Saturday, June 17, 2006



Along with Sloth, Incompetence is a blight on most work. People might have, according to most reports, been more cautious and conscientious in their work in the past, but it is certainly not common today in many places. In a blog this takes the form of constant use of “open thread” comment sections rather than a real effort to provide content, for example.

For a reporter incompetence rarely takes the form of basic journalistic skills – the competition is too heavy for a truly incapable reporter to get far. But it can take the form of being totally unaware of a topic or subject being covered.

The three areas that this can be most clear and common are Religion, Science, and the Military.

Under God QuoteRELIGION

"If it isn’t piggybacking on a larger story, religion has almost no shot at all of making it into the news."

Reporters seem almost wholly without understanding of religious matters which can result in some odd reporting and almost clueless stories being printed. Vanity Fair ran a long article about the alleged influence of a part of Christianity on policy decisions in Washington. For this article, the writer sought out some meaty quotes from more noisy and prominent people to support this without understanding really what was being said or how representative these folks were of what Vanity Fair called the “religious right.” While the religious right exists, it is not made up of a uniform bloc of extremist fundamentalists who believe Israel will be the site of a new kingdom on earth that we must work to usher in. There are a few who think this, but they really do not number such a very large amount of Christians, and none of them have any real political power or any influence over policy made by President Bush or his administration, despite frightened opinion pieces at the New York Times.

On the November 7 Meet the Press, host Tim Russert announced: “One Democrat said to me, ‘Are we on the verge of a theocracy, where if you don't agree with the president and evangelical Christians on abortion or on gays, there really is no room for you to practice what you believe in the United States?’” This sort of fear of the unknown and misunderstanding of what reporters consider alien and outside them is due primarily to ignorance and lack of familiarity with religion and Christianity. Although all polls of the US indicate that the nation is very religious, news media organizations are outside this mainstream and lack the professionals to bridge that gap.

In a 1980 survey known as the Lichter-Rothman study, it was discovered that 86 percent of the “media elite” rarely or never attended religious meetings, and that 50 percent claimed no religion at all.

None of the three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) have a religion specialist in their news department. Reporters who do religion coverage have no training in religion or background with any religion, which cannot help their understanding of the topic. Where most news departments assign minorities to cover minority issues, religious topics are simply given to who ever will take them.

Martin Pinsky at the Columbia Journalism Review examines the attitude and confusion among religious reporters in an article entitled Among the Evangelicals:

Ned Flanders
Pressed to identify a single evangelical Christian who is not a national religious leader, a country music star, a politician, or an athlete, many journalists based outside red states would probably flail around like a desperate quiz show contestant — until the name Ned Flanders [from the television show The Simpsons] popped into their minds.
However, Mr Pinsky - a religion writer for the Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel since 1985 - goes on with this statement:
Amid the lingering bewilderment in the wake of the presidential election, I can sympathize with those of my colleagues still puzzling over the evangelical enigma. It’s never easy to parachute into an alien environment and file a coherent story eight hours later. As with a Boston journalist covering the Catholic Church or one in Salt Lake City covering the Mormons, reporting about evangelicals while living in the Sunbelt provides the luxury of home-field advantage, as well as the opportunity to return again and again to the subject.
Over time, however, he recognized a problem:
In retrospect, it is clear that I should have been paying closer attention to another, equally important story in my backyard: a little congregation called Saddleback Valley Community Church in southern Orange County, which would grow into one of the nation’s most influential mega-churches. Its pastor, the Reverend Rick Warren, whom I confess I never sought out to interview, developed the motivational concept of the forty-day “Purpose Driven Church” that is today sweeping the nation’s congregations and, in book form, is a fixture on the best-seller lists.
Mr Pinksy finally notes that after moving to Orlando, he says "For the first time in my life, I was living in a sea of believing, faithful Christians, and the cold shock felt like total immersion" and realized his coverage was lacking:

This epiphany — it would be hard to call it anything else, except maybe a revelation — transformed the way I approached my beat. I discarded the traditional way of structuring my stories. No more, “While some wacko evangelical leaders over here say this, these rational secularists and moderate mainliners over there say that,” with an author or academic in the middle tossed in for balance.

