Note: With a presidential election coming up, the news media are full of misleading headlines, biased reporting, and less often, outright lies. Here’s how to avoid some of the most common traps. (Originally posted on my other blog in 2018.)
Are the news media corrupt? Most people say “yes.” Leftists point to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. Conservatives point to CNN and The New York Times. They believe that such news outlets distort the facts and even lie about them.
Sometimes, that’s true. But there’s more to the story. In the 1990s, I was a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC. I was an accredited member of the U.S. House and Senate Press Galleries, covering Capitol Hill and several federal agencies. I saw from the inside how the news works.
News versus opinion
Most people fail to make an important distinction. Editorial writers, columnists, and televised political commentators don’t report unbiased news. Usually, they don’t even pretend to do it. They’re arguing for their side of a debate.
If you read the editorial and op-ed pages of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, then you either know what you’re getting or you’re very naive. The same applies if you watch Tucker Carlson on Fox News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. They’re “on your side” of the debate. You want to learn things that reinforce what you already believe. Facts are okay, but you’re mainly looking for reassurance that you’re right.
As a result, there’s nothing dishonest about editorials or commentators arguing their case — as long as they don’t flat-out lie and as long as the other side is free to argue its case, which the tech giants are now trying mightily to prevent. None of it is straight news.
News reporting is different
News reporting is held to a higher standard. Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize is named, said that the three most important qualities of any news article were “accuracy, accuracy, and accuracy.”
My proudest claim as a news reporter was this: That from reading my news articles, no one could discern what I personally believed about the subjects of the articles. I had opinions, but I kept them out of the news.
If I wanted to argue for my viewpoint, I wrote an opinion column. It might surprise you to learn that many other reporters felt the same way. They often agonized about how to present the news fairly and without bias. I attended several conferences about how to report the news professionally but truthfully. It’s not as easy as you might think.
News reporting vs. human nature
A big problem is that news reporters aren’t robots. They’re fallible human beings. Despite their best efforts, human nature sometimes leads them astray.
One week when I was a reporter, there were rumors of a scandal at a certain federal department. In our daily staff meeting, the news editor asked if anyone could find out about it.
I didn’t normally cover that department, but I had a friend who worked there. I volunteered to call him and ask. When I called, he didn’t know anything about the rumors but he agreed to ask around. He later called back to explain that the “scandal” was just an acrimonious turf battle between two groups in the department. What he told me was “not for attribution,” which meant that I could quote him but not identify him by name.
We weren’t close friends, but I knew him fairly well. I knew his wife and children. He was a decent and honest guy. His explanation sounded reasonable, and I wanted to believe it. I checked around a little more, but I didn’t have any other good sources and I thought that I already knew the truth. So that’s what I reported in a news article.
It turned out to be wrong. I misinformed my readers: unintentionally, to be sure, but I did. After I called him, my friend probably went to his own boss to ask about the rumors. In turn, the boss probably asked his boss, who asked his boss, and they all agreed on what to tell the news media. That’s what they told my friend, and he relayed it to me.
The most dangerous media corruption
The most dangerous kind of media corruption doesn’t involve bribery, Russian hookers, or anything like that. It’s dangerous precisely because its origin is innocent. We want to believe in our friends. We want to believe that what’s good for them is also what’s true. We usually see the world in about the same way as they do: similar assumptions, moral beliefs, and feelings about political issues.
Now that news has become largely infotainment, there are plenty of dishonest reporters. Some less-experienced reporters probably have no idea of what “straight news” even is. However, at least half of today’s biased news results from the fact that reporters know the people in the fields they cover. They believe their friends and they don’t want to hurt them. Even with the best intentions in the world, some biased reporting is impossible to avoid.
Getting a balanced perspective
As with buying sandwiches from street vendors, “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) is a good motto for reading the news. If you want to know the truth and not just reinforce what you already believe:
- Look at a variety of news outlets to get different perspectives. If you read Breitbart all the time, make a point of reading The New York Times. If you watch MSNBC, force yourself to watch some Fox News. Each will tell you things that the others omitted and will give you a different slant on the news. If you combine the opposing slants, they often cancel each other out so you get a more accurate picture of what’s happening.
- Don’t read only the headlines. The reporter doesn’t write the headline under which the article is published. Often, headlines give a misleading idea of what the articles say. Sometimes, they even contradict what the articles say.
- Watch out for weasel words such as “alleged,” “might,” “possibly,” and “could.” Those are red flags, indicating a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence. Anyone can “allege” anything, but that doesn’t make it true.
- Watch out for anonymous sources. Sometimes, anonymous sources tell the truth. Other times, they lie under the cloak of anonymity. Treat all anonymous statements with skepticism, even — or especially — if they support “your side” of an argument.
- Read the last few paragraphs. Biased reporters often “bury” inconvenient facts at the ends of articles. That way, people who only read the first few paragraphs get a false impression about what happened. Occasionally, less-biased reporters do it as well. If a scrupulous reporter knows that the editor is biased and won’t allow the mention of certain facts, he or she might bury them at the end, hoping that the editor won’t notice them. I’ve seen several articles like that in The New York Times.
- Beware of accusations phrased as questions. Neither “Did Obama order illegal spying on the Trump campaign?” nor “Has Trump sided with Nazis?” tells you anything. They’re questions. But if you’re not paying much attention, your mind will convert them into beliefs that “Obama did” and “Trump has.” That’s why they work as propaganda. You’ll often see that trick used in headlines at the bottom of the screen on cable news shows.
- Beware of claims that people said things. Cable news shows often ask guests questions like “What do you think of Mr./Ms. X’s statement that all puppies should be killed?” The guest replies, “It’s just disgusting that Mr./Ms. X hates puppies and wants them dead.” But if you look at the transcript to find out what Mr./Ms. X actually said, nine times out of 10 it’s nothing at all like what the cable news host or guest claimed. (I added this bullet point on 2020-10-07.)
- Check links and citations. When internet articles give links to support their claims, don’t just assume that the linked pages say what you’d expect. For example, one article claimed that Covid-19 infection causes lasting damage to bodily organs. As evidence, it linked to another article about autopsies that found damage — in people who had died from Covid-19. In other words, the article was only about the most severe cases. It did not support the claim that Covid-19 causes lasting damage to most people who get it. (I added this bullet point on 2020-10-07.)