Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast and on the Wild Web

 

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Table of Contents

A Confession of Bias

In this book I argue that information-providers should be transparent so you'll know when to power up your skepticism shields.

Nelson Mandela once said "where you stand depends on where you sit." Without being aware of it, we absorb biases from where we are situated in society. Our race, gender, generation, geography, class and nationality each have a great deal to do with how we perceive the world. So let me alert you to where I'm coming from.

With no say in the matter, I was born melanin-challenged to Irish-American parents, a drop in the libidinal tidal wave that followed World War II. My dad was a labor lawyer, a man of stubborn principle who refused to join the country club down the street from our home in the comfortable suburbs of Washington DC until it admitted both blacks and Jews. My mom was a housewife made desperate by five children. I was educated by a tribe of women clad from head to toe in black-and-blue-chadors. Their habits were medieval. Each carried a chain studded with heavy black beads. They called themselves the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Despite their asynchronous appearance, they were wonderful, caring women and master teachers to whom I owe more than I can repay. ...

 

Chapter 1

Critical Thinking About News and Information

"The responsibility is now on the news consumer. This a caveat emptor world. Let the buyer beware"

~ Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR's On the Media

W hy study media or news literacy?

News stories, indeed most media messages, are designed to be as easy to swallow as warm honey. The language is simple. Articles are short. So are sentences. Images are dramatic. Key points are trumpeted in headlines and lead paragraphs. Why would anyone need help to figure out the news?

The simple answer is that a great deal of what looks like news and factual information on the Web, cable and broadcast TV, the radio, even in newspapers, really isn't. Quality journalism is in more trouble than sobriety at a rugby party.

After nearly a century of growth, professional news-gathering is imploding. Tens of thousands of experienced writers, editors and photographers have been laid off and newsrooms are still shrinking. But information is a means to power and digital technologies have made it cheaper than ever to create and distribute. So into the vacuum created by the departing professionals surges a Mardi Gras parade of Twittering texters, Flik'ring photographers, bloviating bloggers, and YouTubing videographers. There are high-minded — but usually under-trained and under-funded — citizen journalists. There are advocates of every spot and stripe, corporate and government publicists, and advertisers by the gigabyte. All doing, or pretending to do, news by providing reports of current issues and events that purport to be true. The Web has become where the wild things are. ...

 

Chapter 2

The Communication Revolution

[This is] "the most disruptive transition in the history of mass communications."

~ Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times

L ife depends on information.

Without it, even the simplest forms wouldn't exist. They rely on tiny codes of RNA and DNA. The same is true – on a vastly larger scale – for the most complex organisms. Our every thought and action is based on information.

So it's no surprise that throughout history, information has conveyed power. Because we act, not on reality, but on what we think is real, the most efficient way to control people has always been to control the sources of information, particularly sources of current information about events and issues – news.

We are now in the midst of a communication revolution at least as profound as when the printing press broke the choke-hold on information exercised by the church and royal families. As more people gained access to information, they rebelled against the domination of both institutions, greatly diminishing the power of the first and eventually overthrowing the second. ...

 

Chapter 3

Truth vs. Truthiness

The truth shall set you free.

~ Jesus of Nazareth (John 8:32)

J esus, in the Christian bible, says truth leads to liberty. But Stephen, in the "Colbert Report," says truth is obsolete; the new standard is "truthiness." This chapter explores three propositions about the nature of truth in an age of truthiness:

  • What we call truth is really a simulation or virtual reality.
  • While we can amplify our senses with technology, we can never be sure that the virtual reality within our heads matches what's outside.
  • We may think we are in charge of assigning meaning to what we see and hear, but most of our sense-making is programmed by others.

 

Chapter 4

Where Bias Comes From

Why can't they produce a fair, balanced, objective and non-partisan newspaper – that reflects my point of view?

~ Classic cartoon caption

W e all like to think we see the world just as it is. Those who disagree with us are misinformed, mischievous, morally-challenged or missing a screw. But — alas! — we are all subject to bias. That's because rather than investigating the world empirically, most of the time we rely for our sense of reality on others who are like us. Like a flying wedge of geese in the autumn sky, it takes much less effort to follow in formation than set out alone.

Just as similar types of birds flock together, we form subcultures, even within one society. From the inside looking out, the lens of culture looks perfectly clear. We don't notice our own group's biases because they are taken-for-granted. But when our views differ from another group's perspective, the "distortions" in their cultural lenses are glaringly obvious. "Be reasonable!" we naively plead, "see it my way."

