Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bias and Ignorance In The News Media

 Newspaper boy.

Newspaper reporters don't like it if you accuse them of being biased in reporting.  And, frankly, based on my limited experience with them, it certainly would not be true that they're universally biased, as some believe.  They have a pretty tough task really, which is to get a story out quickly, often on something they are really basically ignorant of, and based on extremely limited research. The better of them correct and adjust as they move along. Others don't bother.  Those inclinations are true of everyone, and I've likewise seen lawyers who go into a case with one set of views and keep it in spite of the evidence as it develops. So, a claim of global bias would not really be true.

 A WPA play, celebrating newspapers in some fashion.

But it is true that on some stories, historically, the news media has taken a position based on its views and stuck with it, issuing its stories accordingly.  The U.S. went through a horrible period of "yellow journalism" in the early 20th Century, which nationally saw its reflection in what amounted to campaigning for the Spanish American War, one of those contests we whipped ourselves into a frenzy about and got into without really thinking it through.  The newsmedia also did that a bit with the second Gulf War. When the conventional war yielded to a second guerrilla was, a lot of the same journals acted as if they'd always been against a war in Iraq in the first place.

Here locally, you can really see competing sides staking out their positions in regards to the Johnson County War, as the patrons of one side or another duked it out in the press.  Papers of that era, once again, often didn't try to make any bones that they were biased.

Even now, however, they can be, sometimes in subtle ways.  Other times, however, reporting is bad due to flat out ignorance, and occasionally in an inexcusable fashion.

I had the occasion recently to be involved in a long lasting legal matter in which I don't think the press was biased, but it never did quite get the story accurately.  Just ignorance at work, but that ignorance really basically played to the opposing side of the controversy.  The first reporter, however, was really a hard worker and worked to improve the reporting each time, and her stories became more and more accurate with each one, and more fair.  We did appreciate that.  When she was replaced with a second reporter, that new reporter seemed to put in minimum effort on things and the accuracy fell.  A third reporter, however, was once again a hard worker.

Still, of interest, one local journal ran the controversy as a big story several times. Another did only a little, and always in a much reduced manner.  Interesting.  Something about the story appealed to one journal, and not the other.

 Newspaper correspondents in the early wire days.

More recently a subtle bias has been in the Tribune in the regards to the story on the Court's recent decision on same gender marriage.  Now, the Tribune was frank on its view, and if I recall correctly it earlier had done an editorial on the topic urging the legislature to change the law to allow it. But of course the legislature did not, and it's probably safe to say that the majority of Wyomingites continue to hold their traditional view, which might be best described as "leave me alone, I'll leave you alone, but don't ask me to approve".  That's the traditional view in this state on quite a few things as the state has a strong libertarian streak.  The Tribune, on the other hand, has been mildly in favor of the law here being changed, although it isn't as if it's been a real cheerleader on the topic or anything.

Anyhow, as I guess I follow how the press follows things, it's been interesting to observe as on this topic the Press clearly has a view.  It shows in the terms they use, which again are to some degree probably just short hand. The term "marriage equality' shows up quite a bit in its recent reporting. And it shows in how they've continued to focus on the decision after it, having run two front page articles on the same gender couples that were the plaintiffs in the Federal suit.  It's interesting in that the general context of the articles has to do with Wyoming "achieving" "equality".  This really omits quite a bit of analysis, however, either intentionally or simply by omission.

Chief amongst the omission is the way that the story essentially has "Wyoming" doing something, when in fact the state hasn't.  The law remains the same, but rather the Court has ruled that where the law provides that a marriage is a civil contract between a man or a woman, it cannot be read that way any longer.  The omission here is most evident in those instances in which the press has declared Wyoming's "ban" on same gender marriages has been lifted.  In actuality, the state never had a ban on anything.  It simply defined a marriage as being male and female in nature, as was the universal understanding up until quite recently.

That's quite a press omission, really, as it isn't as the state has said "you shall not" so much as the Federal court has said "you will not longer apply the law as written".  I'm not arguing the case here, I'm just noting that the press's reporting here is actually off the mark.

And because this was a court decision, at a time in which a lot of lawyers still expect this to go to the U.S. Supreme Court (the Federal District of Peurto Rico just handed down a decision going the opposite way and really castigating other Federal courts for judicial legislation), the degree to which the current decision is really the final one is highly questionable. So the reporting here is a bit anemic universally. All the current Federal decisions may really serve to do is to tee the issue up for the U.S. Supreme Court and utterly nobody has any clue how that Court would rule.  Given the text of the Puerto Rico decision, the Supreme Court might actually have a very difficult time not overruling the existing Circuit Court decisions as if it did not do that, or massively and creatively limit their holding, they'll do a lot of damage in other areas.

