Sunday, October 09, 2005

Supposed media bias … and a real concern

I generally support the mainstream media. This puts me in a minority position among bloggers, who often accuse the media of biased reporting.

I frequently come across posts on this subject. Right-wing bloggers declaim through clenched teeth that the "MSM" is biased to the left; left-wing bloggers are equally perturbed because news media are biased to the right.

In my university days, one of my profs surprised me by her strong feelings on the subject. At the beginning of her course, she handed out a list of online, alternative sources of news and information.

That was in September, 2001. The prof recognized 9/11 for what it was:  a golden opportunity for right-wing ideologues to seize control of the geo-political agenda. She distrusted the MSM and steered us to alternative, online media which consistently offered a left-wing point of view.

She regarded the internet as a great left-wing resource. But the Web is also home to a lot of alternative, right-wing commentary.

Over at Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, where the bloggers are unapologetically right-wing, Oven recently commented, Most of the mainstream (liberal) media portray Iraq as an ever-deepening mess. … What credible sources are putting a positive spin on Iraq these days?

Dr. Bean replied,
GREAT question! Where do you get pro-war stuff nowadays? The answer is the web. Keep your eye on Michael Yon’s blog, Little Green Footballs, and National Review Online. They’ll give you the straight dope from people on the ground and it’s much better news than you’re hearing anywhere else.
Let's consider this for a moment. Some alternative media are to the right of the MSM; other alternative media are to the left of the MSM. So much for accusations of bias! Clearly the MSM does not occupy either extreme.

Despite what I've just said, I think the MSM are left-leaning when it comes to social issues (here in Canada, at least), and right-leaning when it comes to economic issues. So are most Canadians:  it is indeed the "mainstream" position. But that's a generalization. If you consider individual journalists, you will discover exceptions to the general rule.

The Ottawa Citizen gives a lot of column space to David Warren, whose politics are very right-wing for a Canadian. Meanwhile, the fiscally conservative Globe and Mail publishes a regular column by Naomi Klein, a leading light of the anti-globalization movement. Presumably this didn't come about by accident; the policy of both newspapers is to strive for balance.

Why, then, did the MSM get the story wrong — very wrong — when it reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

I'm sure you remember some of the horrific tales which were reported at the time:  a child was raped, dozens of bodies were stacked in the freezer of the Convention Centre, snipers were shooting people just for the thrill of it.

The tales were false, or at least greatly exaggerated. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the MSM published highly inaccurate information.

The following story was published in the Los Angeles Times on September 27. In brief, Rumors supplanted accurate information and media magnified the problem. Rapes, violence and estimates of the dead were wrong.
BATON ROUGE, La. — Maj. Ed Bush recalled how he stood in the bed of a pickup truck in the days after Hurricane Katrina, struggling to help the crowd outside the Louisiana Superdome separate fact from fiction. Armed only with a megaphone and scant information, he might have been shouting into, well, a hurricane.

The National Guard spokesman's accounts about rescue efforts, water supplies and first aid all but disappeared amid the roar of a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation shelter. Then a frenzied media recycled and amplified many of the unverified reports.

"It just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done," Maj. Bush said Monday of the Superdome.

His assessment is one of several in recent days to conclude that newspapers and television exaggerated criminal behavior in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the overcrowded Superdome and Convention Center.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday described inflated body counts, unverified "rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among examples of "scores of myths about the dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials."

Indeed, Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on "Oprah" three weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people." …

"It doesn't take anything to start a rumor around here," Louisiana National Guard 2nd Lt. Lance Cagnolatti said at the height of the Superdome relief effort. "There's 20,000 people in here. Think when you were in high school. You whisper something in someone's ear. By the end of the day, everyone in school knows the rumor — and the rumor isn't the same thing it was when you started it."

Follow-up reporting has discredited reports of a 7-year-old being raped and murdered at the Superdome, roving bands of armed gang members attacking the helpless, and dozens of bodies being shoved into a freezer at the Convention Center. …

State officials this week said their counts of the dead at the city's two largest evacuation points fell far short of early rumors and news reports. Ten bodies were recovered from the Superdome and four from the Convention Center, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

(National Guard officials put the body count at the Superdome at six, saying the other four bodies came from the area around the stadium.)

Of the 841 recorded hurricane-related deaths in Louisiana, four are identified as gunshot victims, Johannessen said. One victim was found in the Superdome but was believed to have been brought there, and one was found at the Convention Center, he added.
Why did the MSM get the story so very wrong? The LA Times identifies these factors:
  • telephone breakdowns, which disrupted communications;
  • racial prejudice:  a predisposition to believe the worst of evacuees who were poor African Americans;
  • rash statements from public officials:  journalists might have hesitated to publish some of the more sordid stories, but any such hesitation evaporated when top New Orleans officials provided sensational accounts of their own.
Whatever the explanation may be, the MSM failed in its job. And this is a serious problem. News media perform a very important function in democratic countries. Freedom of expression is protected precisely because it is important to get the facts out when the public interest is at stake. News media are responsible to get the facts straight — no excuses.

