Tools for critical consumers of media

I’ve discovered a couple of really useful tools for people who want to become more critical consumers of the news media—people who perhaps feel that they’re not really getting the full story, or that the news media isn’t quite doing the job they’re supposed to do, but aren’t quite sure how to articulate or confirm their suspicions.

The first is the SMELL test developed by John McManus, one of the people who developed the seven yardsticks of GradeTheNews.org. SMELL is an acronym:

S stands for Source. Who is providing the information?
M is for Motivation. Why are they telling me this?
E represents Evidence. What evidence is provided for generalizations?
L is for Logic. Do the facts logically compel the conclusions?
L is for Left out. What’s missing that might change our interpretation of the information?

The SMELL test is a simple, straightforward guide to vetting information of any kind, not just news, but it certainly applies to news reports. Professional journalists could benefit from applying the SMELL test to their own stories, such as the foreign policy reports that are filled to the brim with anonymous official sources making unsupported assertions.

The other tool is a guide published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking called “How to Detect Media Bias & Propaganda.”

mediabias  At 46 pages, this slim handbook is packed with useful information. Sections are devoted to topics like “Myths that obscure the logic of the news media,” “Forms of objectivity,” “Fostering sociocentric thinking,” and “Steps in becoming a critical consumer of the news.” The case studies are mainly from 2000-2004 and involve the runup to the Iraq war and the war itself. I would really like to see a second edition of this handbook devoted to more recent news stories, such as the revelation that the US media was fully aware of the US drone base in Saudi Arabia but chose not to report it — not for fear of revealing critical national security information, but to avoid causing political unrest in Saudi Arabia that might end up interfering with Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

I’ve been purchasing these guides for my Journalism 1 students for the past few years; I think it will go very well with McManus’ SMELL test and the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model (which we already cover in class). Even if my students don’t end up working as journalists, I like to think that they will be more critical consumers of news media and thus better citizens.

It’s not a popularity contest

Okay everybody, take a deep breath and say it together:

THE PRESIDENT IS NOT ELECTED BY POPULAR VOTE.

We can disagree on whether that’s a good or bad thing, but we cannot disagree about whether or not it’s true.

So all of these reporters breathlessly updating us on the latest polls showing Obama or Romney up or down by half a percentage point are certainly missing the point.

Nate Silver gets it, which is why he’s giving Obama the best odds to win the election.

But this really ticks off the people who make a living from horse-race reporting, so they have to go after Silver. For example, Dylan Byers of Politico says that Silver’s putting his “celebrity” at risk with his prediction because the polls are so close! But polls don’t matter; electoral votes do. Byers doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps he’s too blinded by his contempt for “coffee-drinking NPR types of Seattle, San Francisco and Madison.” Wink-wink, nudge-nudge! We all know who he’s really talking about, don’t we?!

Dylan Byers also reported that the media are stumped by the 2012 race – no one can know anything for sure! But that’s because they can’t do math. It’s simple: a candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win. Romney is unlikely to reach that number and Obama is likely to surpass it. Therefore, Obama is most likely to win. This isn’t partisan wishful thinking; it’s simple math supported by weighted polls. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but don’t act like the outcome of the election is unpredictable, or that anyone who makes a prediction must be trying to “spin” the election.

It’s a circus of empty ritual, but we’re all going to focus on it anyway

I haven’t been updating as frequently as I would like and that’s partially because I’ve been in Denver with my students who were covering the debate between President Obama and Governor Romney.

Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that my students were covering everything but the debate itself. They examined the impact of the debate on the surrounding community; they talked to the protesters whose issues were shut out of the national discussion; they spent time trying to track down advocates for the homeless to learn if Denver officials prepared for their time in the spotlight the same way that governments around the world usually do: by sweeping the homeless off the streets.

Even though my students did a very good job (in my opinion) of looking for the stories outside of the debate circus, it was still difficult for them to not get caught up in the hysteria over political and media celebrities. When we obtained credentials to cover President Obama’s rally on the morning after the debate, everyone was giddy about the fact that the media area (filled with big names like Chuck Todd and Jake Tapper) was just a few dozen feet from the Presidential podium. I had to remind them that we were surrounded by thousands of regular people, all of whom had relevant stories to share.

I suppose it’s not surprising that teenagers would be impressed by the presence of powerful, famous people, but what’s shameful is that the national professional news media experienced exactly the same reaction. Cable news outlets devoted their entire day to speculation about the debate, and then afterwards it was nothing but talk about what was said (and unsaid) in the debate with heavy doses of horse-race reporting.