The press has also pretty much ignored the implications for those who this puts into a moral box here, and those people do have legitimate concerns.  Last week the government of the City of Houston went after some ministers who had opposed changing the law there, and there's been examples in Canada and the U.S. having to resign their positions, and business people in California, where the law is considerably different than our own, getting into legal trouble.  The Tribune hasn't, so far, interviewed anyone who feels that the change in the reading of the law presents a societal or moral crisis, or that it isn't the basic equivalent of the progress of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Indeed, one thing that the Press has missed everywhere is that the history of court decision of this type long term is pretty much the opposite of what they tend to believe, with the big exception being the string of Civil Rights cases that came though during the 1950s to 1970s.  Those decisions were accepted by the country over time as a whole, but otherwise the record is considerably different.  The decisions do not tend to be final and the segment of the population that feels it lost feels that it was cheated at the ballot box. And the Courts generally tend to be surprisingly willing to reverse themselves decades later.

Court battles over Roe v. Wade are a good example, as the side that lost never accepted the loss, and over a long period of time it has been largely successful in reversing the court of public opinion.  The decision itself is now generally regarded as legally anemic by those who are willing to discuss it honestly, and there's general expectation that it will either be reversed or modified at some point in the future.  Court battles over gun control are the same way, with the losing side in the Holder decision generally acting as if the Court did not rule at all and refusing to accept it. So such views are common on the right and the left.  For that reason, those who are presently celebrating in various states are really celebrating based on a false premise, that being that everyone accepts a court ruling, and that the Supreme Court will not overrule the decisions, now or in the future.

None of which is to say that a newspaper wouldn't interview the plaintiffs and run stories on them. Any good paper would.  Its rather simply an observation on how the reporting takes a certain view, omits other views, and makes quite a set of assumptions that probably aren't supported by history or analysis.  And the approach tells a lot.  The Tribune ran two stories after the local Federal Court's decision portraying the plaintiffs in that action in a heroic light.  The Journal, on the other hand, featured one pro couple and one that was against redefining the definition on marriage, without really commenting on the issue one way or another itself.  A much different approach.

 Newspaper correspondents in the 1940s scrambling for Federal crop reports.

Sometimes, however, news reporting isn't only biased, its darned near dumb.  Here's a recent example:
Well, this is something.
Not deterred by a Catholic synod's recent watering down of his views on the gay community and divorce, Pope Francis on Monday continued to please those who most appreciate his frequent breaks from traditional Catholic teachings, telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that he agrees with,
 No, that isn't something. That's not even news.

The Big Bang theory was developed by a Jesuit Priest, Monseigneur Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître.  A competent reporter ought to know that not only is this not news, not surprising, its just a total non event.  The Catholics have always been on board with the Big Bang theory. They came up with it.  D'uh.  But at least one of the major networks made the same amazingly stupid comment on the nightly news.Indeed, just a little research (even hitting this august site) would have revealed the following:

Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître

Lemaître was a physicists who was the first person to propose an expansion of the universe, the first to propose the "Big Bang" and he was also the first person to what is now known as Hubble's Law. The brilliant physicists was also a Belgian Catholic priest.

Category:  Catholic Priest.  Physicist. Scientist.  Mathematician. 

For that matter, Catholics have always been on board with evolution too, and some have credited Catholic scientist who preceded Darwin as prior proponents of a version of the theory or laying the ground work for it, with Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck and Georges Mendel being noted as being in this category.  A competent reporter might not be expected to know that, but a minimum amount of research would have at least revealed that evolution and Catholicism are not antithetical.  That reporters aren't picking that shows that they deserve the dope slap.

It also reveals bias in the reporting, however.  This bias is of the type once noted by G. K. Chesterton, the famous English writer, who was a Catholic, when he was asked about evolution while on a tour of the United States, and he replied, in a cutting witty way, that the questioner has apparently confused him for an American Protestant rather than the European Catholic he was.  I do not say this to in anyway discredit American Protestants (or anyone else) but to note what was apparent to Chesterton, comments of that type assume that all Christian religions have the same view on these topics, when in fact Catholics don't hold as doctrine any "young earth" theory or strict creationism theory. That people do is fine, but making comments of this type is a little like Jimmy Carter's famous comment about the Israelis and Palestinians that their problems would go away if "they just acted like good Christians".  I.e, that isn't what they are.  He undoubtedly did know that.  Here, the press really is truly inexcusably ignorant.

News reporting on firearms topics also tends to be the same way.  Generally, press reporting shows a complete lack of understanding on anything in this area and almost all of the details concerning it are inaccurately reported.  Interestingly, I've found one instance of the same expert being cited for two fairly surprising countervailing positions, which he probably really did take, but it also shows, I suppose, that even when they go to clear up their ignorance, they can get sucked into further error.

Well, all in all I don't really mean to totally dump on the press here. As noted, they have to write quickly, which does mean writing in ignorance. And we have seen the massive decline in the reporting as a viable industry in the U.S. At one time many mid sized newspapers actually sent reporters overseas for important stories, and television stations did too.  Newspapers also had reporters that specialized in the news of certain types, rather than just business, sports and other news.  All that has been a victim of economics, and it seems unlikely the day will be reversed.  So, while we have a 24 hour news cycle, a lot of that news is inaccurate.

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