Category Archives: Editorials

WHAT IT ALL MEANS … I HOPE

I realize that I’ve shelved my news bias measurement project for years. Still, I remain keenly interested in how people develop their political opinions, and what it all means.

The early interest in Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Carly Fiorina, although quite different in their presentations and positions, may have one common thread. People are simply fed up with politics as usual, and politicians who reek of that particular scent.

Having been in high-tech for almost 30 years, I came out of the business school mold of “Blue Suit/White Shirt/Red Tie.” I wore the accepted uniform, and talked the corresponding talk. Then, in (seemingly) one day, these guys from Silicon Valley with torn jeans, worn sandals, dirty T-shirts and genuinely greasy hair — armed with the unshakeable foresight of a 27-year-old zillionaire—- were kickin’ my starched butt. Instantaneously, I represented the old school “in-the-box” plodding way of getting technology to market. The Valley Boys were immediately acknowledged as more creative. Just LOOK at them. Of course they were.

I feel for ya’, Jeb. Hillary. I really do.

I could not compete with the new crowd at first. The Silicon Soothsayers were unbounded by the rules of the businesses as I knew them, particularly in my markets. Surely, they had demonstrated raging success in other areas. Of this I could not argue. But eventually, the hopes they inspired were tempered by the realities of the marketplace. The end result was a slower-yet- significant change that the new wizards instigated, if not led to completion.

Net-net, it was pretty good stuff.

So maybe we don’t elect Carly, Bernie, or even “The Donald.” But my hope is that all of the Presidential candidates go-to-school on them and truly absorb the underlying meaning in the message. I’m not sure politicians, PACs, or even the Koch Brothers can carpet-bomb advertise their way around this phenomenon. In fact, this may be the backlash for all such lavish spending to maintain what is in the end barely the status quo.

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White Paper Excerpt: “Bias and Objectivity in the News Media”

I remain convinced that one can measure media bias electronically, at least to some extent, by examining the text of news broadcasts and objectively identifying the speaker’s personal value judgments. With that said, it is far more difficult to extract bias based on that content that is chosen to be aired. The following excerpt, taken from a 2004 white paper published by The Foundation for Critical Thinking titled, “How to Detect Media Bias and Propaganda” by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, explains this far more eloquently than I ever could.

Enjoy.

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The logic of constructing news stories is parallel to the logic of writing history. In both cases, for events covered, there is both a massive background of facts and a highly restricted amount of space to devote to those facts. The result in both cases is the same: 99.99999% of the “facts” are never mentioned at all (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1

If objectivity or fairness in the construction of news stories is thought of as equivalent to presenting all the facts and only the facts (“All the news that’s fit to print”), objectivity and fairness is an illusion. No human knows more than a small percentage of the facts and it is not possible to present all the facts (even if one did know them). It isn’t even possible to present all the important facts, for many criteria compete for determining what is “important.” We must therefore always ask, “What has been left out of this article?” “What would I think if different facts had been highlighted here?” “What if this article had been written by those who hold a point of view opposite to the one embedded in the story as told?”

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Amen.

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Who’s News? YOU Decide.

The more I study media bias, the more I realize that TV coverage flows (and often overflows) in certain directions because viewers vote with their eyeballs.

The blogosphere is crackling today with reports on the CBS internal memo which directed their debate moderators to devote fewer questions to Michelle Bachmann. The issue certainly has ignited the fanaterati. Don’t get me wrong; editorial selection bias is a very real phenomenon. Still, a thinking person should consider other possibilities.

So here is one: Perhaps we get a disproportionate amount of coverage on certain issues and people because they drive viewership. Combined with the extensive amount of news capacity that needs to be filled, media outlets are motivated to keep popular stories alive because lots of people are following them. As an unfortunate by-product, reporters and commentators fan the  flames over time by digging up all kinds of corner-cases, then sensationalizing them as “New Developments!” And that’s when we enter the realm of the absurd.

Circling back to the issue du jour, giving Michelle Bachmann more debate time does not make sense for the network in that context. It’s an inexact science, but it is a network executive’s job is to promote viewership … which drives ad revenue …which increases company profits, equity value, and personal paychecks.

It’s tempting to see a conspiracy here, and maybe there is one, but I think it is equally possible that this is just capitalism in action.

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Reasons for Watching Political News: To Be Informed or To Be Affirmed?

As explore methods for measuring media bias, a different consideration has come to mind. Measuring how bias is delivered by the media is a significant challenge, but I have become increasingly curious about how political messaging is received.

Said another way, why do people watch political news … really?

I believe that there are 2 basics answers to that question:

  1. Viewers come to be informed about a political issues, or:
  2. People watch to affirm positions that emanate from their personal desires, their preconceived notions, their vested interests, their group affiliations, as well as from information rationally processed previously.

These states of mind are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they represent a kind of mental continuum. On one end, the viewer’s mind is openly accepting and processing new information. At the other, political news content rides along well-travelled synaptic pathways, affirming previously-accepted beliefs. What makes this more interesting, and perhaps more troubling, is that most viewers believe that they are watching only to be informed, when they are in fact unknowingly creating a kind of mental muscle-memory.

When a notion is repeatedly affirmed in one’s mind, the more embedded it becomes. In extreme cases, a thoroughly entrenched belief is virtually unchangeable. Studies have shown that, when presented with unimpeachable evidence to the contrary, believers often become more dogmatic about their convictions. This phenomenon, known in psychological circles as “cognitive dissonance,” occurs when 2 conflicting ideas are held in the mind simultaneously. To mitigate this conflict, our minds kick the less troubling idea out. Sometimes forcefully.