Here's my explanation of what went wrong, for what it's worth. (Bearing in mind that everybody has their prejudices, including me.)

News media must attract a readership and turn a profit. To that end, the more sensational the story, the better. When other news media are reporting rapes and bodies stacked like cordwood, you'd better do the same. It can easily degenerate into a race to the bottom.

Moreover, the capitalist system is hostile to sober second thought among journalists. A prudent journalist checks and double-checks her facts. But who has time for that if another media outlet may publish before you?

Left-wing bias? Right-wing bias? — I think such concerns, though they are ubiquitous in the blogosphere, are greatly exaggerated.

My concern is with the distorting influence of capitalism. It turns news reporting into a competition — who will get the story out first? — and rewards sensationalism rather than accuracy.


At 9:02 AM, October 10, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

...rash statements from public officials: journalists might have hesitated to publish some of the more sordid stories, but any such hesitation evaporated when top New Orleans officials provided sensational accounts of their own.

Q, I think this was the biggest reason that some news organizations got it wrong. Also, there were areas that no one could get access into. If you write a story and you are quoting people that is a story, but the reporter should have pointed out no one has seen the evidence. Then again, when a body or two is floating down the street it makes one believe the worst.

At 11:19 AM, October 10, 2005, Blogger Heather said...

I've come to regard the media as a way to disseminate popular opinion. Its not about truth and facts. Really. If you analyse it down to the very bear bones, what gets our collective attention is a matter of opinion. In some ways, whichever opinion is the most popular and least questioned tends to get labelled as factual. What I chose to read is about where my sympathies lie closest with. I suppose my opinion about the media could be construed as naive - but it gives me a space where I no longer have to quibble about right and wrong, but rather discovering whose perpective is better -in my opinion- at doing the research with the most integrity. I spent three hours yesterday watching the BBC documentary "The Power of Nightmares". I sympathized most with its political position, but knew it was another good story...its all storytelling in the end. Whose tale I turn on to becomes the bigger question.

At 1:27 PM, October 10, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Is the Media biased? Of course it is. It is a human agency staffed by humans - who are inevitably biased. The trick is to know they are biased and act accordingly.

The news diseminates facts about the world as they see it - compare Fox News to the BBC. They may run the same 'stories' but you'll probably see two very different slants on the facts. Is this a bad thing? No, not really. When you look at something from multiple sides you tend to get a better feel for it.

I watched a lot of the Katrina coverage put out by the BBC - which was later criticised by Tony Blair (or all people) for being 'anti-American' in its slant. I was totally blown away by the arrogance of the man. The BBC told it as it was (or certainly how it appeared to be). They certainly were not shy about pointing fingers or criticising the fiasco that was the follow-up to the diaster, but IMO, that's what News agencies SHOULD do. They say 'this is happening'... 'this is what caused it'... and 'it's these peoples fault'. Good honest reporting from the 'front-line.'

As to getting things wrong and pandering to capitalist urges - yup, guilty as charged.

They're human agencies. Mistakes get made, rumours get reported as facts - it has always been so. Do they want to get a story out first? Of course - again it's always been the case.

What we need, as news 'consumers' is be savy about what we see & read. If it doesn't feel right then check it out. Don't accept everything you see or hear - most especially if it agrees with you own bias... Above all else... Think.

At 6:32 PM, October 10, 2005, Blogger alice, uptown said...

News media has always been about scooping its competitors. If you look at newspapers historically, there is practically nothing a reporter wouldn't do (or hasn't done) to get a story.

As a former editor -- everywhere from the New York Times on down through the trade press, I can assure you that reporters get the facts wrong a lot -- and their editors frequently have less of a clue than the reporters as to where the truth lies, regardless of political bias.

At 8:12 PM, October 10, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

Interesting post and comments. An historic event has occurred! I completely agree with TM. :-)

(shaken, continues) IMHO Q handles his natural bias quite well, but one aspect he touched on might bear further attention.

"News media must attract a readership and turn a profit". Too true. To accomplish this the businesspersons leading virtually every major media outlet crunch numbers continuously, analyzing and reanalyzing enough reports to sink a battleship. They constantly compare what $$ they are making versus where they are on a list in the public's perception, as best as may be determined. The subject virtually occupies their every waking moment.

Because this is business, adjustments and changes coming from this process are 'business moves'. Very few truly 'journalistic' decisions are involved.

This has shown up the most in TV "News". Find a telecast that does not spend at least 40% of its available air time on "Entertainment Tonight" (ET) type stories, and you may have found the only ethical TV station left in the western world. Sorry, the Tom Cruise's of this world just don't matter that much, but you could never tell it from the coverage they're afforded.

