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October 25, 2005

Stealthy News Distorting

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Political blogs pig out on examples of how The Other Side distorts news reporting / presentation.

We aren't a political blog 'round here (though our views seep into our postings). But we do examine the news media, and if our searchlight picks out some juicy examples of manipulation, well, why not pass them along?

I'll offer up two examples. Both are from local Seattle television news shows and neither is recent. However, I wouldn't be surprised to find the same sorts of things going over the air now.

The Typical Teacher

When a school district was experiencing a "job action" (teachers aren't allowed to strike in these here parts, so they simply job-act) the TV reporter put one of the actors on-camera.

Shown was a woman who looked to be in her mid-late 30s. She said that she was a single parent with two children, and went on to say that she was having trouble surviving on an annual salary of X thousand dollars.

The casual viewer would likely feel sympathetic to this woman and draw the conclusion that all teachers in the district were grossly underpaid and that the "action" was well justified. I'm almost certain this was exactly the response the reporter was trying to elicit.

So, just what was being distorted?

The key item is the X-dollar annual salary. That amount happened to be pretty close to entry-level pay for schoolteachers. Entry-level teachers are likely to be around 23 years old, single, childless and able to exist on what they're paid. Fifteen years later, when they reach the age of the televised job-actor, their pay would be substantially higher than entry-level.

The reporter distorted the report by showing an untypical example and not telling the viewers that the example was not typical and why it was not typical.

I had no idea if the teachers had a legitimate case, and the TV news report gave me no useful information on the issue.

Old Fogeys and Sweet Young Things

Another time a local station was covering a partisan issue and the report showed brief interviews with a Democrat and a Republican.

The Democrat was a young, attractive, energetic, articulate woman. The Republican was an old coot aged about 75 who hemmed and hawed his thoughts.

The not-so-subliminal conclusion our friend the casual viewer would likely draw would be that Democrats are with-it and Republicans are old f**ts. I imagine that, if confronted regarding this, the reporter would have claimed that these were exactly the sorts of people he had to deal with or maybe what got on-air was simple happenstance. Yeah, sure.

Happy viewing!



posted by Donald at October 25, 2005


It doesn't necessarily hold true that the older mother/teacher was not an entry-level teacher. Some people postpone a degree until their children are a little older, some change careers.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 25, 2005 8:45 PM


I think Donald's point is that by using an atypical example, it distorted people's impressions of the age/salary curve for teachers. If you're trying to responsibly illustrate trends with anecodotal examples, you gotta be careful with which examples you use.


I've often wondered how much the inherent limitations of trying to tell stories with pictures leads inevitably to a reliance on cultural groupthink and cliche. The final effect may be bias, but it may be more the result of structural necessity than malice.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 25, 2005 11:07 PM

The TV station's choice of the Democrat and the Republican was not totally off the mark ... young women tend to be Democrats and older men Republicans.

Posted by: Peter on October 25, 2005 11:39 PM

And FOX and CNN were unabashedly jingoistic in the lead-up to war. As were all the papers, including the NYTimes.

Why mention only biases towards the left when the big, honking ones go the other way?

Posted by: JewishAtheist on October 26, 2005 12:17 AM

I'm with Friedrich on the structural necessity thing. Squeezing any concept into a thirty second video segment requires massive distortion, the result little more than a fleeting impression.

And if the reporters consciously distorted their pieces to reflect their own P.O.V.'s, well, is that so surprising? Wouldn't you do it if you could? I know I would.

Posted by: Outer Life on October 26, 2005 12:21 AM

To be fair (and being fair is something not to be expected of in politics very often), one could easily take the stance that presenting Conservative thought as the wisened authority figure was the intent.

Now, I trust Donald's judgement here on the issue, since I didn't personally see the segment, but I try to be opposed to the sort of highly-personalized judgement he makes here, on the whole. As a guy I see this sort of judgement call used all the time by feminists, and even though plausible alternative perspectives exist, due to the moral authority imputed to victim classes, the "consensus" on these issues becomes instantly ossified. All victimologies worth their salt also have "built-in" refutations to disputes over their assertions,
Man: I don't think marriage is a necessarily oppressive institution.
Feminist: That's because you're part of the Bavarian Illumina... I mean, global patriarchy!

(Tongue in cheek, of course)

Posted by: . on October 26, 2005 12:39 AM

The latest fracas is over this picture of Condi Rice, which is actually kinda scary.