Other thought processes play a significant part in the way we ingest news today. Recent “decision theories” suggests that, despite long held beliefs that humans are fundamentally logical thinkers, we instead make primarily emotional decisions, using our intellects to rationalize them ex post facto.  Emotional decision-making may, in fact, be superior to rational thinking if one’s mind is properly trained. So suggests author Jonah Lehrer in his popular novel, How We Decide.

To use Lehrer’s example of NFL quarterback Tom Brady, the emotional brain can process faster than the thinking brain when information is coming in too fast to handle cognitively. In Brady’s case, his well-trained emotional brain can instantly calculate exactly where to throw a football, in the face of irregular pass blocking, random blitzes, and 5 receivers running intricate pass patterns on a wet, windy day.

With the rapid pace of our modern lives and the abundance of messaging bombarding us, Americans are increasingly relying on their emotional brains to make decisions. As with Mr. Brady, this works well if one’s mind has been properly conditioned. Watching game films and consciously re-living moments where both good-and-bad choices were made enables Brady to improve his emotional decision-making.  It is this state of awareness that becomes a means to better his play going forward.

Lofty as it sounds, that’s what my media bias index — of which a new-and-improved version will be introduced in the coming weeks — is intended to do. Bias in the media is a fact of life.  As long as humans generate media content, there will be bias.  Rather than taking on the impossible challenge of eradicating it, my goal is to simply make people aware of what they are ingesting, so that they consciously assess what political content they are taking in, and why.

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Politics and TV News: Commonly Used Bias Techniques

As I have dutifully trudged through TV news transcripts as part of creating my surveys, I have noticed certain bias techniques — some intuitive, and others subtle — that are employed with regularity by popular TV news channels.  My focus has been on political analysis segments wherein a news anchor/moderator is joined by one-or-more contributors, positioned as subject matter experts.

The most prevalent techniques are as follows:

  • False Balancing –TV viewers have been conditioned to expect news anchors to conduct interviews with contributing experts who present contrasting points of view. Interestingly, these expert contributors are occasionally unbalanced, and actually are on the same side the “debated” issue.

A variant on this theme occurs when complementary views are presented by experts from opposite camps. A Democratic congressman may be critical of aspects of “Obama-care” when interviewed side-by-side with a Republican senator whose disapproval applies to other areas. Both are critical, just in different ways.

On the surface, these experts represent groups who are traditionally in opposition, but their opinions are surprisingly aligned in this example. The notion that positions on a particular subject are not known in advance strains credibility. Still, that fact may be lost on passive TV viewers, who believe they have ingested a short-but- complete review of an issue when presented in this format, especially when the contributors are otherwise natural enemies.

Credit should go where credit is due, so I must recognize The Pessimistic Viewer’s September 12 blog (http://comm2302.wordpress.com/) for identifying and labeling this particular bias mechanism.

  • Time Management – This is an intuitively obvious slanting technique; the more time devoted to a particular perspective, the more weight it is given by the audience. Timing was initially my primary target for evaluating media bias, thinking it to be objective and readily quantifiable. In practice, however, it turned out to be much more difficult to do, primarily because of technique #3.
  • Flakking – In real-time, recording the specific speaking time of any particular contributor is inordinately difficult because of “flakking” — aggressive interruptions of contributors’ statements that are in conflict with those being favored on the program.
  •  Framing  & Finishing  – Even in the pseudo-debate construct of the popular anchor-plus-expert news format, the moderator has control of how an issue is initially framed (“Is the Gang of 6 Deficit Reduction Plan Bad for America?”) along with the manner in which the segment is closed. Even if the anchor does not personally deliver a closing statement, the last word generally has more impact than others, and the moderator can readily determine who gets it.
  • Anchor Affirmations – Television viewers have been conditioned to expect the news anchor/moderator, while possessing their own informed opinions, to exercise a certain amount of journalistic detachment and fairness. Implicitly, they are the ultimate arbiter.

Regardless of the historical role of the anchor/moderator, in this era of advocate journalism, strong opinions are easily discernible, and readily recognized as such by even the most passive viewer. Still, I often encountered more subtle endorsements which may slip passed a viewer’s internal bias filter. Simply have the moderator inject a, “Right,” or “Yes,” as a follow-on comment gives the preceding statement additional weight.

  • Pronoun Putdowns – Similar to moderator affirmations, news anchor can send a subtle-but-unmistakable message by the way they refer to involved parties. Groups holding conflicting views with the discussion leader are often referred to as “they” or “them.” Similarly, if a title-bearing politician, such as a Senator, is referred to as “he” or “him,” it comes across as a refusal to recognize rank-and-status, and conveys an implicit lack of respect.

In closing, some may see these slanting techniques as a normal part of Op-Ed programming.  While that is fair criticism to some degree, passive TV viewers may not make a conscious distinction between objective news and editorials.  The concept of framing applies here, but in a different context — Are these programs framed as Op-Ed segments, or overshadowed by pervasive, embedded marketing messages — “Cable News Network”  …  Fox News, Fair and Balanced” … “MSNBC, the Place for Politics” … “The No-Spin Zone?”

I welcome your comments on the matter.

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