The Christian scriptures quote Jesus telling his disciples, "First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye" (Matthew 7:5). It's excellent advice for everyone. When we look for bias in how journalists and other information sources perceive and describe the world, we must also examine our own prejudices. Otherwise, we're likely to fall into the cynic's trap of seeing bias in any description or interpretation of reality with which we disagree. As Jesus observed, bias is not something added on to a crystalline perception, it shapes the very act of seeing.

This chapter explores six propositions about our ability to see reality clearly:

  1. Even when we watch the same thing, we don't see the same thing.
  2. We forget that what we see depends on where we are observing from and when; we treat snapshots as if they were panoramic videos.
  3. Rather than seeing everything before us, we focus on only a part of it.
  4. We don't just record what's in focus like a camera; as dot-connecting animals, we unconsciously select just a fraction of what's in focus and impose meaning.
  5. We are more likely to notice what confirms our expectations than what contradicts them.
  6. Bias begins with self-interest, but there are other equally subconscious and predictable layers based on race, class, geography, gender, generation, and other cultural groupings.

 

Chapter 5

The Covert Bias of Institutions

The press ... is caught between its desire to please and extend its audience and its desire to give a picture of events and people as they really are.

~ The Commission on Freedom of the Press

W hen I was a young journalist I worked for a newspaper in the red-clay foothills of western South Carolina. It was cotton mill country in the mid-1970s. At one end of the mill, walnut-sized cotton balls were separated from their dried husks and combed into thread that was then woven by hundreds of clanking looms into the towels and sheets that probably graced your parents' home. The air was hot and thick with dust and lint. It settled on the looms like a downy coat, making them look like frantic birds. It nestled in the hair of the workers, who were sometimes derided as "lint heads."

The finer particles of cotton dust accumulated in workers' lungs causing a disease called "brown lung" — more formally, byssinosis — that shortened the breath and lives of many millworkers. Consulting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, I discovered that not a single mill in the county my newspaper served was even close to healthy air quality standards. Seemed like a pretty important story. Indeed, it won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1981.

But I didn't get to write it. My first investigative article was my last. The editor who put it on the front page was fired the following week. The publisher never said why he killed the series. But textile manufacturing was the dominant local industry, employing almost 400,000 people in the piedmont of the two Carolinas. If a newspaper made a stink about unhealthy mills, OSHA might grow teeth. The once-stream-powered red-brick mills of the South were old. The cost of cleaning them up might have exceeded the cost of abandoning them for modern mills constructed beyond the U.S. border, where labor was even cheaper and health regulations even less binding. Were western Carolina's mills shuttered, the loss of so many jobs would have thrown the local economy into recession. My newspaper's advertising revenue would have plummeted. Exposing the health risk to so many workers might have been a life and breath story, but it put the paper's considerable profits at risk. Fortunately, a more socially responsible newspaper, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, conducted an extensive investigation and won the Pulitzer Prize and a trophy case of other awards.

The lesson? Information-providers often face a conflict between their self-interest and the public interest. ...

 

Chapter 6

The Logic of News Selection

News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.

~ Lord Northcliffe

K atie Couric, the first woman to anchor the CBS Evening News, called the reporting during the year preceding the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, "one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism." At the time, she was working as host of NBC's "Today Show." Of the case for war, she said she felt pressure from "the corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of it."

The market-influence theory introduced in the previous chapter would explain such censorship as economically-motivated pandering to a false sense of patriotism among consumers, plus going along with high government officials in order to maintain inexpensive access to information. But professors Edward Herman of the University of Pennsylvania and Noam Chomsky of MIT would argue that even larger forces are at work.

In their view:

The mass media serve as a system for com-municating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda [emphasis added].

This chapter will expand our theoretical understanding of news selection by exploring three additional theories –explanations — for which events and issues make headlines and which fall to the margins or are struck from the agenda. The first theory builds on, but goes beyond, the market forces analysis. The second eschews economic motives and portrays news media as passive conduits of official information. The third is the simplest, and earliest – gate-keeping theory. It's particularly applicable to bloggers and very small news operations. We'll explore the central proposition of each:

  • Accounts of raw events must pass through five ideological filters before they can become mainstream news.
  • News selection reflects the scope of debate among powerful political and corporate leaders, rather than shining an independent spotlight on the significant issues and events of the day.
  • The individual biases of "gate-keeping" journalists govern news selection.