Did any of you ever see Village of the Damned?

Posted by: Brian on October 26, 2005 10:02 AM

"And FOX and CNN were unabashedly jingoistic in the lead-up to war. As were all the papers, including the NYTimes."

I have a house in Woodstock, NY, and I hear this type of language all the time.

Normal patriotism is only jingoism within the narrow confines of a few leftist communities that have deceived themselves into believing that they are singularly enlightened.

Almost always, these same communities are Marxist in their outlook. I am always left aghast that proponents of this discredited and proveably genocidal doctrine imagine themselves to be members of the cognoscenti.

Plan to do a bit in my weblog soon about Revolution Books in Manhattan, a front for the Revolutionary Community Party right in Chelsea. Can you imagine how incenced that same community would be by the presence of a Nazi party bookstore in some podunk town in Alabama? There is no difference between Marxism and Nazism. But, that same "enlightened" few can't quite grasp it, can they?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 26, 2005 10:48 AM

To step a bit outside the main line of this discussion for a sec ...

I think one thing we all might give a thought to where the news media are concerned is that they're businesses. Why are they packaging and presenting the news the way they do? Because they're hoping to attract eyeballs and ears, so they can sell space to advertisers.

So ... They often do what they do the way they do it in order to have impact. Because impact (whatever that is) tends to attract attention; and because attention equals eyeballs and ears ...

So ... Often the goal of the way news is presented is impact. Is it catchy? Is it annoying? Does it pop out of the screen at you? Does it seem important and urgent? Finally: Did you watch and/or listen? If so -- even if you hated what you saw or heard -- then from the point of view of the media outlet behind that item, they succeeded.

I think the kind of criticism we bloggers often offer of the news media is really important. It's feedback. It's also a way for people to connect and be irreverent. Eventually some of these attitudes and reactions filter their way back up to the people who make the institutional decisions about how to present the news.

That said, I think we sometimes need to pinch ourselves and remember that the news outfits aren't in the business of supplying context, making sense, being fair or incisive ... All those things we sometimes think they should supply. Not that criticizing them for failing to supply context or make sense isn't a good thing to do. Still, what they're in the business of is using the news (whatever that happens to be) to attract and sell eyeballs and ears. That's what news media people are paid (by whomever's paying them) to do.

There are institutional understandings in place, and feedback loops, and awards and press critics, all of which supply some caution and checks and balances, and help keep matters from flying entirely out of control, no matter how pompous they sometimes seem to be. And news media people don't tend to be criminal slime. They're generally smart enough and honorable enough. But from moment to moment, they're all caught up in the business of making an impact via the presentation of news information. That's what they do. That's their job.

But if we can make 'em do a better job than they often do, then let's!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 26, 2005 11:25 AM

Valuable and true-sounding insiders'{sort of}* outlook on the news profession, Michael.

If only you'd allow same understanding, almost in same terms as in your last 3 paragraphs, to the work of architects!

* how do you like my figured parenthesis?

Posted by: Tatyana on October 26, 2005 11:45 AM

> Democrats are with-it and Republicans
> are old f**ts


Posted by: john on October 26, 2005 12:02 PM

Michael: The media is indeed a business, and Gary Gagliardi had an interesting insight about that recently. The post is here. He suggests that the apparent liberal bias of the media may instead be female bias.

Short version: The media exists to sell advertising. Advertising needs to be delivered to the person who does the buying, and the buyer in most households is the wife/mother. Thus the media tailors its programming so that it will catch and retain the female viewership that advertisers want.

The result is the news media's world, where school teachers and sensitive folk can do no wrong, while generals, gun owners, and other rogue males can do no right. Where the goverment can and should protect us from everything, where wars must be fought without any casualties, and where the good of "the children" can be used to excuse anything at all.

I'm still mulling this one over.

Posted by: Brian on October 26, 2005 12:47 PM

Pattie -- I think Friedrich makes my point well. Judging by the the salary she mentioned, she couldn't have had more than about two years in as a full-time teacher; it's immaterial whether she had gotten her degree at age 23 or 35, time in the classroom plus credits is what mostly counts. I knew this because I was married to a schoolteacher at the time I saw the broadcast.

Friedrich -- Besides visuals, a TV limitation is the amount of airtime, which normally is limited aside from disaster situations where the on-camera folk have to pad and pad and pad. Either way, eliminating one side of an issue (ideally) shouldn't be the way to cut the presentation to fit available time/technology resources.