Evangelicals were no longer caricatures or abstractions. I learned to interpret their metaphors and read their body language. From personal, day-to-day experience I observed what John Green at the University of Akron has discerned from extensive research: evangelicals were not monolithic nor were they, as The Washington Post infamously characterized them, “poor, uneducated and easy to command.”

In addition to mere lack of familiarity, there is an open hostility toward religion and Christianity in particular. Ted Turner, for example, demonstrated antipathy toward Christianity while in charge of CNN, saying “Christianity is a religion for losers” and according to eyewitnesses:

Ted Turner stunned CNN employees in Washington when he made an anti-Christian remark on Ash Wednesday. Seeing ashes on the forehead of some workers, Turner said, “What are you? A bunch of Jesus freaks? You ought to be working for Fox.”

For the reporter, religion is a confusing issue, as Steven Waldman of Beliefnet puts it, “You are dealing with very squishy, difficult to quantify topics. Do you have a soul? What happens to it? Journalists tend to look for proof of things, and this is one area where proof is harder to come up with.” But familiarity with this issue and the ways people understand their faith and live it would help bridge this gulf and help avoid incompetent or confused coverage by the news media.


"As an interviewee, I find myself frustrated with the stupidity and irrelevance of most of their questions."

Similarly, when it comes to Science issues, the news media is all too often out of its depth. While most reporters have had some science in their schooling, it was not an area of study or interest for most, and few took anything beyond the most basic courses. When confronted with a scientific issue, they often will simply take what the man in the lab coat says at his word (see Credulity below), especially if it fits their ideology. Groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest take advantage of this regularly, with studies that seem to indicate something, and the media runs with it like a kid with a great report card running into the house, waving it over his head (again, see credulity below).

Lack of real scientific knowledge most often takes effect by the reporters “jazzing up” a report, or dropping critical qualifiers and information to “sex up” a story. When a scientist tells the press conference something like this:

Meteor“it appears with the most recent evidence and computer modeling that a meteor that is big and dense enough to significantly damage the earth may strike within the next 100 years. We believe that if this impact is from a sufficiently massive meteor it could result in climactic change and if it hits a major population area the deaths of millions.”

The Headline and story often ends up like this:


Recently at a press conference, Dr Knowitall of the Studying Things Institute said that “a meteor that is big and dense enough to significantly damage the earth" could "result in climactic change" and cause the deaths of millions...

Is this true, at some level? Technically, but it is not what the scientist said. By carefully quoting bits of what he said, disregarding others, and exaggerating some points, the story moves from a minor curiosity to a horribly certain doom. The use of words such as "could" and "may" preserve the reporter's ability to technically avoid putting words in the mouth of the scientist, but the wording is misleading and designed to scare the pants off the reader and sell newspapers.

This sort of scientific ignorance combined with sensationalism is how we get reports on how oat bran that will save your life, then the next year how it will kill you, or that mother’s milk is alternately good and bad for children.

This sort of scientific ignorance can result in minor errors as well as major ones. For example, in Discovery Magazine (volume 26, #3), on page 54 in the article "Drilling San Andreas" by Brad Lemley, we are told that the San Andreas Fault curves up 800 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf that this fault curves up from is the Gulf of California, between mainland Mexico and Baja California. This was not the only minor but absurd geographical error in the article.

Senior research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorology Chuck Doswell describes his experience with the news media:

It's easy to see why politicians and other famous people like actors, musicians, and sports stars dislike the media so much. The reporters intrude on your life according to their whims and schedule, they reduce a 2-hour interview to a 5-second soundbite, and act like they're doing you a favor! I had some media person actually tell me once how he was going to make me "famous" by putting me on national TV (after the May 3rd tornado) and was apparently dumbfounded when that didn't impress me.