Kudos to Democracy Now! for producing “Expanding the Debate,” a three-hour special that welcomed third party candidates and took a sharp look at the ways Republicans and Democrats have worked together to exclude third parties from the debate.

My students are already planning additional coverage for the VP debate at Centre College, the election itself, and the inauguration in January 2013. I’m looking forward to seeing what they produce.

What is the difference between what a photo shows and what it appears to show?

Even European journalists can be excessively deferential to authorities. In a series of photo captions published on the Guardian’s website, an unnamed reporter or editor uses the following headline, photo and caption as part of ongoing coverage of the anti-austerity demonstrations in Madrid:

 

“Appears to show”? “Hold back”? The Guardian, Getty Images, or whoever is responsible for the caption and headline, are really heading into the deep waters of cultural criticism here. What is the difference between what a photo actually shows and what it appears to show? René Magritte was well aware of the treachery of images, as was Michel Foucault; perhaps even more relevant is the ability of authorities to convince us that a videotape depicting unjustified police brutality is not, in fact, a videotape depicting unjustified police brutality. Perhaps it just depends on how you look at it, as Bill Hicks pointed out.

Until journalists are willing to accurately describe what they see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, and document with their own cameras — without fear of offending powerful interests — we can’t really expect them to do their duty as watchdogs of democracy.

Three stories, three angles on the Benghazi attack

Several media critics have lambasted the news media’s coverage of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the protests against the film that supposedly inspired the attack — or did it? That’s the question at the heart of these three news stories:

New York Times: Libya Envoy’s Killing Was a Terrorist Attack, the White House Says

Fox News: Carney Says ‘Self Evident’ Benghazi Attack Was Terrorism

NBC News: White House: Libya consulate siege that killed four was ‘terrorist attack’

These three stories provide a good case study in media criticism. Let’s specifically look at the issues of angle and word choice.

In the NYT article the angle is made clear in the first sentence: “The White House is now calling the assault on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, a ‘terrorist attack.'” In other words, the Obama administration declined to use the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” previously and instead depicted the attack as the result of “Muslim rage” over a ridiculous movie.

Fox News took a more oppositional, skeptical approach. Here’s their lead:

The White House, after insisting for more than a week that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a “spontaneous” act, conceded Thursday that it was “self evident” that it was an act of terror – an admission that took eight days for any administration official to make.

The article, published with no byline, emphasizes the change in the White House’s approach. Where the NYT simply used the word “now” to suggest the change, Fox makes the decision explicit. In fact, the NYT says that “Until now, White House officials had not used that language in describing the assault” — but the NYT never mentions what language the Obama administration previously used. The Fox article makes that clear.

NBC, on the other hand, waits until paragraph four to mention that the White House was using the phrase “terrorist attack” for the first time. They even use some weasel words to muddy the waters:

Since the Benghazi attack occurred amid protests of an American-made anti-Islam video that was circulating on the Internet, it has been unclear whether it was planned independently or launched opportunistically when the demonstration was under way, or if it was a spontaneous attack emerging out of the protests.

To whom has it been unclear? Other media sources reported that the attack appeared to be planned in advance. Where is the lack of clarity? Only in the White House. It seems as if NBC is being excessively deferential. Add to this the fact that NBC only bothered to include official White House sources in their story, and it begins to look like they didn’t really do their homework at all. This might be fairly labeled a classic case of lack of enterprise, otherwise known as passive reporting.

The NYT story provides better context than the NBC story by including a quote from Brian Fishman but no Republican sources are quoted. Of course Fox has a quote from a Republican, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), as well as State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The other quotes came not from interviews but from public sources like White House spokesman Jay Carney (did you notice that Fox never included his first name?) and testimony from Matt Olsen, director of the National CounterTerrorism Center.

So Fox earns journalism points for taking a watchdog stance toward the White House by making the administration’s reversal clear in the very first paragraph. That’s exactly what journalists ought to be doing when covering powerful people and institutions. But let’s look again at Fox’s story:

The White House, after insisting for more than a week for more than a week that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a “spontaneous” act, conceded Thursday that it was “self evident” that it was an act of terror … The administration is still sticking by its claim that they don’t have evidence the assault was pre-planned. But Carney for the first time Thursday called it terrorism — while downplaying the fact that he was doing so.