Outer Life -- See the note above. Also, while I might be tempted to inject my POV, I'd try to be careful how I did it. (Or so I think; one never knows until the situation arises.)

"." -- Believe me, the guy was a near-coot, not a sage. I described these two incidents because they stuck in my mind for years, unlike a lot of other TV bilge that I yelled back to and then forgot. Maybe I was extra-touchey those two days.

Thomas -- let us know when your post appears (in case we forget to check).

Michael -- Let me kick a couple ideas around. But first I must mention that I know close to zip about how local TV news operations are run. I've consulted for a few stations, but that had to do with market demographics, not programming.

There seem to be nearly opposite takes on media and the news. One is that there is a "firewall" between the editorial (news) part of the operation and the commercial side -- between the editor-in-chief and the publisher if you will (ditto the TV equivalents). This is so idealistic it can't be totally real; most likely it is at least a little situational. The other take holds that, since media are owned by businessmen, the news content must be slanted to conservative/capitalist points of view (a means-of-production ownership thing). This view is seldom correct, as any reading or viewing of actual content can reveal.

As nearly as I can figure, eyeball-gathering in recent decades has tended to be marketing research driven. Surveys and focus groups are taken asking folks what they want to see on TV news. The main answers are something like: "Gee, I dunno. I guess I want to hear about stuff that affects me or my family".

Thanks to this, local TV news gives lots of coverage to personal health matters (straight from press releases and the New England Journal of Medicine and some stray class-action lawsuit testimony), how toys will kill your kids, how your insurance company is screwing you, etc., etc.

Strongly skewing news reports to one political side or the other is an potential eyeball-loser, where half your potential audience could tune you out permanently. (Fox News' niche strategy is another matter related to specific circustances, not the generic case I'm talking about here.) Ratings and newspaper circulation stats indicate tune-outs, but not the causes. And if Bernard Goldberg is correct, the newsroom folks might well be oblivious to the potential damage because they think most folks think the way they do politically.

Tatyana -- I'd comment on your parentheses, but I fear you'd take me for a male chauvinist pig if I said "Wow! What curves!"

John -- ... who would possibly aspire to be an old f**rt?

Brian -- I do see a lot of "sensitivity is good" stuff. Interesting.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 26, 2005 7:40 PM

Journalists (certainly not all, but some) seem to have a little trouble with statistics, math, sort of basic concepts like that. I was querying a blog-journalist aquaintance the other day: why have you provided the numerator, not the denominator? I mean, she was writing about military recruiting abuses and included the 'reported' number of abusive actions. But, she didn't say how many recruitors there were, how many people they try to recruit, how this compares to previous reported numbers. What's the denominator? What are the trends? It took about five minutes with google to come up with a few of the #s, but how come these things don't show up? It ain't bias, unless it's bias against math.

Posted by: MD on October 26, 2005 9:28 PM

Donald: heh.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 26, 2005 9:51 PM

MD -- You can't blame the journalists for being mathematically incompetent. Well, you could, but it'd be tough. The viewership is often even more ignorant, and there are, to my knowledge, no significant structural mechanisms to either reward or require journalists to use statistics in a responsible manner.

Posted by: . on October 27, 2005 10:13 AM

Good topic. Case in (recent) point: watch MSNBC's "Countdown" tonight and see, in their Plame affair segment, the visual they use. For
the last few nights, they've used an "icon" with
three elements--the CIA seal, the question "who
did it?" and . . . a photo of Cheney.

Closer to home, a few years ago the local daily
did a segment on why some faculty members here
were pushing off to greener pastures. (I work
at a large state u below the M-D Line.) They interviewed one of the soon-to-be-gone, who allowed as how he was finding it hard to get by on
his 97k a year. In itself, that's OK, but if I recall correctly they didn't pay any attention to average or median compensation and the gross (in more ways than one) differences between what their subject (in the b-school) and us liberal arts types make (that is, about 50-60% of the b-school guy's salary). I remember thinking,
"great, now everybody who reads this will think we're all pulling down close to a hundred thou a year . . . "

Sorry for the weird formatting.


Posted by: Narr on October 27, 2005 4:31 PM

I have heard that for a period in the nineties when a young black woman was head of the National Right to Life Committee, representatives of Planned Parenthood and NARAL consistently refused to debate her on television. They would leap at the chance to debate a white male pro-life activist, however.

Posted by: James Kabala on October 28, 2005 1:02 PM

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