Sunday, January 09, 2011

Today's news stories are equivalent of push polls

A combination of events over the weekend prompted me to again take a look at the state of our current media.

It's no surprise that declining credibility, increased biases and a lack of reporting facts have led to a loss of customers for newspapers and many of the TV news broadcasts. The availability of facts on the Internet and the increased usage of Internet sources for news gatherers has brought those three areas into clear focus for many people.

As a result, the main stream news (a generic term not meant to include everyone) has not gone back to basic reporting, but rather has increased their spin content as if more of the same will somehow produce a different outcome.

The attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the manufactured racism charge and outrage over a statement from WSPD talk show host Brian Wilson are just the most recent examples.

With the shootings in Arizona, we didn't even have an accurate account of the victims and their conditions before talking heads, politicians and leftists started blaming Sarah Palin and the tea party groups. As of the writing of this post, a Google search on "left blames Palin and tea party Arizona shooting" yields 329,000 entries. Even our own representative, Marcy Kaptur, blamed rhetoric and 'anger' for causing people to lose their minds and, presumably, do crazy things like go on a shooting spree (comment played on WSPD on 1-10-11).

We know today that the shooter was more left than right in his limited political views, but was, more importantly, a sick man who should stand alone in his accountability for his own actions.

In the case of Brian Wilson, the talk show host made a reference to today's education process being like teaching animals learning a trick - just because they can do what they are taught doesn't mean they've been educated, he opined.

But because Wilson used a monkey as the animal example, he must have been expressing a racist view - at least, that's the spin.

In both of these cases, it wasn't just the reporting - or lack thereof - of the facts; it was the way the media decided to go about gathering responses to the incidents.

In the Rep. Giffords case, talking heads immediately starting asking people if the 'hate-filled rhetoric' of the right was to blame for the shooter's actions. The focus wasn't on who the shooter was and any type of investigation into the man and his motives. No - the spin was immediately that his attack must have been prompted by the words and political positions of Sarah Palin and various tea party groups.

Interestingly, while prominently noting that Palin had Rep. Giffords as a target in the last election, they failed to mention that DailyKos and the Democratic National Committee also used similar imagery for the district. The main question being asked of people is not 'what made this guy do such a horrendous thing' but 'how much influence does angry, hate-filled rhetoric from the right have in the case.' The assumption is that whatever people on the political right have said must have caused this man to shoot a Democrat. And politicians, not wanting a good crisis to go to waste, are eagerly responding - or driving the message even further.

With Wilson's comments, the local paper took 14 seconds of a 5-minute discussion and asked people to respond to the out-of-context comment. They didn't want to ask about the premise of Wilson's statement - that our schools are teaching to the test rather than teaching students how to think. No - they wanted people to see racism in the reference to monkeys, implying through their choice of African Americans to interview, that Wilson must have been referring to only to black students in the school system. In further updates, interviewees take 'offense' at students being called monkeys. Of course, the reaction from school board members and others involved in the school system has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Wilson's station is calling for a complete and total overhaul, even perhaps a dissolution, of the system.

In both these cases, this spin from the media is the equivalent of a push poll - asking a loaded question in order to generate a pre-determined response. From Wikipedia:

A push poll is a political campaign technique in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll. In a push poll, large numbers of respondents are contacted, and little or no effort is made to collect and analyze response data. Instead, the push poll is a form of telemarketing-based propaganda and rumor mongering, masquerading as a poll.

The American Association For Public Opinion Research identifies such polling as a violation of their code of ethics and says this:

Political advocacy calls made under the guise of a survey abuse the public’s trust. They gain the attention of respondents under false pretenses by taking advantage of the good will people have toward legitimate research.

When disguised as research, these calls create negative images of legitimate surveys, especially when they distort issues or candidate characteristics in order to influence opinion.

They go beyond the ethical boundaries of political polling by bombarding voters with distorted or even false statements in an effort to manufacture negative attitudes.

The hostility created in this way affects legitimate surveys by reducing the public’s willingness to cooperate with future survey requests.

So how is a push poll any different from what the media is currently doing on a regular basis with their questioning and efforts to manufacture outrage?

The 'reporters' take an editorial or opinion position - often a political one - find an instance or event and then go around asking people to comment on their conclusions, using, in the resulting story, the quotes they obtain that fit their pre-determined position.

That's not journalism, but it is the equivalent of a push poll...which the media all decry - unless it's their own.

But it's worse - because it's presented as news, which they then claim is an unbiased presentation of facts, and it is, for many, the only source of the information they will see.

And then, depending on the source of the 'news,' the clearly agenda-driven story will be repeated by other media outlets or used as a basis for their own coverage of the instance. If it's sensational enough, it will be repeated by others around water coolers or on the Internet and become the impetus for even more outrage and 'demands' for action.

Perhaps we should modify the AAPOR code to apply to journalism:

Advocacy questions and stories made under the guise of unbiased news abuse the public’s trust. They gain the attention of readers under false pretenses by taking advantage of the good will people have toward legitimate reporting.

When disguised as news, these questions and the reporting of the answers create negative images of legitimate news, especially when they distort issues or candidate characteristics in order to influence opinion.

They go beyond the ethical boundaries of legitimate news by bombarding readers with distorted or even false statements in an effort to manufacture negative attitudes.

The hostility created in this way affects legitimate news reports and media in general by reducing the public’s willingness to believe what they read.

But if we did so, then what would the media do?

Their only alternative would be to report actual facts without trying to 'interpret' them for us or lead us to think/believe a certain way.

I won't hold my breath.


Timothy W Higgins said...


When NYC was bombed, Mayor Bloomberg was quick to set blame on someone who, "doesn't like the health care bill". When the shooting occurred in AZ, most were equally quick to jump on the crazy train and blame the acrimony and rhetoric of the right. In both cases the loudest media voices shouting were wrong.

When the Ft Hood shooter was arrested however, the silence on the known motivations of the suspect was almost deafening. Both his religion and his extremist religious views were deemed off limits as a rush to judgment.

As for the Brian Wilson story, I was listening to the show that day and saw nothing worthy of contradiction in the analogy he used. I cannot help but wonder however, if these are some of the same people who decried the media's rush to judgment with an edited soundbite in the case of Shirley Sherrod.

At a time when the mainstream media is struggling to survive, it's a shame that they are proving to be their own worst enemy. Not only do they seem to get it wrong consistently, but they likewise appear to glory in alienating a predominantly conservative audience while doing so.

skeeter1107 said...

I take for granted that certain segments of the media are simply biased.

What I find of great concern is the multitude of people that believe what they hear from that media, then parrot these tortured logic pronouncements.

In deference to political correctness and so as not to be blamed for calling people names, I used "parrots" instead of "monkeys." So I apologize in advance to the Jimmy Buffett Parrot Heads.

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