Thursday, April 15, 2010

The media is biased, but not how you think

News media can twist the truth by accident, simply as a consequence of its structural limitations. Here are a few ways that news can lie:

1) Sensationalism, and the need to fill space
News editors want stories, and journalists are under pressure to supply them. Sometimes, when the stories are not forthcoming, journalists may feel pressurised to exaggerate stories, or even create conflicts that did not really exist.

In 2007 I was freelancing in a Dublin newspaper when news arrived that 110 children in small boats had capsized in a sudden squall at sea. I was rushed out to the harbour to find out what happened.

The harbour was crawling with media, all interviewing the perfectly safe and happy children. Some children explained that capsizing is extremely common, though usually it doesn't happen to everyone at the same time. The event had been carefully monitored by rescue teams so nobody was seriously hurt.

When I got back to the office I found my editor expecting a major story from this and with no other stories to take its place I had to tease out an uncomfortable article describing the events of what was essentially a non-event. So many other journalists had invested an afternoon in investigating this dead end that the capsizing gained totally disproportionate attention. The Irish Independent called it a 'near-disaster' and wrote:

A 'SMALL craft' warning from Met Eireann was ignored by race organisers who allowed more than 100 children to take part in a regatta which could easily have ended in tragedy.

Looking desperately for a news hook, they went for blaming the race organisers for risking the children. Of course the event did not end in tragedy, the children we interviewed were cheerful and amused at the attention - but some kind of angle was needed to justify the time spent reporting on it.

Another example is this astonishing RTÉ coverage of new Irish crime statistics:

There has been an increase in the number of murders in the first three months of this year when compared to last year, according to CSO crime figures.

A total of 16 people were murdered between January and March, one more than for the same period last year, while murder threats were up by over 60%.

Robbery, hijacking and extortion offences rose by a quarter, while there were also increases in burglary and theft offences. There were decreases in fraud and sex offences.

They lead with the worst of the bad news, leaving good news until the end. Yet the official statistics give a more complex picture, of both rising and falling crime rates:

Controlled Drug Offences decreased by 17.2%. There are also notable decreases in Group 03 Attempts or Threats to Murder, Assaults, Harassments and Related Offences (-17.7%), Group 04 Dangerous or Negligent Acts (-29.2%) and Group 15 Offences against Government, Justice Procedures and Organisation of Crime (-32.0%).

The official statistics include a graph showing that homicide rates are quite a bit lower in spring 2010 than they were in spring 2008, down from around 122 to 78 - an impressive improvement. The real problem area is burgulary, which has dramatically increased; RTÉ buries this news at the end of a sentence.

By going for the most sensational, negative figures, RTÉ gives an inaccurate view of crime trends in Ireland.

2) Sub-editors
Journalists don't usually write their headlines. The piece readers see is edited by sub-editors, to make it fit the limited space in the newspaper. The sub-editors also write the headlines, based on their interpretation of the story. Sometimes sub-editors might misunderstand the piece or, by choosing the most sensationalist and striking aspects of it, change its direction.

(When an article does begin with a sensationalist headline, it is sometimes worth checking the first sentence or two before dismissing it, as the writing may be better.)

Kevin Myers had this controversial article in the Irish Independent, entitled Africa is giving nothing to anyone - apart from AIDS.

Days later Myers wrote again:

I was sure that my column would arouse some hostility: my concerns were intensified when I saw the headline: "Africa has given the world nothing but AIDS." Which was not quite what I said -- the missing "almost" goes a long way; and anyway, my article was about aid, not AIDS.

So some sub-editor had altered the tone of his piece to make it stronger. The reader, however, only sees the name of the journalist and blames him for the exaggeration.

3) Consensus, Friendship and Community
When journalists mix only with people of similar political views they may begin to identify with a particular political stance. This can create complacency. Disagreeing views are dismissed offhand and those making alternative arguments are assumed to be brainwashed and ignorant.

This political identity can influence what a journalist believes is a good news story, and also what questions the journalist asks interviewees.

I sometimes found myself asking one question in interview after interview: "do you think the government should do more" to combat some social ill? To me, and presumably to the large number of journalists I see still using it, it seemed innocuous and obvious. But it was indicative of my assumptions on how society and politics work. Only later, when I began to read right-wing and libertarian perspectives on politics, did I begin to ask another question: "do you think the government should do less?"

The political consensus among journalists is easiest to spot when it differs from one's own views. This probably explains why so many radicals complain about media. To the BNP British media is liberal and politically-correct. To communists it is neo-liberal and xenophobic. To Islamists it is Zionist and anti-Muslim.

4) Topicality sparks panics
Major news stories seem to spawn more stories about similar topics. In 2002 two girls were abducted and murdered in England, a huge story at the time. Around that period, more stories, faintly connected, began to pop up; a stranger in a car approached some children and even though nothing happened, it was in the news. It felt for a while as if the threat of child abduction had soared.

Of course it had not. The Holly and Jessica case put child abduction into the limelight. Editors looked for stories that were "topical". Perhaps ordinary people also reported suspicious events more, running on the briefly increased fear created by the Holly and Jessica case.

By focusing on topical, related stories, news media exaggerated the topical threat.

Coverage of terrorism may have exaggerated the threat and the sense of worsening terrorism. There were far, far more terrorist attacks around the world in 1992 than in any year since. This is not the impression one gets from reading newspapers in the post-9/11 age.

Sometimes the debate about such panics can cause them to worsen. Recently, for example, there has been debate over the causes of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Some liberal commentators blamed Catholic celibacy. Some conservative commentators blamed Catholic tolerance for homosexuals in seminaries after the liberal 1960s.

- Both arguments take for granted the idea that Catholic priests abuse more children than non-priests, which is completely unproven. The debate promoted the idea that Catholic clergy are more inclined to abuse children than others; a 2002 poll in the US found that "64 percent of those queried thought Catholic priests "frequently'' abused children". Those people were deeply misled.

Today the "paedophile priest" has become a stock character, even turning up in the great Irish comedy Father Ted ("Fup off, ya pedrophile!") even though a priest is no more likely to abuse children than a dentist, farmer or teacher.

5) Convenient sources
The journalist working to a tight deadline may tend to search for the easiest sources he or she can find. Some politicians are good at giving concise quotes and are usually available to talk. Others ramble on or are difficult to track down.

Even if the inconvenient source is the more relevant one to a story, journalists sometimes end up contacting the more convenient one instead. I used to find myself constantly phoning one particular Opposition spokesman who was always friendly and helpful. It was just convenience for me - to the reader it may have smacked of bias.

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