MPR News asked yesterday:
How do you know when the news you read is true?
That one’s easy; I don’t.
Everything you read or hear or watch on the news is subject first and foremost to…
- The facts that are available to the reporter at the time they have to produce the report. In late-breaking news about spectacular events, these facts are very often wrong. After that comes…
- …the reporters’ deadlines. Especially in broadcast media, especially Cable TV with its 24 hour cycle; they’ve gotta put something on the air. So often as not they’ll report what they have, whether it’s complete or reliable or not. After that comes…
- …the institutional bias of the news organization. Now, as I’ve written in the past, I don’t necessarily think that all news media start out in the morning in a conference room with an editor exhorting the staff to “go out there and win one for the Democrats!”, except at the MinnPost, which seems to have taken over the Minnesoros Independent’s niche. But I think it’s fairly clear that most reporters’ personal backgrounds, educations, social networks and frames of reference are largely left of the proverbial center, and that at the very least confirmation bias is as much a factor in reporting the news as it is among consumers.
At the risk of sounding provincial, I trust Euro media more; they’re at least honest about their political biases. You read the Frankfurter Allgemeine for a center-right take (by European standards), and Die Zeit for a perspective from the left, and make up your own mind. European media dispenses with the fiction of objectivity, and for that I trust them more.
Dina Temple-Raston’s report re the Boston Marathon Bombings the other day was a classic example: before the dust had settled, the first words out of her (and NPR’s) mouths in re possible suspects were that the FBI was looking at “right-wing extremists” because it was Tax Day, and Hitler’s birthday, when they worry about right-wing attacks on government and foreigners.
Now, I’ll take Temple-Raston at her word that she reported something someone in the FBI said about the subject at some point. And given deadlines and the urgency of the story, she and NPR had to put something on the air.
The problem is that Temple-Raston’s report would make someone who doesn’t pay much attention – or who implicitly trusts NPR news – think that there IS an actual pattern of “right-wing” violence of any kind, to say nothing of spectacular attacks like Boston, associated with Tax Day, or that there’s some pattern of “right-wing” violence against foreigners in the US.
Neither is the case.
It’d have been like a news organization reporting the Catholic church’s sex scandals going to great pains to say “the FBI wants to rule out the gay community first”, when there had been no behavior that would have led anyone to casually conclude that the gay community was ever involved.
It would have been a made-up association; a symptom of systematic bias.
Just like “right wing violence on Tax Day”.
And yet NPR floated it as “news” until facts caught up with them.
So as with all news, I distrust but verify.