October 29, 2009

Propaganda Is Not Bias

I’m guilty of blurring the line between bias and propaganda. While I make the distinction clear in my chapter in 21st Century Communications, I’ve been less clear on my widely-read Media/Political Bias page.

While I’m in general agreement with Greg Sargent’s blog post today, I’m not happy with his use, or the current general use, of the term “bias.”

If one consciously engages in the act of systematically delivering interested messages that circumvent rational argument, then one is practicing propaganda. Such messages are not an indication of bias because bias is inherent in our cognitive and cultural systems. One does not employ bias on purpose. Biased is something you are, not something you do.

I do not care to get into a snit about which is worse, MSNBC or FOX. Both cable networks (and CNN, too) have found unique ways to pass off blathering punditry as journalism, and all three have failed to live up to journalism’s primary purpose: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. All three spend much time everyday proving Neil Postman correct.

One of things I want readers to take away from my discussion of bias is that political bias in the news media (and, yes, it does exist) is just one of many types of bias and, perhaps, not the most important in understanding journalistic behavior. The theory of structural bias, I believe, predicts equally well what MSNBC and FOX will do, and why they do it, despite the conscious efforts of the networks to carve up the political world into a simplistic right-left dichotomy.

Howard Beale said it best: “This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF…

October 21, 2009

Aiming Low

The various codes of ethics you’ll find in journalism are very clear: Journalists should not accept freebies from news sources (that also ought to include those press box hot dogs at ball games, but never mind).

What about freelance writers? Are they, or should they, be subject to the codes of their client publications?

Quick easy answer: They can be if the client makes it plain in writing, as The New York Times does.

Another answer: Freelancers are responsible for their own behavior.

We can see the tensions caused by accepting freebies in a recent situation involving a free trip to Jamaica offered to writers recently. As Jeff Bercovici writes about the problem for DailyFinance:

But a careful reading of the paper’s [NYT] stringent ethics policy suggests that Albo transgressed the spirit, if not the letter, of the guidelines. The policy expressly forbids accepting “free or discounted transportation and lodging” and “gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom.” Those passages are directed at staffers, but further down, the policy decrees that freelancers “should accept the same ethical standards as staff members as a condition of their assignments for us. If they violate these standards, they should be denied further assignments.”

First, let me be thrilled that DailyFinance is keeping ethcial tabs on the news media. Way to go! I’m happy to see this.


There’s so much more to cover than swag. So much more of much greater importance to our civic discourse.

Swag is easy. News organizations will blush, pay for the swag, and move on (to the next ethical transgression).

What about the ethical lapses pointed out by Jon Stewart damned near every night on television? Here’s my latest, favorite example.

We discussed Stewart today in my media ethics classes. One of the points I submitted for their (dis)approval: Since the smackdown at CNN, the news media have done their best to ignore and ridicule Stewart.

Submitted for Rhetorica readers’ (dis)approval: The ethical lapses of the news media (not just the easy ones) are news.

And, just for fun, here it is again:

October 13, 2009

Steppin’ into the Twilight Zone

Is fact-checking a journalistic function?

That depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. Does the question ask for a descriptive answer or a prescriptive answer or both.

IMO, the descriptive answer is “no” and the prescriptive answer is “yes.” Both should be “yes.”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

Best quote by Jon Stewart: “Make him show his work!”

Exactly.  And show your own.

At minute 8:18 Stewart asks perhaps the most damning question ever. CNN ought to answer. It won’t. No cable “news” network would. Journalism isn’t in their job descriptions.

I’ll leave it there 🙂

October 5, 2009

Disclose or Pay

The FTC  will start enforcing a rule in December that bloggers must disclose information about paid reviews.

A couple of issues:

1. I believe ethical blogging demands transparency. So bloggers should disclose such information if they hope to build, maintain, and defend integrity and credibility.

2. Bloggers ought to publish personal codes of ethics, such as the one I have posted on Rhetorica (also covers Carbon Trace).

I’m overdue for a re-vamp of that policy. And seeing as how I’m giving a talk about personal codes of ethics to a writers’ group this week (details later), I better make those changes soon.

October 4, 2009

Critical Theory and Bias

It’s happened again!

I picked up a copy of Media Bias: Finding It, Fixing It only to discover that I have been referred to without my prior knowledge. Not by name this time but a reference to my media bias page on Rhetorica.

I found this part from the introduction amusing (emphasis added):

On the other extreme, there are critics who claim that everything about the media is biased. This claim comes most commonly from people with a “critical theory” perspective. They argue that, for example, the capitalistic structure of America media imparts to them an inherent bias. The problem with the argument, though, is that it also is made from its own bias.

Well, yes. And thanks for proving the point 🙂

There is no argument you can make about anything that isn’t made from some set of biases.

I should offer an X-prize for the person who can give me an example of some bit of human communication free of bias of all kinds.

The editors continue:

The discussion of media bias on the “Rhetorica” Web site … illustrates the problem. It attempts to explain the variety of reasons that the media are biased and declares that, in fact, all communication is biased. The author includes a list of many types of media bias and how we can judge that bias. While some readers might accept the analysis, just as many would probably conclude that it is itself biased.

I would add: I would hope the people who accept my analysis would also conclude that it’s biased for the primary reason that it is human communication. And there are certainly secondary reasons, too. Of course it’s biased!

They continue to make this reading error (or are they constructing a strawman?):

The problem with the analysis is that, after stating that all communication is biased, it presents the author’s own analysis as being correct — that is, unbiased or objective….

I do not claim correctness. I claim “a better understanding.” Big difference. I see the problem: These editors think bias is a bad thing. They’ve apparently accepted a pejorative connotation of the term, or, perhaps, they are so focused on political bias that they do not see that it is, as I claim, not very important in understanding what journalists do and why they do it. Before writing this book, they should have done some investigating in the discipline of psychology. They would have learned, among other things, that bias simply is. It’s neither good nor bad. Here’s what I say in my chapter on bias in 21st Century Communications:

The problem with bias is not that it exists, nor is it that bias somehow pollutes an otherwise pure message. The problem with bias is that it may distort a message sold to an audience as “objective.” What happens when the form of the message persuades us that the information is truthful yet the bias of the speaker distorts the truth?

The problem bias can cause has little to do with just the various kinds of surface biases operating in a given message. Problems arise when communicators attempt to claim certain types of messages as unbiased when the form of the messages themselves (e.g. journalism) cannot be understood outside a consideration of the biases that structure the form.

Political bias is not a structuring form of journalism. It is a potential surface bias.

Am I biased? Of course. What could I possibly write in this space right now that wouldn’t be biased? To say that human communication is biased is to make no claim whatsoever about the quality of any particular message.

Political bias in journalism can be a very real problem (and not because there’s anything wrong with political bias per se; there isn’t). Ditto a lot of other biases, e.g. hindsight bias. I contend that understanding these kinds of biases (political, psychological, social, economic, etc.)  are difficult without an examination of the biases that structure the particular discourse in the first place.

This I believe: You cannot come to a conclusion about the goodness or badness of a particular bias in a message without first considering the biases that structure of the form of the message.

The problem these editors are having with this idea is printed in big letters right on the cover of the book: Media Bias: Find It, Fixing It. Most of us know how to do the former. But the latter? You might as well try “fixing” the human cognitive and psychological systems.