As an interviewee, I find myself frustrated with the stupidity and irrelevance of most of their questions. I would rather a reporter not have a preconceived notion of what the story should be about ... the story should emerge out of interviews and "research" into the story.
Some reporters have confided to me that their readers (or listeners, or viewers) are too stupid to understand anything that lasts beyond a 5-second "soundbite" or a one-sentence paragraph. What arrogance! To hold your public in contempt at the same time you pretend to serve them!! This also seems to me to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we never give the public anything more than an "MTV"-like presentation, with constantly changing images and rapid-fire "dialog" then that is what they come to expect, naturally. If we take the time to explore a story carefully, deeply, and honestly, the public might react positively. Who knows? No one will, if we don't make an effort to give the public anything more than superficiality!
In a footnote, he brings up a problem with the term "expert" used by reporters:
...if I have learned something from 30 years of scientific work, it is that no one is truly an expert. We're simply being called that by the media to lend credence to their stories.
The desire for a good story and to sell their product can lead news organizations to unethical ends, prompting manipulation of a story, such as in NBC News' infamous rigging of a pickup for a Dateline story. The story was meant to show how dangerous a GM pickup was due to side-mounted gas tanks for extended range, but the stubborn truck refused to explode like the news report said it would. So they hooked up explosives on the side of the truck to expedite matters. To make sure, they put an ill-fitting off-model gas cap on the tank to encourage it to leak better. The truck did erupt into flames as the producers desired, and the story was ran. To this day it is not possible to get a production pickup truck with "sidesaddle" gas tanks, despite the fact that the report all but proved it was not going to explode.

Beetle Bailey


The military is largely an area of curiosity and confusion for the press. An institution primarily designed to “kill people and break things” is a shocking thing to the mindset of most journalists, who by their admission signed up for their job to change the world and make it a better place.Some reporters, such as Christiane Amanpour are openly hostile toward the military (especially the US military), but even when reporters are not, they are unfamiliar with military history, virtues, goals, and procedures.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Coalition of the Willing was joined with “imbedded” reporters who moved with and got to know the soldiers.This was an attempt by the US government to address this lack of familiarity and even hostility, and for a time it worked.The result was better coverage and a deeper understanding of the events and efforts, as well as a recognition that soldiers were pretty good guys.

Over time the imbedding has lessened and now is virtually unused due to expense, a lack of real interest, and an admitted fear that reporters were getting too chummy with the soldiers, something that reminds me of Stalin sending soldiers who had too much contact with allied troops to reeducation camps. Their crime? Becoming too “westernized.”

According to the Reporters On The Ground Conference (PDF warning),

In addition to the boot camps, many reporters were given the opportunity to spend time with military units training in the U.S. prior to going off to war. This allowed the reporters and military to build trust in each other and to get familiar with each other’s terminology and routines. It also allowed the news organizations and reporters the opportunity to test their new equipment, techniques, and procedures for reporting in what would be a fluid, hectic environment.
In Progressive Magazine, Robert Jensen, criticized the Embedded Media Program, complaining tha embedded reporters identified too closely with their military subjects.

The Rand Corporation echoed this position:

Some believe that the embedded press system can lead reporters to lose their objectivity because they identify too closely with the soldiers with whom they are embedded.
In previous wars, this was considered a benefit, a positive result rather than a source of concern. But the modern media often considers the military a potential enemy. Christian Amanpour, who said this about Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq:

The war in Iraq has basically turned out to be a disaster. And journalists have paid for it, paid for the privilege of witnessing and reporting that, and so have many, many other people who have been here.
Wuzzadem enjoyed poking fun at Ms Amanpour by showing how she might have reported on other military actions over the years, but she has done enough to make her position clear. She is hardly alone in this attitude, which makes reporting on the military problematic for such reporters. The best example of this antipathy recently is the tragedy at Haditha, in which the news media - ready to believe the worst out of soldiers - leapt on a story that is turning out to be almost certainly a hoax. Why did it turn out this way? Credulity.


“That implicit credulity is the mark of a feeble mind will not be disputed.”

Related to Sloth and Incompetence is Credulity, the tendency to believe things without critical thought or examination. A Credulous person is one that will take someone at their word, will believe something because it’s written down, and will not question whether it is accurate, plausible, or even truthful.Credulity in reporting all too often can take the form of a tendency to believe something because it fits a presupposition or ideological position.

If you start out with the assumption that Democratic politicians care about the little guy and Republican ones are for big business, then a story that portrays this is going to seem more plausible without needing deeper examination. This may very well be true, or it may not. But a credulous reporter who holds this position is less likely to examine or challenge a story that fits in neatly with his worldview.

Walter Olson wrote about credulity in the media in 1993 shortly after NBC Dateline's embarrassing episode with the pickup gas tank. Mr Olson points out that event was far from the first or only such example. In a 1986 story, CBS ran a story in which:

An Audi was shown taking off like a bolt without a foot on the accelerator -- seeming proof that the vehicle could display a malignant will of its own. Ed Bradley told viewers that, according to a safety expert named William Rosenbluth, "unusually high transmission pressure could build up on certain model Audis causing the throttle to open up . . . . Again, watch the pedal go down by itself."