There are instances of deliberate word choice here that are more evaluative than descriptive. Words like “concede” and “sticking by” imply that the White House is on the losing side of an argument. It seems that the purpose of the article is to depict a clumsy administration incompetently stumbling through a foreign policy fiasco while unable to keep their facts straight. But those sentences could have easily been rewritten to provide the same information without the spin:

The White House said Thursday that the deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi was a “self evident,” planned act of terror after more than a week of describing it as a “spontaneous” act … The administration continues to claim that they don’t have evidence the assault was pre-planned, but Carney called it terrorism for the first time Thursday .

Let the readers judge for themselves whether or not Carney was “downplaying” anything by printing his quotes in full rather than trying to interpret his motives. Whatever bonus points Fox gained by being skeptical and critical of administration claims have been lost by the use of transparently evaluative (rather than simply descriptive) language.

When students are lauded for circumventing censorship

As mentioned in the previous post (thanks to Storify), some of my students won recognition from the SPLC and my favorite media critic for their creation of The Red Pen. When students at our school win a significant national award like this, it seems like a no-brainer for our student press to cover the award.

But this was different. The students had won an award for essentially doing a defiant end-run around administrative censorship. To cover this story would bring up past controversies and possibly cause a new one.

As their adviser, it’s not my job to tell my journalism students whether or not they should run a story about this award. It’s up to the students themselves to decide. I will remind them of the principles and ethics of journalism; I will ask them to consider all of the stakeholders involved; but ultimately the decision is up to them.

In some ways, journalism educators and journalism students work in an environment very different from professional journalists. We have a captive audience, no competitors, and (in many cases) don’t rely on advertising. Student journalists don’t get paid and they can’t get fired. But there are a lot of similarities: high school journalists and professional journalists cover real people and real issues; their coverage can have a real impact on people’s lives; and they have publishers who can either be a boon or bane to the journalistic process and integrity of the publication. While it’s true that journalism students can’t be fired, journalism advisers certainly can (one recipient of the SPLC’s award is an adviser who was reassigned as punishment for supporting his student journalists), and I would argue that journalist students ought to take that into account when considering controversial topics.

No matter what happens in high school, the student journalists will eventually graduate and presumably head off to college and/or the workforce. But the adviser has to keep working there with the same administration; she or he has to keep paying their mortgage, feeding their children, and otherwise maintaining a livelihood.

This is one reason why student journalists ought to be responsible for their own content (and fighting their own censorship battles): they have less to lose than the advisers. The other, equally important reason is that student journalists learn nothing from having adults make their decisions and fight their battles for them. Dealing with controversy is part of being a responsible, professional journalist; the actions of the Red Pen’s editors demonstrated that they’ve learned quite a bit along those lines. For that reason, I couldn’t be prouder of them. But I’m still not sure how the other student journalists in the building should cover news of the award. We don’t want to be seen as poking the administration in the eye, and yet at the same time we don’t want to completely avoid the issue out of fear (that darn chilling effect).

Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Students recognized for response to censorship

  1. First came the press release from the SPLC

  2. Then this tweet from Glenn Greenwald …
  3. ggreenwald
    Love this story: high school students censored from writing about gay issues, start their own newspaper, win award http://is.gd/Po4t6q
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 04:06:07
  4. … which led to a lot of retweets and new tweets:
  5. LudditeWebDev
    Pupils in Kentucky banned from writing about homosexuality in school newspaper, so publish their own. They win award. http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2447
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 05:17:17
  6. MattGeorgMoore
    Congrats to The Red Pen (duPont Manual High School) for winning the 2012 Courage in Student Journalism Award: http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2447
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 12:11:21
  7. lnebres
    These student journalists, deep in Red America, are truly making a difference. What have you done lately? 🙂 http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2447
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 09:00:21
  8. katbrown82
    Quite phenomenal journalism and courage from American high school students. Read and be inspired: http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2447id=2378 (via @rupertneate)
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 04:42:21
  9. mntsoper
    @ggreenwald The Red Pen story is truly inspiring! You must feel so honored that they traveled to see and interview you – awesome stuff. 🙂
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 10:34:03
  10. OccupySuburbanM
    Censored Students fight back and self publish newspaper w/ Gay issues winning National award for courage http://bit.ly/QmBrJy #LGBT ❤
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 06:20:24
  11. GDSdebate
    Check out the winner of the SPLC Courage in Student Journalism award, The Red Pen (expat/”underground” @ duPont Manual) http://www.theredpen.org
    Wed, Sep 19 2012 04:21:08
  12. bradluttrell
    duPont Manual HS independent newspaper, The Red Pen, won @Splc’s 2012 Courage in Student Journalism Award http://ow.ly/dNLhu #Louisville
    Tue, Sep 18 2012 08:34:06
  13. Then Greenwald mentioned the students in his Guardian column:
  14. And the Human Rights Campaign also brought it up on their blog:

Wait, you mean students have rights?

