Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Public Bias Against the Press

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 31, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, January 31, 2008.

Roy Peter Clark's article is very well written and can be seen, despite its negative undertones, to be a passionate defense of the traditional media. But his attribution of the source of the problem, "a public that has been conditioned, like rats in a Skinnerian dystopia, to hate us," is mistaken.

The scepticism which now greets the traditional media is not the creation of bloggers, humour shows, or any of the other of the range of critics Clark alludes to in his article. The traditional media is the author of its own misfortune. Those of us who have studied the bias in media, in such works as Chomsky's 'Manufacturing Consent' or Klein's 'No Logo' can array an arsenal of evidence to indict the media. Those who haven't need look no further than Clark's own column.

The evidence of bias (or of incompetence) is the commission of errors of reason, of the commission of logical fallacies and other misrepresentations. Some of these are simply bad habits the media have fallen into over the years, whiloe others are persistent reminders of the media's efforts to convince us that the false is true. Let us example Clark's column for this evidence:

- Two Wrongs Fallacy
Example: "The public bias against the press is a more serious problem for American democracy than the bias (real or perceived) of the press itself."
The very foundation of Clark's argument is based on a fallacy. His intent is to exonerate the traditional media. But he does so by pointing fingers and saying, in effect, "but they're worse!" They may well indeed be worse. But the fact remains that the bias of the press is a serious problem for democracy.

- Reporting Polls as News, and Unsupported Inference (Non Sequiter)
Example: "That is one reasonable conclusion to a study of media credibility conducted by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn."
These two errors of reasoning, found within the same sentence, are very common in news reporting. We are all familia with the lazy practice of seizing upon one isolated study or poll and representing it as though it were conclusive evidence of some trend in society. Real research does not work that way and journalists should know better; only a series of similar studies, conducted over a period of time, can tell us anything. Reporting a study in isolation like this is misrepresentative of what the study tells us. The second error, meanwhile, is a howler. No such conclusion can be drawn from the study in question. The evidence simply does not lead to the conclusion. Clark may as well tell us that Americans don't believe in santa Clause (based on their mistrust of the media conjoined with the media's annual reports of his existence and flights from the north pole); that would be more strongly warranted.

- Citing People Without Attrubution, or, Making Up Points of View
Example: "As a good Catholic boy growing up in the 1950s, I was devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But no such devotion can I feel to the prejudiced conclusions some scholars and politicians have drawn from this survey."
Really? What scholars and politicians? The article names example zero sources. So far as we know, Clark is simply making this up. So far as we know, all he did is look at the press release from the study and then chat with one of his friends. In any case, no matter what the depth of Clark's research (if any), we are unable to verify in any way whatsoever whether he has correctly represented the commentators. We can't ask them if they were accurately quoted, we can't read their comments and criticisms for ourselves. From our perspective, this sentence is a complete fabrication.

- False Analogy, and Straw Man
Example: "Let me begin my argument with an analogy. If my first daughter says I'm a bad parent one year, and the next year two daughters say I'm bad, and the following year all three of them say I'm bad, does that make me bad? It is not a good sign, I'll admit, but is it possible that the perception of my daughters has been influenced by factors other than the character of my decisions and actions as a dad? Maybe all their friends insist I'm too strict."
This analogy is intended to show that we should not, on the basis of the poll results, infer that the media is biased. This is a straw man because media critics do not use such poll data to show that the media is biased; they use the ample evidence found in the media reports themselves. Even were this the argument they use, the analogy presented is scarcely convincing. First of all, the opinions of the daughters, even if influenced by their friends, actually do count as evidence for bad parenting. But secondly, the analogy is misleading because the daughters are minors who are not in a position to judge, while the father is an authority figure over them. These would critically influence the reliability of their inference, but neither is the case in the case of the media and the public (though the astute observer would note that the analogy serves to infantilize the readership and illegitimately promote the media to the position of authority held by the father).

Should I continue? In this article literally every sentence contains a allacy of one sort or another. Let me speed progress by focusing on only the most blatant fallacies from here on in.

- Personification of an Aggregate, Hasty generalization, and Straw Man
Example: "In spite of any firewall created between departments of news and of opinion, the audience will assume -- without countervailing evidence -- that one sides bleeds over to the other. "
'The audience' doesn't assume anything. Individuals in the audience will assume things, and typically, they assume different things. At best, it could be said that amajority of the audience members share a similar assumption. But this is a far cry from the attribution of an assumption to the audience as a whole. This very common tactic by the media - to represent specific groups as having specific features (especially cognitive features, such as beliefs) - is misrepresentative, and indeed, causes great harm through the promotion of stereotypes.

Moreover, on the basis of what evidence does Clark offer the suggestion that the audience assumes one thing or another? The study he is describing contains no such statement. At best, Clark is working from isolated statements that he himself has heard - a very unrepresentative sample of the audience and in any case an insufficient number of samples to warrant any generalization at all. This is a very commpin tactic in traditional media, the unwarranted attribution of a belief or attitude to a population as a whole.

And finally, the straw man: those people in 'the audience' who believe that there is lekage between 'news' and 'opinion' do not believe that there is leakage from one to the other. Rather, they believe that these have a common origin: specifically, the influence of advertisers, who pay for the costs of publication, and of the owners, who often have political axes to grind. These influences play themselves out glaringly and with obvious repetition through the newspaper and on the TV screen. The examples are innumerate, and many readers will be able to recite them from memory. No polls are needed to see evidence of these biases.

- False Explanation
"Example: The story choice of an editor -- or story play -- may be seen as an expression of bias, even when no slant is intended."
The suggestion here is that there is a better explanation of story choice when 'no slant is intended'. The presumption here is that there is a fact - that no slant is intended - that needs explanation. This is a very common tactic of columnists, who which to show that P is true, and do so by offering an 'explanation' of why P is true. This, of course, simply presumes as true the very thing that is in doubt.

- Representing Journalists as Experts; Interviewing Journalists and Reporting It As News

Example: "My colleague Rick Edmonds reminds me that many people who come to the press without prejudice form their biases after failing to recognize themselves or their values in the news. That can be true for the young or the old, for evangelical conservatives, for members of minority groups, etc."

Who cares what Clark's colleague thinks? Has he conducted studies on this issue? Is he representing his own point of view, or someone else's? Or is he just making this stuff up? We have no way of knowing - and because a journalist is cited as a news source, we are effectively screened from any evidence for this, one way or another, if there is any evidence to be had.

We could also question whether people are so shallow as to form biases simply based on their failure to recognize themselves in the news. This is the suggestion that the news media ought to be demographically representative of the population, and there is no reason to believe that this is true, and no reason to believe that this is a majority opinion of the readership. Again, this is an infantilization of the readership - it suggests that they are unable to believe anyone expcept for people who are demographically like themselves.

Oh, I'm tired, and I have to go to work. This type of criticism could be applied to the rest of the article. And - sadly - this sort of criticism could be applied to almost everything that appears in the traditional media. Pundits like Jon Stweat have very very easy pickings.

When Clark ponders the cause of the public's mistrust of the media, he should look in the mirror. Whether it is as a reselt of incompetence, or as a result of a deliberate attempt to deceive, the media comes across as terribly unreliable, dishonest, and misrepresentative. Because we see the so obvious signs of media manipulation, and because we know that members of the media are mostly educated professionals, we conclude that at least some of this is deliberate.

Sadly, because in the long run, the corruption of media does undermine democracy - and the bloggers who are critical of media are only too aware that they will not by themselves be able to make up the difference.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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