Tag Archives: politcal news

Political News: More Commonly Used Media Bias Techniques

Combing through news transcripts for bias indicators provides you with either unique insights or temporary insanity. Despite my questionable mental state, I’ve uncovered some subtler tricks-of-the-news-trade that I’d like to share with my readers.

Value Judgments: By definition, a value judgment is an assessment that reveals more about the values of the person making the assessment than about the reality of what is assessed. Value judgments can be either direct or projected.

Direct value judgments are often preceded with “I,” either explicitly or as understood. Examples are: “I don’t believe that …,” “that won’t work …” Projected value judgments are less obvious, but are used extensively by certain commentators and politicians. Speakers, often wrapping themselves in the flag or as the spokesperson for some popular group, stealthily project their personal opinions with statements like, “Americans won’t support…,”or  “People are not going to …” It doesn’t jump out at you, but the speaker is putting their view in someone else’s mouth.

Loaded Questions and Leading Questions:  A program anchor is in a position of power to determining how the news is presented while viewers sit passively, accepting that the commentator is objectively informing and moderating discussions based on years of conditioning. In the modern era of news programming that is often not the case. Dialogs are rife with loaded and leading questions.

The popular definition of a loaded question is one which contains as controversial assumption but, for the purposes of semantically evaluating bias, my definition is that it is one that contains indisputable evidence of bias. It gives a strong indication of how an anchor wants his/her respondent to answer. Guidelines for recognizing loaded questions include:

  • Embedded value-judgments by the questioner: “Don’t you think that sounds <odd/wrong/funny/strange>”?
  • Multiple questions within the same statement: “Who would support…?”, “What is the thinking….?”, “Where did they get…?”, “When …?”, “Why …?”

Leading questions are usually more subtle, and don’t have the clear indicators of loaded questions. Still, a savvy viewer can generally pick them out instinctively, particularly when considered together with succeeding responses. For the most part, news programs conform to the cardinal rule of litigation: Don’t ask a question if you don’t know how it will be answered. In the information age, commentators are rarely uninformed about the positions of their guests. In fact, most of them are regulars.

Once you are aware of these rhetorical devices, you’ll be surprised how often you will notice them while watching, “The News.”

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FOX and MSNBC News: Messages in the Clouds

FOX and MSNBC News: Messages in the Clouds

As a follow-up to yesterday’s blog post, I have color-coded related words in the tag clouds built from recent Fox and MSNBC news transcripts. At first glance, certain words seemed obviously related in terms of the topics and message points referenced. Further scrutiny taught me that some of the tag word connections to be weak or non-existent, demonstrating the danger of using tag cloud analysis too liberally. Still, I found common themes and clear distinctions between these popular interpretive news outlets.

My analysis is as follows:

Fox News

  • REPUBLICAN, PRESIDENTIAL, CAMPAIGN, and PRIMARIES – Clearly, the Republican Presidential primaries are a topic of import and interest. As such, they are worthy of extensive coverage by any objective standard.
  • Clusivity.” In linguistics, clusivity is a distinction between inclusive and exclusive first-person pronouns. My slightly-altered definition includes any pronouns that indicate that one group is favored, and another is viewed with disfavor. It also encompasses “pronoun putdowns” — instances where a person of well-known rank and title (such as “The President”) is referred to simply as HE. In general, I viewed this as creating a subtle form of clusivity. In the Fox aggregate transcript, HE’S occurred 164 times, and often referred to President Obama or some other member of the Democratic Party. THEY’RE appeared as a more general reference to the Democratic party.
  • OBAMA/OBAMA’S/PRESIDENT/WASHINGTON – When not attributed to a direct quote or video clip from the President, these terms were often used in the same context as HE’S or THEY’RE. In this, as well as the clusivity category mentioned above, it was particularly telling when the show’s anchor uses this type of reference.
  • PEOPLE occurred 236 times, and was used in many contexts. As a tag word indication of thematic emphasis, it should probably be removed from the cloud.
  •  DON’T (261 occurrences). DOESN’T (67 Occurrences), and ISN’T (33 occurrences) – Scanning the transcripts, you see these kind of “not” words used in 2 distinct contexts: 1.) Distancing – “I don’t know …” or “We don’t believe …” and; 2.) Negative labeling – “They don’t <something accusatory>. As I reviewed the transcripts, it appeared that “they” and “don’t” often appeared together in the same statement. In fairness, though, that connection is worthy of systematic analysis.

