Tag Archives: random rants

Editorial Selection: Fox and MSNBC

Building on the theme of editorial selection and the news, I decided to once again use my “tag cloud” (most popular words) tool on evening and prime time broadcasts from Fox News and MSNBC on November 14th and 15th. As I highlighted yesterday, media outlets can broadcast but a tiny portion of the available news, so I decided to see what these 2 competitors decided to emphasize.

DISCLAIMER #1: I could not wait to get this out, so I’m sure I will be making additional edits and refinements.

DISCLAIMER #2: Tag clouds are not surgical instruments. That fact, combined with the knowledge that I manually culled words that did not directly relate to specific topics and messaging themes should tell the reader to view the following with a critical eye…. as you should with all interpretative journalism.

Which virtually all political news is.

Disclaimers aside, examining the content selection of Fox and MSNBC is like having box seats at a gun fight. It’s clear that MSNBC is putting Republican Presidential candidates under a microscope, taking pot shots at local Republican candidates whenever possible, and positioning themselves as the mouth-piece for the middle class. Similarly, Fox has President Obama and the 2012 election in the cross hairs, featuring topics that cast him or his administration in a negative light, with specific emphasis on job creation (or a lack thereof).

Those are the highlights — or low-lights, depending on your point of view — but there is more information in the clouds if you are willing to stare at them briefly …

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MSNBC “TOP 25” TAG CLOUD:

  • Substantial Republican Primary/Candidate focus, with Herman CAIN (236 occurrences) still drawing the most attention, ROMNEY (82 occurrences) a distant second, and Perry (52 occurrences) in third.
  • Occupy Wall Street is a significant topic, as evidenced by the occurrence of the related tag words MOVEMENT, OCCUPY, and STREET. Why WALL did not make the top 25, I have no idea.
  • SCOTT is in the top 25 primarily due to parallel references to Republican governors Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Scott Brown (Florida). Similarly, JOHN was also mentioned frequently in relation to Ohio governor John Kasich, but I removed that name because several other JOHNs were intermingled in the word count.
  • Frequent references to AMERICANS (and AMERICANS by default, since my tag cloud tool intermittently extracts root words in parallel) and the middle CLASS seems to represent a positioning theme for MSNBC
  • JUDGE generally shows up in 2 different contexts: 1.) The judge who let Penn State coach Sandusky out on reduced bail and; 2.) The impartiality Judges Scalia and Thomas related to the Supreme Court case on health care.
  • CASE shows up in several different contexts, again related to the tag cloud tools penchant to extract root words — ObamaCARE, HealthCARE, MediCARE, and are “they” sCAREd?

FOX “TOP 25” TAG CLOUD:

  • No references to the Republican Primary candidates by name in the Top 25 tag words. In contrast, PRESIDENT (65 occurrences) and OBAMA (42 occurrences) are the top 2 most popular tag words in the cloud. When viewed in relation to the MSNBC tag cloud, one cannot help but conclude that negative politics extends to these 2 networks.
  • Similar, but not exactly the same, thematic positioning around AMERICA, but not so much on CLASS.
  • BOOK was an area of focus mostly because of controversies surrounding Bill O’Reilly’s new book (“Killing Lincoln”), and Peter Schweizer’s book about alleged congressional insider trading.
  • A greater focus on activities in the SUPER COMMITTEE, and with question on whether a satisfactory DEAL can be made.
  • DEAL was also used in the context of favorable (and ethically questionable) deals made on IPOs and land, leveraging the insider trading immunity afforded to congressman.
  • CONGRESS was primarily used in 2 contexts: 1.) There were several CONGRESS persons on the prime time Fox News programs I analyzed, and; 2.) Numerable references were made along the lines of our “Do-nothing CONGRESS. ..”
  • ELECTION appeared primarily as part of 2 topics: 1.) Forward-looking statements related to the 2012 Presidential election, and; 2.) The fact that negative news related to Solyndra was allegedly throttled by administration officials.
  • FLORIDA made the top 25 based on Florida government officials on the shows whose transcripts I analyzed.
  • JOB and JOBS are in the top group because of a focus on the subject of job creation.
  • LEGAL is attached to either the constitutional rights that should or should not be afforded terrorists, as well as related to immigration issues.
  • The term SPEAKER rose to the top because of references and sound bites from House Speaker John Boehmer, as well as an interview with FORMER SPEAKER of the House Newt Gingrich.

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If you would like to know more about the specific details of my process or the specific programs I included in this analysis, just email me at: barry@mediatemetrics.com.

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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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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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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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Media Bias Measurement – Prelude

Have you noticed that political news is more about spin and emotional-triggering than facts and fairness?

Me too.

For years, I’ve been troubled by political news bias. Having worked briefly at a media measurement company, I began to wonder whether bias could be measured. I scoured the internet, looking for a method-or-model for quantitatively dimensioning bias. I could find none, so I developed my own.

While I believe that the core system is sound, further development is dependent on the input and guidance of others. If nothing else, I hope to learn from the process, and share that learning as broadly as possible.

Please visit this site again soon. It is obviously under construction, but I will be posting surveys in the coming days and weeks, based on transcripts of popular news programs, that will desperately need respondents. All data will be aggregated and anonymized. Your privacy will be diligently protected.

If nothing else, this will be an interesting experiment. But if this works, we might change the media landscape.

Go big or go home, right?

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