“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Posts tagged ‘journalism’

How to analyze the news, Pt. 2

Headlines Lie

When I worked at a flagship daily for a major media conglomerate, I covered the story of how one of the businesses on my beat managed to overcome a huge operating debt and become profitable. My city editor, however, had a personal grudge against that particular form of business; and when the story broke,  not only did the headline make it sound as if the business were still deeply in debt but he had rewritten the lede paragraph to support the misleading headline.

In these days when independent blogs and aggregator sites vie with the mainstream media for attention, one of the major elements used to try to trigger a viral response is to use a provocative headline. That’s because it’s an established that 40% of readers never make it past that headline. Another 20-30% may go so far as to read the first three paragraphs. If you want the reason why bad information gets spread so quickly, that’s it.

As an example, let’s take a story that broke on 5 May in Los Angeles. Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at a small college. Prior to her speech, a fair-sized crowd made up of local Latino organizations and activists and Bernie Sanders supporters arrived to demonstrate. There was some shouting back and forth, but the protest was otherwise peaceful. In other words, it was a simple exercise of the right to assemble and of free speech.

TV station KNBC had a reporter on the ground and put the story on its website with the following headline at 5 p.m PDT.:

Protesters Gather Outside Hillary Clinton Rally

The following day, the internet news site Raw Story launched their version of the article, and for reasons I’m sure I don’t have to explain, the headline not only quickly had it circulating on social media but was rousing a slew of anti-Sanders and anti-protestor comment:

Hordes of Sanders supporters shut down Clinton event in LA: ‘She’s not with us!’

There’s only one thing wrong with that: it didn’t happen, as the video clip and the report on KNBC’s website make perfectly clear. Ms. Clinton’s speech went on as planned, and the demonstration was a bit too peaceful for the crowd to describe it as a “horde,” which carries a very warlike connotation.

To make matters worse, the author of the story said:

“The Democratic presidential frontrunner was repeatedly interrupted Thursday as she spoke to a largely Latino crowd in Monterey Park, where Union del Barrio organized a protest against Clinton over her immigration policies and opposition to a national $15 hourly minimum wage, reported KNBC-TV.”

In other words, the article at Raw Story is a hit piece in which the author took facts from the original story, embellished it with allegations for which no support is offered, then topped it with a misleading headline. I mean, does anyone seriously believe KNBC wouldn’t have mentioned if those protestors had forced Ms. Clinton to “cut short her scheduled speech,” as the story claims?

Still, anyone predisposed to be upset had already expressed outrage and passed the link along.

By Saturday, 7 May, at least one other clickbait site had embraced the shut-down fiction, which also showed up on social media. By then, even people highly favorable to Sen. Sanders were in speaking against the demonstrators over their alleged lack of respect for his opponent. The name “Trump,” of course, was quickly dredged up.

Why did so many otherwise thoughtful people believe a crowd of Sanders supporters had shouted down Ms. Clinton? Because none of them did what I did, something so simple it should be standard procedure whenever something with a provocative headline springs forth on Twitter or Facebook.

They didn’t click on the link to the original story.

One of the major problems for internet reporting is that, like their print and broadcast cousins, the media have to be self-supporting. Most of the time, that’s done by selling advertising, and for it to work requires getting as many clicks bringing readers to their sites as possible. Hence, the term clickbait. It’s often used in a derogatory sense, but it’s simply fact. If you can’t afford to pay the bills, you’re done; and if paying the bills means getting eyes on your site for your advertisers, any business is going to do whatever they can to ensure that happens.

People have been conditioned to react with outrage before they check on the facts. And some just don’t want to be bothered, especially if the bait suits their own opinions or prejudices. It’s time-consuming, because sometimes the sad fact is a provocative story may have been spun from milkweed and dewdrops. Worse, since Google is set up to show us search results based on our interests, as stored in their databases from our online activity, we may have to dig through a slew of results pages to confirm the facts.

Still, in this era of corporate-owned media, where the only news we get is what the people in charge have decided is what we need to know, falling for a headline specifically designed to trigger our reflex reactions means something important may be missed. And while there are plenty of reliable alternate sources for news, we must still be wary of believing everything we read.