MSNBC

  • Republican campaign coverage was substantial, as indicated by the extensive occurrence of terms like PRESIDENTIAL, CANDIDATE, CAIN, PERRY, and ROMNEY.
  • Evidence of clusivity was more subtle and complex, but present nonetheless. MSNBC’s version was wrapped around the terms AMERICA (150 occurrences), AMERICAN (250 occurrences), AMERICANS (158 occurrences), and to a lesser degree MIDDLE (98 occurrences) and CLASS (123 occurrences). I don’t claim to be a trained linguist, but the visual association that the tag cloud suggests is that MSNBC represents the best interests of: a.) America; b.) middle-class Americans, and; c.) the American way of life.
    •  Related to MSNBC’s clusivity messaging, there was an undercurrent of RICH (93 occurrences) being used as a negative. Scanning the transcripts, I repeatedly came across statements like, “Republicans favor the rich” and “the rich get richer.” Similarly, terms like TAX and TAXES (216 and 100 occurrences respectively) also seemed to be part of MSNBC’s clusivity strategy. Like Fox’s use of HE’S and THEY’RE, MSNBC’s thematic position appears to be, “Those Republicans favor the rich, and their tax situation is better than ours.”
    • Like the use of WASHINGTON by Fox, MSNBC’s use of HOUSE (83 occurrences) was generally used as a reference to the Republican-led House of Representatives, and was often wielded in a less-than-positive manner.
    • DON’T and DOESN’T were both regularly used for distancing and negative labeling, similar to how they were used by Fox.

    Not to beat this horse into glue, but I’m planning to add one more tag word blog post that removes words that are common to both clouds, and portrays the remaining top 50 terms that are unique to each channel. Like all of these exercises, the output is both subtle and revealing

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Detecting Media Bias: Tag Clouds for Fox News and MSNBC

As an experiment, I decided to create tag clouds of the aggregated news transcripts from both Fox and MSNBC — obtained from the LexisNexis database, covering from October 20th to the 28th — just to see if any themes emerged.

Fox Tag Cloud

MSNBC Tag Cloud

I’ll follow this posting up in the next few days with my observations, but I’d like to get insights from others before offering up my own.

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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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Quantifying the Impact of TV News Bias – Example #1

The following example represents my core method of quantifying the impact of media bias, using only program segments from the top 3 cable news networks in this particular example. The underlying “Raw Bias Index” data I am using is in fact quite coarse, so consider this an alpha trial put forth for review and discussion.

Much debate has been devoted to assessing whether there is a liberal or conservative media bias. Qualitatively, a case can be made for both, but quantifying the effective bias is a more complex endeavor.

In my recent studies of television news programming, it occurred to me that the quantity of liberal TV outlets seemed greater than conservative channels, but their “share-of-voice” may still be lesser. The true impact of a particular TV news program can only be determined by considering both bias and reach.

In order to add a viewership variable, I used the Nielsen Cable News Ratings from September 8, first calculating the average rating of the 6 largest cable news networks for the entire day. (Source: TV by the Numbers – Zap2It website. http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2011/09/09/fox-news-leads-presidential-address-viewing-among-cable-news-ratings-for-thursday-september-8-2011/103155/ )

 NOTE: “P2+”= Viewers over the age of 2.

I then calculated a “Viewership Weighting” factor for each of the post-Presidential address programs from CNN, Fox, and MSNBC that I had previously created a Raw Bias Index for (see Sept. 11 post below), and com combined them to create a “Raw Impact Index.”

Needless to say, prime time news is viewed much more extensively than its daytime cousins, hence the large viewership weighting factors. Still, one can readily see in this crude example that viewership, not the number of TV outlets, is key to determining the overall impact of news bias.

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PLEASE NOTE that this is but an example, and is not meant in any way to be an accurate-or-comprehensive measure of TV news bias today.

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Is this methodology simplistic? You bet. I fully expect critiques from those more experienced in media measurement and proficient with survey science. Regardless, simpler is often times better.

As always, I remain open to feedback, and encourage you to leave yours in the comments section.

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