Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Media Bias 101: The Difference Between News, Analysis, and Opinion | AllSides or How to Recognize Skewed News

Media Bias 101: The Difference Between News, Analysis, and Opinion | AllSides

I've referred to AllSides before as a source for analyzing bias in news reporting. This article explains the three different aspects of a news story: news, analysis and opinion. Here is how AllSides describes each category.

News: What happened.

Analysis: What happened and why — writer considers facts and draws conclusions.

Opinion: What I think about what happened.

The article provides three examples of a story about a protest with a headline of "violation of human rights."

News: Crackdown "Violation of Human Rights"
  • attributes information to a source
  • uses quotes, cites source
  • describes what is objectively observable (something was said, something happened)
  • to be truly balanced and unbiased, the piece would also include a quote from the other side (in this fictional example, the perspective of law enforcement, or perhaps a bystander or another organization who has a different account of what happened)
Analysis: Crackdown Violation of Human Rights
  • explains what events may mean
  • someone with experience, knowledge, and background considers evidence and interprets events
  • conclusions are drawn based on evidence (they may or may not be accurate conclusions)
Opinion: Crackdown Violation of Human Rights
  • offers judgement, viewpoint, belief, feelings, or statement that is not conclusive (notice the writer does not directly describe what happened)
  • language is colored by subjective spin words and phrases

The AllSides article highlights the problem when all three factors are mixed together in a story. The resulting stew results in what I call "skewed news" which I think is more accurate than Trump's "fake news." I say skewed because most news outlets leave out key information that doesn't support the narrative they want to create. In this case the term "news story" is accurate if we take the word story to mean crafting a narrative or trying to lead the consumer to reach a specific conclusion. We tell stories to influence the listener or reader to agree with us.

For examples check out the weekly Blind Spot report of Ground News. Each week Ground News provides examples of stories that the left will cover much more than the right and vice versa.


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Sneaky Bias

I normally don’t bother trying to document examples of biased reporting because, frankly, I don’t have the time or interest. Years ago a friend and I put together a course on critical thinking that we gave at a local center for adult education. My partner and I used examples from various publications like the Boston Globe or Newsweek. We had absolutely no trouble finding examples. They were literally on every page. It was a target-rich environment. 

However sometimes I see particular example of how sneaky the bias is in the reporting. Here are two, both related to the controversy over mail-in voting.  I have my own concerns about mail-in voting, just to be transparent. I’m not going to talk about them here because the point I’m making has to do with how some news reporting tries to influence your opinion by their choice of the words they use … or don’t use.

The first example comes from the local Boston evening news. They showed Trump saying that absentee ballots were OK but that mail-in voting was subject to fraud. When they cut back to the news anchor he says, "There is no evidence of mail-in voter fraud." Period. The anchor doesn't cite any sources while saying it like it's an established, unquestionable fact. They then immediately shifted to a different story. So this leaves the uninformed viewer with the impression that Trump is wrong as usual and that mail-in voting has no risk.

The second example comes from the CBS This Morning Show in their coverage of the 2020 DNC convention. After showing some clips from the convention the anchor briefly reported on what Trump was doing at the same time and his “unsubstantiated” claims about mail-in voting fraud. Period. The anchor provided no substantiation for this statement.  If you’re not listening critically words like “unsubstantiated” slip by your filter and could influence your opinion. I think this is intentional, not accidental.

You could argue that the available time in news shows is too tight to get into detailed counterarguments. Fair enough. However, I’d say they could add something like, “Some experts say there is no evidence of mail-in fraud.” In fact, I used to see statements like that added at the end of a story where the news aired a claim by someone who challenged something like the validity of claims about global warming. I haven’t seen that recently.

My main point is to show how they sneak in their own unsubstantiated claims as if it were an indisputable fact. These days there is no such a thing!

Friday, August 14, 2020

The centrifugal forces of ideology

Someone posted a comment on another blog about the strong reaction some people have against Trump supporters. The commenter related how her own daughter who is an ER doctor called the mother a racist. The daughter also said she can’t believe the mother was supporting Trump who puts her the daughter’s life at risk because of inadequate personal protective equipment. The mother feels that it’s the responsibility of the state governor, not the president. As a result the mother and daughter haven’t talked in months.

Her story reminds me of an encounter I had when Romney was running against Obama. I was at a get together at a friend’s house where the daughter of a friend proclaimed that she wouldn't vote for Mitt Romney because "he wants to kill me." When I asked what she meant by that she explained that she has a condition that was life-threatening if she got pregnant. She wanted the government to provide contraceptives for people like her. Romney was against government-provided contraceptives. Ergo, he wants to kill people like her. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? There is no arguing with that, literally. 

