the next step we’ll look at is how could we move from this analyzing, reading task into a writing task.

Watch the video above to see how the author manipulates grammar to express bias in headlines.

Tip: try speeding up or slowing down the videos by clicking the ‘1x’ symbol at the bottom right.

These headlines are an example of linguistic highlighting: the author is using language to highlight or obscure different aspects of the event. Each headline places a different emphasis on the actions and the agents: who is the hero and who is the villain, and what was done.

  1. Protestors destroy shops in night-long chaos
  2. Police overcome protestors in night-long battle
  3. Shops destroyed in night-long protest
  4. Protestors and police in night-long battle

Now, let’s discuss the language choices that achieve these different effects. Pick two sentences to compare and discuss:

  • Who or what is the ‘do-er’ or agent?
  • What grammatical structures affect this?
  • How are verbs and noun-phrases used?

The author is always making choices about how to manipulate language as a meaning-making resource. There preference will depend on their purpose, biases and contextual pressures.

Let’s now take a look at some possible interpretations of these headlines.

1.Protestors destroy shops in night-long chaos

Subject-Verb-Object- Adverbial in the active voice

The ‘Protestors’ are the agent performing the verb ‘destroy’. The ‘shops’ are the patient which undergoes the action.

2.Police overcome protestors in night-long battle

Subject-Verb-Object- Adverbial in the active voice

The ‘Police’ are now the agent, and the ‘protestors’ are the patient. The verb ‘overcome’ and the noun ‘battle’ paint the ‘police’ as the winners.

3.Shops destroyed in night-long protest

Object-Verb-Adverbial in the passive voice

The patient of the action ‘Shops’ is foregrounded, and the agent of the action is concealed. This kind of sentence avoids assigning blame, although the reader can fill the gaps in their mind.

4.Protestors and police in night-long battle


This headline is a fragment i.e. not a complete sentence since there is no verb! This presents both participants as equals and conceals the action that took place.

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Teaching English Grammar in Context

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