Friday, October 19, 2007

The techniques of bias: how journalists can easily distort your perception of reality.

There is a widespread assumption that the media has a bias. It is one that I believe is accurate. I first noticed it when I was studying journalism at university. Journalists are not unbiased and objective as they like to pretend. They have biases. When I did some work as a copy editor at the daily paper for the University I was constantly having student journalists submit papers that expressed opinions alongside the facts.

I remember one article that was about the debate on the state budget and the Democrats had submitted their proposals that day. The budding journalist who rewrote the wire story on this handed it to me and I was appalled to see that he had inserted the sentence: “And the Republicans had nothing better to offer.” It is one thing to say that the Republicans didn’t submit a proposal and a very different thing to say they had “nothing better” to offer. The term “better” is inherently subjective and was the reporter expressing his personal views not reporting the story.

It was then that I decided that what writing I do will always be clearly indicated as opinion. I felt that what was being submitted as “journalism” was fraudulent in that it was called objective when it clearly was not. And I didn’t want to play that game. So while my material has been published in newspapers around the world it has always been on the editorial page, where I submit it. And a few times it has been in magazines but always magazines that are known to be advocacy publications. I won’t pretend at objectivity.

Journalists come to many stories, particularly those with a political angle, with some preconceived notions. And all the surveys show that the have a left-wing preference. That is not surprising for several reasons. Many of the people I studied with, who are today’s generation of “seasoned” journalists were very open about being advocates for the causes they believed in. Many talked about this as a major motivation for becoming journalists. They wanted “to make a difference” by persuading the public to buy into specific agendas.

And the journalism department at my university was leaning well to the Left. The senior lecturer there was an old newspaper man who made an attempt at objectivity. But when the department head left he was not promoted to the position, as expected. Instead the job was given to a woman whose experience in the field was rather limited to say the least. The consensus in the department was that she was hired to have more women in senior positions not because she was a good journalist.

I took courses under her and the writing samples of her own that she gave us were all fluff pieces -- nothing that required research or digging. The one long piece she submitted was a piece honoring the role of garlic is human society. She was well outside her depth in my opinion. She is still department head, no surprise there, I didn’t expect others to be rushing to hire her away.

Now I could rattle off numerous causes that the media has helped promote where I happen to agree with the values they are promoting. But that doesn’t mean they are honest brokers for those values. I also think that many of there values are correct factually. But this does not mean that they are being unbiased in their presentation of those facts. And there are clearly cases when they omit details or information that would not support their agenda.

The famous case was the shooting at the Appalachian School of Law. A gunman started shooting at students on campus. Two students ran to their cars where they had weapons. Each retrieved his handgun, unbeknownst to the other and then approached the gunman.

They cloak what they do as objective news reporting when it most clearly is not. Just because they may be right on something doesn’t mean they are unbiased. When the shooter realized he had two different men with guns facing him from two different directions he immediately dropped his weapon and surrendered. Armed resistance put an end to the shooting spree very quickly. Other students then jumped the gunman, now that he was disarmed, and held him for police. Journalists around the country made sure that one fact was covered up. That the attack ended when faced by armed students was deleted from almost every story that appeared in the media.

The New York Times prides itself on being a major U.S. paper of record, a repository of the facts on major news stories since 1851. And there deletion of information was typical. Reporter Francis Clines wrote that the shooting ended when the attacker “was tackled by fellow students”. Later it says the gunman was “subdued”. It briefly mentions that one of the students retrieved a gun from his car but it never mentions that the gun was pointed at the killer and that he surrendered at that point. It merely says the attacker was tackled.

Prof. John Lott has a data bank of 218 different stories on this attack. And out of them only three explicitly mention that handguns were used defensively in this case. The Washington Post was another major paper that ignored this key fact. There was widespread outrage when people realized the media was playing fast and loose with the facts. Eventually the Washington Post wrote that the the gunman “was subdued without incident by armed students”. But that was two years after the original story appeared.

In the case of a school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi an assistant principal, Joel Myrick, retrieved a handgun from his car and faced the attacker. His action stopped the attack cold but out of 687 news stories on the incident only 19 mentioned that Myrick was able to do this because he was armed.

I would suspect that sins of omissions are most common in biasing. It is easy to simply leave out inconvenient facts and if called on it you can always excuse it. After all not ever story can contain every fact. Any news story leaves facts out, it has to. And people realize that but the leaving out process gives the journalist plenty of room to bias the report.

Here are some ways a journalist may bias a report and things to look for when reading the press.

One is that they often emphasize stories that fit their agenda more than stories that don’t. This is not a selective presentation of facts as in the shootings mentioned but that certain stories get lots of play while others get none. If you love Al Gore’s agenda you can run lots of stories on global warming. You can find the “warming connection” in lots of stories and explicitly mention it. On the other side there may be lots of stories about nations that cut taxes and saw their economies boom as a result. If you oppose tax cuts then these stories may get infrequent mentions. Just picking what is or isn’t worthy of coverage allows media employees to exert their bias.

One can be “objective” by quoting people on both sides of a debate. But who gets quoted more? Experts who express views conducive with the writer’s values will tend to get quoted more often than those who disagree. People on your side may be quote 80% of the time with opponents only 20% of the time.

You can also bias the report by citing “experts” in the plural being on your side and refer to the one individual who opposes your views. This gives the subliminal message that the vast majority of experts are siding with you whether this is true or not.

Another tactic is to have unnamed sources supporting your position. It is hard to critique someone if they are not named. So you get phrases like “experts claim” or “scientists say”. Which experts? Which scientists? I have seen stories filled with phrases like this without mentioned one expert by name.

Another biasing tactic is to quote individuals supporting your view at the top of the article and put the contrary evidence later in the piece -- journalists know many people only read the first paragraph or two of a story. In fact this is more insidious than it appears at first glance. News stories are written in an inverted pyramid form with the bigger facts at the top and the smaller ones at the bottom. The reason is so that editors can start cutting the report at the bottom to fit the space they have.

The farther down in the story that a fact is the more likely it is that it will be cut from publication. Many wire stories in particular are often cut down substantially with some publications only reprinting the first few paragraphs. Placement within the story directly effects how the facts are perceived even for readers who actually read to the end. Again the placement tells the reader subconsciously that the facts near the end are not important while the facts or quotes near the top are deemed very important.

Another tactic is to portray individuals on your side of the debate as caring while opponents are scrutinized as dishonest or self-serving. Someone with no real knowledge of a topic may be a spokesman for some environmental group yet they are treated as having “no agenda” and being knowledgeable on the topic. On the other side a scientists who works with the item in question is called an “industry spokesman” implying that his views are biased but the assumption is never made that the environmentalist is biased. That an oil company contributes, even in a round about way, is immediately considered suspect.

Yet that many environmental groups are supported by individuals who profit from the regulations they propose almost never gets mention. Scientists who work for a university that go a grant from an oil company can be racked over the coals for it. But if the environmental group receives funds from Agribusiness or Big Energy to push ethanol is not mentioned. Journalists bias their reports merely by subjecting the side they don’t like to scrutiny which they don’t inflict on the side they do like.

Story placement is another biasing technique. Stories that confirm your world view may get front page treatment. Stories that don’t support that view, if they make the paper at all, can be placed farther down on the page or further back in the newspaper.

All these tactics, and more, bias the thrust of the media, and journalists know it, which is why they do it. And yet they pretend that they are an objective profession.