Reading Bias - EPA Boiler MACT

Stora Enso pulp and paper mill in Oulu with an empty small harbour in the foreground.
Stora Enso pulp and paper mill in Oulu with an empty small harbour in the foreground. | Source

Words are like faces. Even tiny subtleties can express quite a bit. The use of one word over another can alter the way we perceive what we read. It is important to recognize this bias as well as others. It is a useful exercise I think to go through an article and essentially cross out any parts that are biased. I am going to do so literally in an example article. The article is about some new boiler regulations being introduced by the EPA. The text of the article comes from an American Forest and Paper Association press release. It can be found all over the place. The particular one I reviewed came off of the site Woodworking Network.1

Paragraph 1

1. "Destroy" is a perfect example of an inflammatory word. It is more provocative than it needs to be and its use is designed to illicit emotion. A non-emotive word such as "eliminate" could have just as easily been used.

2. "Destroyed" and " "Explode" are also inflammatory words.

3. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the word "Concludes," however, it is a pretty strong statement of fact. It is always a good idea to verify that the evidence in question is good enough to claim such a strong validity. The real problem with this sentence is the "due to" comment which draws a direct connection between job loss and the EPA regulation. There may in fact be a causal chain that leads to job loss, the regulation is not directly meant to eliminate jobs. It is meant to protect the environment and human health. Lost jobs will be partly due to other factors. Also, such a direct connection tends to keep attention away from the benefits of the regulation. This is a subtle but important difference. Why make the distinction at all? It is made so that in the reader's mind the EPA is directly tied to job losses.

4. "ripple effect" is a minor issue. It seems that it is generally used in a context of something bad happening so has a small degree of provocation. The provocateur of "explode" has already been mentioned and once again the direct connection between the EPA and job losses is made.

Paragraph 2

5.  "grim" is provocative (minor).

6.  It is not the EPA's role to "preserve and grow manufacturing jobs".  Nor is that any policymaker's sole responsibility, that I am aware of.  There are always competing interests which need to be weighed.

7.  No, the EPA does not have a choice.  Their job is to "protect human health and the environment".  While, economic concerns should be considered they have no mandate to protect individual jobs.

Paragraph 3

This paragraph is perfectly acceptable.

8. Notice how neutral words such as "incrementally" "loss" and "reduction" are in comparison to "destroy" and "explode".

Paragraph 4

9.  Once again, the EPA's role is not protecting individual jobs or industries.

10.  I think the EPA would argue that they are very much in favor of sustainable communities and good families.  This is an unfair emotional appeal.

Paragraph 5

11. I have no reason to doubt this is true.

12. This sentence makes two pretty significant claims and no evidence is provided for either. Were these claims part of the report? It doesn't say. There may be some truth that the EPA regulations will affect biomass renewable energy projects, but why would it have any effect on any other renewable energy sectors. Also, the forest products industry is larger than just paper and pulp operations, so I would need to see some evidence for me to accept this last claim.

Paragraph 6

The only point I would make about the fairness of this paragraph is that once again none of the potential benefits of the regulations are mentioned.

I don't mind the use of the word "staggering".  That many jobs lost IS staggering. Notice however that staggering relates to the number of jobs lost, whereas  a word like destroy characterizes the nature of that job loss.

Paragraph 7

This paragraph gives credibility to the Fisher jobs report.  From a superficial review, both Fisher International and URS seem to be professional and credible organizations.

Conclusion

I would not call this a bad article. It doesn't include any obvious deception. Yet, I wouldn't call it a good article either. Its intent is not to inform but to convince. It attempts to do so by including provocative words, emotional appeals, an attempt to burden the EPA with burdens that are not theirs to bear, and by neglecting to offer any of the potential benefits the regulations may provide.

My purpose here was not not to argue for or against the proposed regulations or to argue against people making, or seeking out emotional appeals. Losing jobs matters and people should fight for them. My intent was simply meant as an exercise to eliminate bias when seeking out information. Personally, I probably am not in favor of the proposed regulations. My point is simply to say that bias (from either side) can get in the way of informed discussion.

Notes

1.  "New Study Shows EPA’s Proposed Boiler MACT Rule Would Destroy Tens of Thousands of Jobs." Woodworking Network. American Forest & Paper Association, n.d. Web. 10 Feb 2011. <http://woodworkingnetwork.com/New-Study-Shows-EPA-s-Proposed-Boiler-MACT-Rule-Would-Destroy-Tens-of-Thousands-of-Jobs/2010-08-31/Article.aspx?oid=1234369>.

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Comments 1 comment

Bill Esler 5 years ago

This is a press release, issued by a biased party and so should reasonably carry their bias. One would expect the same from a political candidate's office, or any advocacy group. That's their job. Just as it is the EPA's job to protect health.

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