Tim Cushing writes on TechDirt about a recent case where a Minnesota court sided with a twelve-year-old girl whose school forced her to give up her Facebook password so they could trawl through her private messages:

For some strange reason, a large number of schools adhere to the notion that their students are not actually citizens of the United States and therefore, not granted the same rights as the “grownups.” The rationale for the limitation of these rights usually involves the word “safety,” a word that has been (ab)used in various forms to curtail rights of full-grown American citizens in other arenas.

This notion that students’ rights have to be curtailed in order to protect them from themselves has a lot of traction not only in public schools but in American society. As a parent, I have some sympathy for this perspective — of course my seven-year-old son shouldn’t get the same rights as an 18-year-old adult. But he still does have some basic citizen’s rights and I expect school administrators to respect that.

You can read the complete text of the Minnesota judge’s decision on GigaOm.

The NYT has no idea if student scores can be used to fairly evaluate teachers

I’ll probably be addressing news media coverage of the Chicago teachers’ strike more than once (for obvious reasons), but I was particularly struck by this egregious example of “he said-she said” reporting in the New York Times today:

Eager to improve Chicago’s schools, Mr. Emanuel has taken several steps — among them pressing the school board to rescind a promised 4 percent raise — and made numerous demands that have infuriated the Chicago Teachers Union. He wants student test performance to count heavily in evaluating teachers for tenure, even though the union insists that is a highly unreliable way to assess teachers. And with Mr. Emanuel intent on shuttering dozens of poorly performing schools, the union is pressing him to agree to strong provisions to reinstate teachers in other schools when theirs are closed. (emphasis added)

That’s the whole paragraph. NYU professor Jay Rosen described the “he said-she said” phenomenon very well:

“He said, she said” journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the reporter declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

So the clashing truth claims in this story are “Student test performance is a good way to evaluate teachers” versus “Student test performance is a highly unreliable way to evaluate teachers.” Reporter Steven Greenhouse makes no attempt to assess these two claims and leaves the truth of the matter entirely up to the readers’ judgment.

But among the principles of journalism is the idea that journalists ought to enlighten their audience – to “balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need.” Readers want to know what lies at the heart of the dispute between Chicago officials and Chicago teachers, but they don’t know which side of the dispute is making more accurate claims.

There are numerous educational experts out there who could have commented on this dispute for the NYT. For example, Joseph Martineau of the Michigan Department of Education argues that some forms of long-term value-added accountability models may lead to “identification of effective teachers/schools as ineffective (and vice versa).” The title of W. James Popham’s essay “Standardized tests don’t measure educational quality” (Microsoft Word document) sums up his perspective.

I found those two articles with a quick Google Scholar search — surely similar resources lie at the fingertips of New York Times reporters, so why not use them? Instead we are left with these two competing claims, and readers are likely to decide that the stakeholders they already agree or empathize with are telling the truth. But good journalism is not about rewording the claims of powerful interests; it is about verifying those claims — and challenging them when necessary.

How the media used to write about Osama bin Laden

Originally posted by @benphillips76 on Twitter:

Here is a link to the original article, which contains this interesting paragraph:

But what of the Arab mujahedin whom he took to Afghanistan – members of a guerrilla army who were also encouraged and armed by the United States – and who were forgotten when that war was over? ‘Personally neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help. When my mujahedin were victorious and the Russians were driven out, differences started (between the guerrilla movements) so I returned to road construction in Taif and Abha. I brought back the equipment I had used to build tunnels and roads for the mujahedin in Afghanistan. Yes, I helped some of my comrades to come here to Sudan after the war.’

Well, Mr. bin Laden, you may not have seen evidence of American help, but here are your mujahedin brothers meeting with Ronald Reagan:

 

And the fact that Reagan sent truckloads of weapons (including 1000 anti-aircraft Stinger missiles) to the militant Muslim fighters in Afghanistan was and is well known. Sylvester Stallone even made a movie about it.

The whole mess is a pretty clear-cut example of the Chomsky/Herman propaganda model’s fear filter: the idea that the press goes to great lengths to depict official enemies of the US as the Worst Monsters Ever, while the enemies of those enemies are depicted in a more positive light as long as they are also our allies. But as soon as they become our enemies in turn, they are suddenly the new Worst Monsters Ever.

Other clear-cut examples include Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin. This is part of the reason it’s a little difficult for me to get too worked up over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, currently depicted by our brave, reliable, independent, watchdog media as the Worst Monster Ever.

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