This is an infographic I found on Facebook, shared on my wall because I thought it was pretty close to accurate, and then that sparked a discussion about evaluating news sources between some of my incredibly diverse and thoughtful friends. It appears to originate at a site called pigscast.com, and that site references mediabiasfactcheck. There is a similar but - I believe - less accurate version here. Whatever graphic you prefer - or none! - I think it's worth having a post on the state of journalism today, and how an informed citizen can respond to it.
So this post will be different from my usual ones. This election cycle "Fake News" has become a watchword and everyone wants to be well-informed, but feelings are running high and it is genuinely hard to know whom to trust. I have a little journalistic background: I took journalism in college, worked as an in-house newsletter editor for National Right to Life, and then most recently I taught for 16 years and wrote all of my own study guides and support material. I care deeply about the business of keeping people informed, in whatever context, passing on real and factual information with the minimum of personal bias, but still maintaining a personal voice: after all writing is an art, not a science. That is what I believe a teacher's job is, and what a good journalist's job is. So why is it so frustrating to be a news junkie this year? Well, if you believe the graphic above, our major news sources are pretty badly polarized. My personal chart would put most mainstream news even further left, and the "garbage" news would also be pretty far down on the low-quality graphic: because manipulative and selective journalism on either side is not journalism at all, it is propaganda.
For reference, as most readers know, I am a conservative and I almost always vote Republican, except for this presidential election. Still, I caucus with the Republicans and I hope for the best from the Trump administration despite his daily gaffes. I have an online subscription to the Washington Post and read it as much as I can stand, which is less these days. Why is that? Well, the above chart puts it pretty close to the hyper-partisan left, which is good for confirming your already existing biases but not so great for convincing those who don't share that bias. So tonight I want to do a media watchdog exercise and evaluate the lead stories of today's Post, pointing out which ones I think are "hard news," i.e., factual, content-rich and helpful, which ones are opinion-driven or agenda-driven but still have relevance to the news cycle, and which ones are unworthy of the Post's august reputation.
Many people don't know this, but there are some checks and balances within the news industry that try to maintain high journalistic standards. But as the internet expands and social media regularly scoop the established news sources, "big journalism" is cutting corners and letting some of those safeguards go. Newspapers are supposed to have a reader's representative, called an ombudsman or public editor, who is responsive to reader complaints and will check out alleged bias. When the Post in the early 1990's alleged that members of the Religious Right were "poor, uneducated, and easy to command," it was the ombudsman who had to apologize for the paper in his column. But the Post apparently no longer has an ombudsman. Still, any reader or viewer has the right to correspond with the authors and publisher of a story with which there are problems, and point out those problems. A reputable news source will welcome this and will respond respectfully. There are also media watchdog groups. I knew a girl who worked at one, before the internet. It must have been a tedious job and involved filling out graphs to tally the number of mentions of certain keywords that would tend to illustrate media bias in one direction or another. Now a simple google search can handle a lot of that, but the accusations of media bias are lost in a sea of social media memes. I wonder if we are really any better off? Finally, the ongoing expansion of alternative media has mainstream news running scared. Even the big names are having trouble staying solvent, as we amuse ourselves to death and choose video and interactive media instead of the more cerebral print. Journalists have to "pitch" an "angle" to their editors, or they don't get to write the story at all. That "angle" has to be appealing to a public with diminishing attention spans, or the story won't get read. To a certain extent, it's no wonder the news business has declined since I took Journalism with Dr. Stansberry 30 years ago. It's no wonder you don't see lead sentences with "who-what-when-where-how-why" anymore... they would be too boring for most of us to read. But that's no excuse for
I read or at least skimmed all the stories in the "Top Stories" section of today's Washington Post (Kindle version: the owner of the Post is Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, they are careful to point out. I don't know what kind of Emoluments clause the Post has but it was a good deal on the subscription). I will record the headlines of these 16 stories here, and my conclusions about the story in italics. These are my personal reactions; yours might well be different. I rate A for hard news, informative and relatively unbiased, B for leading or angling toward a desired conclusion but still following the journalistic conventions of multiple sources and clear reasoing, or also if it is a fair piece of journalism but doesn't merit placement in the top section; C for an obvious hit piece that should be labeled "opinion" and put in the opinion section. Guess what- A pieces are fairly boring; B and C pieces have a lot more punch and will play well on Facebook. All biases are assumed to be towards the Left unless otherwise noted (spoiler alert: this is the Washington Post. There is no corporate bias toward the Right, although some individuals in the Opinion section do express such opinions from time to time).
Today's Top Stories:
- Trump's Travel Ban Remains on Hold A - although it listed a Trump tweet it also interviewed sources on both sides and showed good factual reportage of the lead hard news of the day.
