05 May 2014

Musings on Manipulation, or Why You Shouldn’t Trust the [Insert Bias Here] Media

I’ve always been a good writer. I love words. I love reading, I love thinking about what I’ve read, I love talking about it with other people. Word play and copyediting are basically the same thing to me. Puns and periods, spelling and Scrabble and sentence structure. Alliteration. Sighing over a turn of phrase like an art lover sighs over Monet.

But there’s a risk, when you’re good with words—and maybe when you’re good at anything that involves communication. And that is, manipulation.


Back when moving files over the Internet was fresh and fraught with peril, I worked as a production editor at a typesetting company. The company was somewhat dysfunctional, having grown faster than its organizational structure and employees could keep up. All of the production editors knew that something needed to be changed. Too many errors were made, too many deadlines missed. So we discussed some possible changes to our process, and I wrote a carefully worded, upbeat memo outlining the proposed changes. There was a rather significant difference between the “upbeat-ness” of the memo and the actual attitude of me and my co-workers. It ended with some rah-rah statements about how we could improve, yay! But you catch more flies with honey, right? The other editors read it and we all signed it.

About the same time, the production facility made some big errors in one of my journals’ papers, and I got an earful from the paper’s author. (Thankfully, the author caught the errors before publication.) I was embarrassed and angry that neither I nor the quality-control “experts” at the offshore typesetting facility caught the errors. I wrote a carefully worded, polite but scathing email to my cohort offshore, copied to the manager of the facility and the president of the company.

I was hauled into the company president’s office so fast it made my head spin. (Note: his office was right next to mine. I did say it was a small company, right?) He excoriated me for my negative tone and told me that it was counterproductive to the improvements he and his co-owner were trying to make. Then he picked up the memo I had written and said, “THIS is productive. This is positive! We need more of this kind of attitude!” By this time, I was struggling with my frequent nemesis: tears of anger. I ground out: “I WROTE THAT.”  He relaxed. “Oh, you did? Well, this is great, just what we need! Just don’t send an email like that again, all right?”

And that, boys and girls, is when I realized that I—who cannot lie convincingly in person—am very good at deception.


Despite my natural bent toward melancholy and my instinct to over-explain, I can write a pithy, chirpy article with the best of them. It’s all in the wording and the tone, you see. Different genres have different styles, and a good writer notices and follows the rules for a given genre. In fact, a standard seminar at writing conferences is “writing for different markets”—how to write on the same topic in different ways for different publications. A writer who cannot or will not follow the standards of a particular publication or genre just won’t be published there.

 Molding your writing to fit a particular market isn’t truly deceptive, of course. Most times, it’s just good writing. But someone who has the ability to do that certainly has the ability to shade the truth—through choosing what angle to focus on, what tone to use, what quotes from an interview to include, and so on. Thus, I could write an angry email and a saccharine memo about the same systemic problem, and be equally convincing in each one.


I also wrote a newsletter for a nonprofit for over a decade. I called up people and interviewed them on a particular topic, and then wrote short articles about that topic based on those interviews. As anyone who knows me would tell you, I hate calling people on the phone. Even more, I hate calling people I don’t know and “bothering” them. I often procrastinated on phone calls until the last possible moment. Some months, my interview quotes were a little sparse.

Funny thing, though, I always managed to churn out an acceptable article by the deadline, even when my calls went unanswered and it felt like I didn’t have enough material. By quoting the people I did manage to interview, and adding some pithy explanatory sentences in between, I pieced together articles that sounded great—expert, even. I was just some 25-year-old copyeditor calling people on her lunch break and writing down what they said, but damned if those articles didn’t sound authoritative.


I’ve heard of “imposter syndrome,” where accomplished people (often women) feel that they will be “found out” to be not as competent as they seem to others. That’s not what I’m talking about here, because in these cases I don’t question my competency. Rather, my very competency—both my natural gift and the skills I’ve developed through practice and experience—is the danger.

One more example, and I’m undercutting one of my own posts here, so be kind: the devotion I posted about my grandmother’s punch. Even though the memory is true, and the spiritual parallels I drew were my own, once I posted it, something felt off about it. Partly because I slightly exaggerated just how many cups of punch I remember having (but not how yummy it was!). But mostly because it felt too tidy, too clever—more of a writing exercise, which it was, rather than the epiphany it sounds like. Perhaps that’s why I prefer longer-form devotional writing, like books or blog posts, and why I’m suspicious of tidy, spiritually (or politically or intellectually or..) correct endings. Life, and faith, and pretty much everything else, is more nuanced and complicated than we can summarize in a devotion, or a newspaper article, or a segment on the nightly news.

I’m talking mostly to myself here, trying to work out why something rather subtle about that piece bugged me. I think it’s my personal sense that writing about spiritual things, in particular, carries with it a higher responsibility for authenticity. Authenticity is in short supply, both in the Christian world and in the world at large. That’s why it’s so attractive when it does appear.

And so I question what I read and what I write and what I hear, reflexively, because I know how easy it is for a good writer to manipulate words and ideas to fit a certain opinion, tone, or (perhaps unexamined) bias. And the better the writer, the easier it is, and the more subtle it is.

I just thought you might like to know.  


Dave said...


Wendy said...

People who recieve my emails at work who haven't met me think I'm sweet. Ha! Imagine that! Me, sweet!

Jennifer said...

Ha! Although, Wendy, I'm beginning to think that just being polite, using complete sentences, and spelling everything correctly in an email is considered "sweet" now.

For some reason, I really dislike it when people describe others as "sweet." Unless it's a child. It seems kind of condescending.

Dave, I knew you would agree with me. I think our different worldviews probably overlap on "suspicious of authority/other people." :)