 

Chapter 7

Setting Realistic Standards for Judging News and Information

" Objectivity" placed overwhelming emphasis on established, official voices and tended to leave unreported large areas of genuine relevance that authorities chose not to talk about...


~ Ben H. Bagdikian, former Washington Post editor and ombudsman

A merican journalism has long embraced an impossible, and I would argue, undesirable, standard — objectivity.

To see why, consider what a truly objective account of something — say a day in a typical American city — would look like. By definition, an objective view of something is one unaffected by the viewer. A biased view is the opposite — one influenced by the viewer, usually through the conscious or unconscious imposition of a set of values. An objective account would capture the occurrences in a locality like a giant videocamera on autopilot. It would have to bea magic camera able to see through buildings. And able to capture what's going on below the earth's surface where oil, water, gas or magma is pooling, and the crust may be slipping.

In an objective account of a day's events, the story of each grass blade's growth — or its being cut down in the prime of life by a lawn mower — would be as important as a war or flood. To elevate one over the other would impose the observer's values on the account. Objective reporting would describe everything in the enhanced viewfinder of the giant camera, even the things that didn't change. It would be as exciting as watching a bank of surveillance cameras hour after hour. No one would want to consume truly objective news. Way too much information!

American journalism's preoccupation with objectivity has obscured reality as often as it has revealed it. To see why and set out an alternative, this chapter will explore three propositions that apply to all of those purporting to tell us the truth, especially those claiming to provide news:

  • Rather than eliminating bias, objectivity norms tend to hide it.
  • To be useful to society, news must be biased, but only in three ways: for the common good; for brevity; and for making what's important interesting.
  • Empiricism, not objectivity, should be the standard for presenting claims of fact.

 

Chapter 8

The SMELL Test

Everybody is sitting around saying, 'Well, jeez, we need somebody to solve this problem of bias.' That somebody is us.

~ Wilma Mankiller, late Cherokee leader

T ake a gander at this screenshot of a Web site called "Consumers News Reporting."

Are your teeth a little dingy? Maybe this is for you. To decide, let's apply the SMELL test introduced in chapter one. We'll begin by asking what or who is the source of this information. "Consumer News Reporting" sounds a lot like that magazine that rates products, Consumer Reports. And it carries the logos of ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and USA Today, after the words "As seen on." Does that mean they have reported on "Mom's trick to whiter teeth"? The article is laid out like news with a headline, columns of text and (cute) photos, even what looks like a wire service identifier "(CNR)" at the beginning. The site has no "about us" link or other clearly marked identifier. That's a bad omen.

Next, let's consider the information-provider's motivation. Are they informing us about a cheap way to brighten our smile? Or trying to sell something? If the latter, we'd know to be very skeptical.

The story describes "Amy, a local school teacher and mom" who inexpensively whitened her teeth using a combination of "Bella Brite" and "Ortho White." The word "advertorial" appears in small and fainter type at the top of the page. It's an obscure trade term for advertising laid out like news but labeled as advertising. But this isn't clearly labeled. Scrolling down I noticed that you can buy the products right from the Web site, an unusual feature in a standard news story. And a discount was offered, but about to expire. That's a pressure sales tactic. It's beginning to look like an ad masquerading as news. But to be sure, let's look for more clues.

What evidence is offered to support the story's principal assertion? Well, there's a "before and after" photo: "Amy's Teeth Closeup." Sure enough, one smile is brighter. But that's easy to fake. And there's Amy's testimony, plus that of man called "Jack." No last names. Are these people real? There's also a comment box. And all are recent, within 10 days of when I accessed the site. It looked like this:

Comments (45 out of 45)

Read Responses For: "Don't Break the Bank: A Mom's Trick to Whiter Teeth"

Johanna says: May 11, 2011 @Jack - those are amazing results! I just see that today the two promo codes will expire! I guess I was lucky to still get them. Everybody hurry up... :-)

Mike says: May 11, 2011 I smoked for quite a few years. recently quit and wanted to whiten my teeth, dentist quoted $450!!!!! this is great

Kevin says: May 11, 2011 Been a smoker all my life. My wife showed me this... We ordered both trials and had the same results as Jack. His photos say it all!!!