- Trump Lashes out at Senator who Revealed Supreme Court Nominee's Comments B - this kind of he said/he said gossipy political piece obviously advances the "Trump is irritable and irrational" narrative, admittedly this is the kind of piece that writes itself and is part of the news cycle. But it should have been in the politics section since it doesn't really contain any hard news. It is full of reactions to reactions to rumor; admittedly, there's a lot of that in Washington right now.
- Trump Attacks McCain for Questioning Success of Deadly Yemen Raid B -another reactionary piece; I don't give it a C because the character of our President is part of the news cycle. Three screen-captures of Donald Trump Tweets, but no actual policy is advanced, and if you don't already know about the deadly Yemen raid, good luck finding out about it here.
- In Executive Actions, Trump Vows Crackdown on Violent Crime: Is America as Unsafe as He Thinks? B - I would have given it an A without the leading subtitle, and the author's note in the article that Trump has misstated crime statistics in the past.
- Sessions' First Comments as Attorney General Inflated U.S. Crime Problem C - I flat out couldn't stand to read Philip Bump's sanctimonious tone. If we could maybe let the new AG be AG for a full day before writing his political obituary? Bump was the writer who predicted a few days before the election there was no possible path to victory for Trump. How is he still employed?
- Sessions Confirmed as AG after Bitter Senate Debate A - Pretty much as the headline states
- Conway "Counseled" after Touting Ivanka Trump's Products B - probably a hit piece on Conway, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Trump administration needs to learn quickly to meter their speech because the Post will not give them the benefit of the doubt.
- For Years, this Mother got a Pass from Immigration Authorities. This Week, they Took her into Custody B - read on and you'll realize she was originally charged 8 years ago and has been getting deferrals ever since. Again, I'm too nice to give them a C but this is at least a little biased and pushing the narrative that Trump is unfair to immigrants.
- Washington Gives Hockey a Diplomacy Shot: Female Player from the UAE Practices with the Capitals B - but a fun visual of a hijab-wearing hockey player on the ice. This one should have been in the Sports section, not Top News. I routinely skip the Sports section.
- Kenyan Court Blocks Plans to Dismantle World's Largest Refugee Camp A - some real world news, but relevant to the news cycle. They even mention the concerns of ISIS recruitment at this camp, so it doesn't appear to be biased
- Archaeologists Find Evidence of New Dead Sea Scroll Cave A - Cool, more stories like this please!
- How to Stop your Smart TV from Collecting your Data B - probably should have been in Business/Tech section; interesting but how come they don't warn me of the dangers of Amazon collecting my data using the Post app?
- Call Me, Maybe? Trump Reaches out to China's President in a Letter B - this had a gossipy and insinuating feel to it, although not necessarily anti-Trump, it passes on hearsay rather than hard news and implies Trump is dragging his feet on establishing China relations
- Muslim/American Olympian Says she was Detained by U.S. Customs B - Other than showing another female hijab-wearing athlete, and drumming up anti-Trump sentiment this is a non-story. A lot of people were detained by U.S. Customs recently, and her detention did not seem to be very long
- Not all Processed Foods are Bad for You B - Should have been in the Life section
- Essay - The Unexpected Blessing of Being a Stay at Home Dad B - Heartwarming as I'm sure it was, I did not read this. I was only interested in hard news this read-through.
Post sections in my app: Top Stories (listed above), Wild Card, Around the World, Politics and Power, Business and Tech, Opinions, Sports, Life and Entertainment, Don't Miss, Backstory, Comics, Horoscopes
Because the Post is so lengthy and the average article length is substantial, reading one or two sections is a reasonable goal for a well-informed citizen each day.
My analysis of the 16 stories in "Top Stories" today: 4 were timely, relevant to the news cycle, fair and as balanced as a good journalist can make them. 11 were leading toward a particular bias, or perhaps just poorly placed in the front section. And 1, well, I couldn't trust the author not to continue his pattern of bias
Bonus analysis: in the Opinions section today there were 20 pieces. Two of them were official editorials "from the editorial board":
- Just Because GOP Can, Doesn't Mean it Should
- Do Your Homework, Ms. DeVos
Both contained obvious anti-Republican bias, if you had any doubt. Honestly, I believe the editorial board of any newspaper is entitled to have its opinion and to state it. I would read the Opinion section more readily if you kept the Top Stories, Around the World, and Politics sections more grounded in the realm of fact.
So that's that, and that's the evening. I enjoy news analysis, but it's another one of those time-consuming hobbies that doesn't win you any friends. I might consider doing this as an occasional feature though, we'll see.