Frightening stuff, eh? "What the viewers couldn't watch," wrote Peter Huber in 1992's "Galileo's Revenge," "was where the 'unusually high transmission pressure' had come from. It had come from a bottle. Rosenbluth had drilled a hole in the Audi transmission," through which he'd pumped in air or fluid at high pressure. (CBS still defends its segment.)

In the infamous Dateline truck story, the producers relied on an "expert" named Byron Bloch:

He's a frequent network consultant on auto safety -- "a combination of source, field producer and technical adviser for ABC-TV in its auto safety coverage," reports Autoweek, which notes that he's assisted seven ABC segments on auto safety hazards, three of them since 1990.

When not doing paid media consulting, Bloch is perhaps the single best-known hired expert witness in injury lawsuits against automakers. He doesn't challenge reports that he lacks formal training in auto safety or engineering, and he acknowledged in a 1980 case that his resume' listed a degree he didn't have. Still, he's appeared in court to testify about alleged defects not just in cars but in products ranging from coffee pots to railroad cars. He also offers $ 400-per-person seminars for trial lawyers, promising the scoop on such topics as "Key Graphic Exhibits for Trial."

NBC relied on another expert for their initial defense of the story, a man named Bruce Enz:

Enz, of The Institute for Safety Analysis, turns out to be another frequent expert testifier against GM -- and indeed against every major car maker in the U.S. market. He's not an engineer either, nor, he says, are any of the 25 staff members of his institute, which is a for-profit organization.

Then there's Ben Kelley, another frequent witness, who has boasted that NBC used Enz's group "at our suggestion." Kelley himself has enjoyed success providing crash-test footage to TV producers. When CBS's "Street Stories" questioned the reliability of safety belts last fall, it relied heavily on Kelley's Maryland-based Institute for Injury Reduction, which the show blandly described as an "auto safety consumer group." Marion Blakey, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, flayed the resulting coverage as "factually inaccurate."

Why use "experts" like this? Is it because they hold positions the producers appreciate and know, is it because they move in the same circles, have the same friends, go to the same parties? Certainly lawsuit-happy lawyers benefit from this kind of reporting, accurate or not.

Another tendency is to believe things because the reporter simply knows no better. As Bernard Boldberg wrote his book Bias, members of the news media tend be so isolated insulated from any ideological dissent they can become too locked into assumptions about life what people believe reporters have all friends working liberals dealing with politicians and living in an area that heavily liberal will find hard discover someone who has a difference of opinion or is even likely to express it.

Bias Report

The University of Connecticut did a survey of media sources and found that in the 2004 election, 68% of the journalists voted for John Kerry versus just 25% for George Bush. The Los Angeles Times polled their staff in 1985 and discovered that liberals outnumbered conservatives in the newsroom by more than three-to-one, 55 to 17 percent. This compares to only one-fourth of the public (23 percent) that identified themselves as liberal.

In 1998, the Journalist and Financial Reporting magazine surveyed over 30 ranging from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, New York Times and Chicago Tribune to Money, Fortune and Business Week. It discovered that while 54% of the reporters claimed to be Democrats, 9% claimed to be Republicans.

Then in 1992, Professors Weaver and Wilhoit conducted another national survey of journalists, and noticed the group had moved farther to the left. In the Media Studies Journal, they reported finding 47 percent of journalists now said they were “liberal,” while only 22 percent labeled themselves as “conservative.” At that time, the US Public had the reverse ideology: 18% liberal and 34% conservative.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors surveyed reporters at 61 newspapers of all sizes across the nation, and found that newsrooms were more ideologically unrepresentative than they had been in the late 1980s. According to the Media Research Center:

While the percentage of journalists calling themselves “Democrat or liberal” essentially held steady (going from 62 to 61 percent of those surveyed), the percentage saying they were “Republican or conservative” dropped from 22 percent to just 15 percent of journalists. The ASNE report, The Newspaper Journalists of the ’90s, also revealed that bigger — presumably more influential — newspapers had the most liberal staffs.
Finally, in 2004, the Pew Research Center in association with the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists surveyed 547 journalists and media executives, including 247 at national-level media outlets. Among their discoveries were these:
  • Five times more national journalists identify themselves as “liberal” (34 percent) than “conservative” (just 7 percent). In contrast, a survey of the public taken in May 2004 found 20 percent saying they were liberal, and 33 percent saying they were conservative.
  • The percentage of national reporters saying they are liberal has increased, from 22 percent in 1995 to 34 percent in 2004. The percentage of self-identified conservatives remains low, rising from a meager 4 percent in 1995 to a still-paltry 7 percent in 2004.
  • Liberals also outnumber conservatives in local newsrooms. Pew found that 23 percent of the local journalists they questioned say they are liberals, while about half as many (12 percent) call themselves conservative.
  • Most national journalists (55 percent) say the media are “not critical enough” of President Bush, compared with only eight percent who believe the press has been “too critical.” In 1995, the poll found just two percent thought journalists had given “too much” coverage to then-President Clinton’s accomplishments, compared to 48 percent who complained of “too little” coverage of Clinton’s achievements.
  • Reporters struggled to name a liberal news organization. According to Pew, “The New York Times was most often mentioned as the national daily news organization that takes a decidedly liberal point of view, but only by 20% of the national sample.” Only two percent of reporters suggested CNN, ABC, CBS, or NPR were liberal; just one percent named NBC.
  • Journalists did see ideology at one outlet: “The single news outlet that strikes most journalists as taking a particular ideological stance — either liberal or conservative — is Fox News Channel,” Pew reported. More than two-thirds of national journalists (69 percent) tagged FNC as a conservative news organization, followed by The Washington Times (9 percent) and The Wall Street Journal (8 percent).
How does this affect reporting? If you have a very one-sided ideological viewpoint in the media, it will be unusual for this to not dominate the viewpoint and coverage of issues. Having little to no conservative input will effectively result in little to no contradiction of presumed positions such as the idea that the government ought to reduce the income gap between the poor and the rich, or that abortion on demand ought to remain the law of the land.

Even the few conservatives in such an organization will tend to be quiet or keep their viewpoints to themselves, as liberals will in a setting that is strongly conservative. If an editor strongly holds to one political ideology, they won't tend to notice bias in a report he presumes to be true - he'll often read what he wants to see or thinks is true and ignore the slant.

The most famous example of this sort of ideological slant is from the 1972 election in which McGovern was defeated in a landslide election of President Nixon. Pauline Kael, society and Hollywood writer could not believe McGovern lost, allegedly saying “No one I know voted for Nixon!”

And this brings us to the final segments of this essay, where bias occurs in media due to these elements, how this bias takes effect, and what the limits on acceptable or inevitable bias are and ought to be.

Next week: Bias.
*UPDATE: minor grammatical and formatting adjustments and added a line about Haditha and credulity.

**UPDATE: The link to Among the Evangelicals ran out so I found a new link with an active copy of the article.

Part One: Mistake
Part Two: Sloth
[technorati icon]


Anna Venger said...

Funny thing. Every time I've seen a news story that covered a topic with which I was personally familiar, there have been glaring errors in the report. It is hard to cover something one doesn't understand.

You are right about them just not having the background necessary for certain topics like religion, science and the military. Religion and the military, they hold in contempt while science is just butchered beyond recognition. Every little catchy finding that might sell a paper or give good air time is promoted as fact often without any attention paid to scientists' warnings that it is too early to draw conclusions.

And worldview? It seeps through everything they present without them even realizing they are presenting biased information.

Another thing that is totally lacking is a sense of scale. Little things are played up as big to-dos while other events, seemingly unimportant at the time, may be changing the course of history.

And that's why I don't give much attention to the news industry. It's just not worth it. I'd rather read a book.

Anna Venger said...

Well, I was on my way out the door and thought I'd take a quick check on my site. For some strange reason there are two comments (besides our own) on MY site about YOUR essay. Too weird. Just thought you might be interested. (Not sure you get your email, so I'm writing here.)

Anonymous said...

Scot says;
Having worked with Mr. Enz in a variety of cases, I am amazed that no one looks at the fact that trucks are no longer made with side-saddle fuel tanks, humm....

Anonymous said...

So what you're saying is that the bogus and highly publicized TV show that terrorized the nation about these trucks led to such bad PR that companies stopped making them? Thanks.