Does this evidence logically support the article's conclusion? Forty-five comments were posted. All were wildly enthusiastic about the product. But how likely is that? Even sliced bread has its detractors (mostly French). Universal acclaim is more consistent with the sunny world of advertising than real life!

A final question: Is anything left out?

Since we're talking about changes to the human body, it would be nice to see at least one double-blind experiment testing the effectiveness of the product conducted by a university or independent lab. Or maybe a seal from the American Dental Association assuring us that it's both safe and effective. I scrolled to the bottom of the page to be sure I didn't miss anything. ...

 

Chapter 9

Detecting Bias in Images

Behold these striking pictures. But as you behold them, beware of them, for they are not real. They are fake, the products of media consultants and spin-control artists who are trying to move you or deceive you or persuade you.

~ Kiku Adatto, author of Picture Perfect

M an 2.0, also known as Homo Sapiens, evolved some 200,000 years ago, anthropologists estimate. During the last quarter of that period — about 50,000 years ago — humans began to communicate with images. But written language appeared much more recently, just 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. And it began as glyphs, or picture writing — symbols that looked like what they were intended to represent. We have evolved as visual animals. That's why images possess extraordinary persuasive power and can be remembered more easily than words.

Images — moving and still — have never played a greater role in news and information. Text was king in the era of books and newspapers. But videos, photos and data displays are usurping the throne as information moves from paper to pixels. This chapter explores four propositions to help us avoid being fooled by images:

1. Our brains process images in almost the opposite way that they make sense of words.

2. Image logic differs radically from text logic.

3. Images are easily manipulated.

4. We can learn to "read" images, though never as clearly as text.

 

Chapter 10

The Spinmeister's Art: Tricks of the Misinformation Trade

The customized manufacture of public discourse ... has become epidemic.

~ Stuart Ewen, author of PR! A Social History of Spin

A t the dawn of the 21 st century, America employs a record number of public relations agents — people with a talent for making a case to the public for the benefit of their clients. At the same time, we are laying off a record number of journalists — people skilled at breaking those cases open for the benefit of the public. In 1980 the ratio of public relations practitioners to journalists was nearly equal. By 2008, PR operatives outnumbered journalists by more than three to one. New York Times media columnist David Carr described the result:

There is a chance that historians will examine this period in American history and wonder if journalism left the field. In part, it is the triumph of the spinners, top to bottom. Since the media reached the height of its powers in the 1970s, there has been a pervasive effort to gain custody of public information in both the public and private sector. A working reporter cannot walk into a Gap store in a mall, let alone a police station, and ask a question without being swarmed by bureaucracy.

Lest you think Mr. Carr exaggerates, when his Times colleague David Barstow attended hearings on whom to blame for the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010, he found "... there would be more PR people representing these big players than there were reporters, sometimes by a factor of two or three."

This chapter explores three propositions:

  1. As professional journalism atrophies, public relations practitioners are growing bolder and more sophisticated.
  2. We can predict when deception is most likely, thus know when to raise our level of skepticism.
  3. The publicists' technique of choice is framing information to lead audiences in a particular direction without their noticing.

 

Chapter 11

Online Tools for Sniffing Out Bias, Including Our Own

Know thyself.

~ Ancient Greek proverb

B y this point I hope that bias in news and information has become more visible. But sometimes slant can be so subtle that we need help to detect it. Fortunately, the World Wide Web makes it possible, and sometimes easy, to accomplish this.

This chapter will explore five propositions:

  1. We can and ought to become aware of our own biases (even though it may be as appealing as a colonoscopy).
  2. Professional fact-checking organizations are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain.
  3. The Internet puts a virtual reference library at our fingertips 24/7, enabling us to conduct our own fact-checks.
  4. Social media allow us to collaborate in vetting content with others who may be more knowledgeable.
  5. The Web can even help us discover people and perspectives that are ignored or marginalized in mainstream U.S. media.

 

Appendix

How to Evaluate the Quality of News

You can't improve what you can't measure.

~ Business proverb

N ews articles can be free of partisan bias but still not very good – not useful in helping the community orient itself to reality or in encouraging empathy. As recently as 2001, you could count on reasonable news quality in most metropolitan newspapers, the three broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – and some local stations. But that was then. Now, even Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers require scrutiny. ...