All the News that Fits

The role that modern media have undertaken–or in the opinion of some, not taken–with regard to ensuring that the people in the United States are kept aware of the things that they should be kept aware of seems to have moved from the dissemination of actual useful knowledge to providing a barrage of what has come to be called “infotainment.”

All sorts of conspiracy theories have been offered to explain this journalistic dereliction of duty, but having spent nine years as a journalist, I think I can safely say that there is no great conspiracy to keep the American public stupid and ignorant. The thing is, a great many journalists already believe the American public is stupid and ignorant, that there’s no point in providing them with anything remotely resembling balanced facts because they don’t care enough about what’s going on to bother reading them.

Anyone who has ever spent any significant amount of time in your average modern newsroom quickly becomes aware that those who are occupying it consider themselves intellectually superior to the vast majority of the people for whom they’re writing. Oh, it’s nothing overt—they don’t stand around the water cooler plotting how to mess with the rubes today—but there is nevertheless a pervasive undercurrent that the reporters and editors just know so much more than the bulk of their readers.

That this supposed breadth of knowledge is largely imaginary doesn’t lessen the effect of their belief in it. Their obsession with the Tea Party, for example, has nothing to do with the political, social and cultural implications of the movement and everything to do with the belief held by those observing them that they’re all a bunch of morons. That’s why there’s been so much attention paid to misspelled signs and so little to the very real impact this political movement has already shown it can effect.

I don’t say this attitude is deliberate. It’s of the sort fostered by any closed community—a case of media ivory-tower syndrome, if you will—engendered by rules established with the intent of avoiding the appearance of bias. Emphasis on the word appearance, because it’s the rare human being who can actually divorce himself or herself from their own ideas and beliefs completely. It’s ironic that all these rules really do is so isolate those compelled to observe them from the grass roots of their communities that the aforementioned sense of superiority is inevitable.

Exacerbating this is that the bottom line when it comes to modern journalism is, sadly, the bottom line. It’s not about keeping the public informed; it’s about making money. Since advertising has become a losing proposition—for the most part, anyway—they have no choice but to focus on selling as many copies as they can, and they decided the way to do that is to avoid writing about anything that might require their customers to do anything more than enjoy themselves.

The really sad thing is, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Those who actually want factual information so they can make informed opinions have long since abandoned the newspapers in favor of the Internet and other sources. So, the only ones who continue to purchase newspapers–or so, it seems, those in charge of today’s newspapers believe–are the ones who are more interested in knowing the latest adventures of whatever pop star has crashed and burned this week.

I think you can see how it vicious circle quickly develops in this kind of situation. The newspapers aren’t providing the public with the information it wants in the fair and balanced way they’re supposed to, so the portion of the public that wants that information stops buying newspapers. When the latest scandal erupts, the people who may not otherwise buy newspapers do so, with the result that those who make the decisions decide the best way to keep selling newspapers is to keep reporting on scandals. And if there aren’t enough of those happening, it’s not that hard to make a mountain out of a mole hill, at least not when your tools are words.

So, if you really want to know where to place the blame, in part we have to blame ourselves, and in part we have to blame the fact that our media–news and otherwise–are largely in the hands of huge corporate entities whose only concern is that their stockholders and their executives make lots of money.

Joseph de Maistre wrote, in 1811, that every nation has the government it deserves. That applies equally to this situation. If we who deplore the current state of what passes for news these days continue to support it by paying for it, even if only to add more fuel to our criticism, we have to shoulder some of the blame for the existence of that which we’re criticizing.

Fortunately, the role the mainstream media has abjured is being assumed by bloggers. Unfortunately, many of these are as lacking in their willingness to work at providing actual balanced information as their mainstream peers. That those mainstream peers have chosen to be one-sided doesn’t mean it’s acceptable journalism, and any news blogger who truly wants to be taken seriously as a journalist knows this and acts accordingly. I, for one, appreciate every one of them who does.