Since print journalism has or soon will slowly sunk/sink to playing second fiddle on the ratings/profits scale, they have followed the entertainment lead and what has happened to us is that every western media outlet spends more money on ET stories that they do on straight news.

As long as that trend continues, IMHO, the MSM is doomed to slowly fade into eventual irrelevance.

At 8:29 PM, October 10, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

I don't consider CBC and BBC news an exception. Generally, both organizations begin from a pronounced left of center POV and spread out from there a little as their stories develop. That they go both ways in the story only means they come back on occasion to briefly visit the center. Anything written further to the right is a virtual attack piece.

That's not true, even-handed journalism. When they are able to stop looking down their long, sloping Anglo-Saxon noses at individuals with opposing viewpoints, and once more consider others to be human, worthwhile, and valuable to society, they might actually begin to return to an acceptable level of practice in their chosen profession. Any listener/viewer with half a brain should be able to tell when that happens, but I recommend against holding ones breath.

At 8:29 PM, October 10, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Misanthrope:
I agree that public officials encouraged people to believe the wildest accounts of events: upon sober second thought, Mayor Nagin, in particular, comes off looking very bad.

But journalists are a self-important bunch. Consider how indignant they get when anyone infringes on freedom of expression, no matter what the reason. (I am thinking here of some court cases in Canada where judges set a publication ban in place.)

Either news reportage is important or it isn't. If it isn't, then there's nothing wrong with publication bans and other limits on freedom of expression. But if the publication of facts is essential to the functioning of democracy, then journalists have to act like it.

News media have to get the story right, especially at a time of public crisis. Mayor Nagin's misleading statements are no excuse. The same is true of the other rationalizations offered by the LA Times.

• Heather and Cyberkitten:
I'm responding to both of you at the same time, because I think you both offer good advice, and the advice you offer is complementary.

You're both offering something of a caveat emptor point of view, except in this case it's reader beware.

It's good counsel to regard news reportage as story-telling: i.e., to assume that, at best, it offers a helpful window from which to consider events rather than an objectively factual account.

And it is always good counsel to say, Above all else … Think.

• Alice:
I'm glad you popped by, and brought an inside perspective to bear.

I don't mean to set impossibly high standards for reporters. As Misanthrope implies, we can't hold them to a super-human standard. Yes, they will make mistakes, and yes each reporter and each editor will have a bias.

But it now appears that the reporting in the aftermath of Hurricane was almost hysterical. We're not talking about errors at the level of detail; we're talking about reporting wild rumours as hard fact.

In other words, the scale of the error makes me think there is something seriously wrong here. Shouldn't news media be engaged in a little soul searching, trying to figure out how they can do better in the next crisis?

• 49er:
I'm glad you introduced a distinction between TV news and print media. I do watch TV news, but for real information I rely almost entirely on print media (or the online equivalent).

The accusation of bias may be correct with respect to TV news. TV news is too compressed and too driven by the visuals, both of which magnify the risk of distortion.

I sincerely hope you're wrong in your prognosis of the death of print media. But I know we're already well on our way to a post-literate culture.


At 2:44 AM, October 11, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

I think the main problem with MSM (especially but not exclusivly TV News) is that the General Public is either considered to be too busy (if 'Middle' Class) or too stupid (if 'Working' Class) to be bothered with any kind of deeper analysis of the days issues.

I can't remember who said it (and it probably isn't true) but there's a story about an editor who told his staff not to write stories that take longer to read than the average person takes to have a crap....

That's why I like late night news (which tends to go into more depth) and the Sunday papers (ditto). I also read a lot of news online to get the perspective from the other side of the pond. It's interesting to see what stories never get reported over here...

Maybe it's our fault? Maybe, like politicians, we get the media we deserve....?

As to 'Celebrity' News.... Are people really interested in the latest doings of the 'Great' and the 'Good' or as I like to think of it 'Lifestyles of the Rich & Shameless'. Are we really that shallow.....?

At 5:13 AM, October 11, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

I will say for the BBC that they rarely spend much time on ET stories, and stick to news - although as they are funded differently from most other tv stations they may not "need" to in the same way.

I Agree with the generalisation that all news is biased, so get as much info from as many sources as possible. However, I don't think many of the MSM deliberately sensationalise or mis-report stories, but sometimes in their haste to get an exclusive they accept opinions as facts.

Many of the Brits returning from NO said how they had been in fear of serious crime in the convention centre/superdome & had protected themselves by grouping together to protect each other, & sleeping with the girls inside a circle of boys etc. The fear of crime was obviously real, although the actual crimes were not. The MSM picked up on this fear & reported it as incidents. A simple mistake to make in that situation.

At 10:57 AM, October 11, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

As a former print media journalist, I share Q's hope regarding my gloomy prognosis.


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