In her mind her need became a right and there is no honest disagreement with her position. If you don't agree with her that means you want to kill her. That probably helps explain why people like this hate Trump (and conservatives) so viscerally and viciously. They're literally threatened by the existence of people who disagree. I'm speculating here but I think the people who hate Trump and conservatives see them as evil, not wrong, so this justifies the whole cancel culture agenda. Actually I'm not speculating or mind reading so much. I've heard people explicitly say Trump and his supporters are evil. And, yes, you can find similar examples of people on the right calling Obama or Biden supporters evil. 

I suppose this reaction typifies what it means to be an ideologue. They see everything as either-or with no shades of grey. If you say you support Trump that means you agree with everything he says or does. Every. Single. Thing. Or if you’re an Obama supporter he never did anything wrong. Never. As I said above there is no arguing with an ideologue. You either agree 100% with an ideologue or you’re no longer human. Unfortunately that mentality justifies a lot of what is playing out in front of our eyes today. Cancel culture. Tearing down statues. Rioting. And so on. The centrifugal forces of fear and hatred fueled by ideology tear us apart.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Media Bias Chart | AllSides

Media Bias Chart | AllSides

AllSides recently updated the chart they post on their web site on media bias. I generally agree with their ratings which are: Left, Lean Left, Center, Lean Right and Right. I also like how they caution readers not to automatically assume that Center means no bias or that it's better than being on the left or right side of the spectrum. Here is what they say:
Center doesn't mean better! A Center media bias rating does not always mean neutral, unbiased or reasonable, just as "far Left" and "far Right" do not always mean "extreme," "wrong," or "unreasonable." A Center bias rating simply means the source or writer rated does not predictably publish opinions favoring either end of the political spectrum — conservative or liberal. A media outlet with a Center rating may omit important perspectives, or run individual articles that display bias, while not displaying a lot of predictable bias frequently. Center outlets can be difficult to determine, and a case can often be made for them leaning one way or the other.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Pandemic Perceptions

I’ve recently learned a lesson in how people hear things. Yesterday I mentioned to a friend that several doctors who specialize in infectious diseases ranked various activities such as playing tennis or food shopping with 1 being the safest and 10 being the most dangerous in terms of COVID exposure. When I said that going to the grocery store was rated 3 (relatively safe) in both lists my friend thought that meant I was saying grocery shopping was dangerous, like a 7 on the scale. She then went on a rant about how she sees people doing bad things in the store. My wife confirmed that I said a 3 and had clearly explained the 1 to 10 scale.

Later in the same conversation I said that when I looked at the ratio of deaths to positive cases I noticed that Massachusetts has a ratio of 1 death for every 10 positive cases. On the other hand, states where the cases have spiked generally have a ratio of 1 death to 100 positive cases. Once again, my friend thought I was saying that the ratio of deaths in the spiking states was higher than it is here in Massachusetts. That’s because her perception is that these southern states are run by stupid Republican politicians and have a stupid population. (Hmm, I thought we’re not supposed to stereotype people.) 

(By the way, I don't know what to make of these ratios; I just was curious to see if there was a difference between the states. The ratio in the spiking states might narrow if the normal delay between the detection of infections and the uptick in deaths.)

Getting back to my friend, she casually stated later that she watches CNN all day and I know that CNN pushes the pandemic panic so I think what happened is that her filter translated what I said into what she expected to hear. I didn't bother to correct her. (What is more important is that I'm thrilled that tennis is rated #1 in safety!)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Stephen Hicks, "A Primer on Objective Journalism"

Stephen Hicks, "A Primer on Objective Journalism"

Stephen Hicks, a Canadian-American philosopher who teaches at Rockford University, explains what objectivity entails, especially in journalism. For instance, he explains that being objective doesn't mean suspending judgment or not having an opinion. It does mean having a respect for the facts and reporting them without distorting them (at least not consciously!) to fit a narrative or to pitch a predetermined case.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

On “White Fragility” - Reporting by Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi just posted a long piece on the book White Fragility which he correctly takes to task. Here are his opening sentences. "A core principle of the academic movement that shot through elite schools in America since the early nineties was the view that individual rights, humanism, and the democratic process are all just stalking-horses for white supremacy. The concept, as articulated in books like former corporate consultant Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (Amazon’s #1 seller!) reduces everything, even the smallest and most innocent human interactions, to racial power contests."

Taibbi doesn't mention postmodernism in his article but I think this philosophy which denies the idea of objective truth is used to disarm and dismiss those who challenge this White Fragility ideology.