A masterpiece of obfuscation

The first paragraph of this TV news story from St. Louis is a masterpiece of Orwellian doublespeak and passive voice:

FERGUSON, MO (KTVI) – A shooting in Ferguson has tensions riding high between residents and police. Saturday afternoon, a police involved shooting occurred at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield. A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Department was involved in the shooting.

Here’s how the first paragraph should have read instead:

A Ferguson police officer shot a teenager at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield on Saturday afternoon.

Why is that so difficult? Why did a simple one-sentence lead turn into four kludgy sentences?

The answer is simple: The KTVI reporters, like most mainstream media reporters, presumably have a close relationship with the police department and don’t want to experience pushback from their sources. As I wrote months ago:

This unwillingness to offend powerful sources was named years ago by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky as “sourcing” … Obviously police departments are also on that list of official sources, which explains very well why police who make enormously embarrassing mistakes often vanish from headlines, leaving only an object (the “suspect”) and the action that mysteriously happened (“shot” or “killed”) without any apparent cause.

This kind of nonsense will only stop when these journalists receive pushback just as strong or stronger from communities affected by these so-called “police involved shootings.” Journalists ought to be in the business of telling the truth, not obfuscating it on behalf of powerful interests … as the New York Times did for years by refusing to use the word “torture” to describe, y’know, torture. Jay Rosen has some good thoughts on the NYT’s recent recanting of their policy.

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.

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.

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.

Passive voice makes perpetrators disappear in news headlines

As a journalism educator I try to teach my students the mechanics of writing (apostrophes are for contractions and possessives; “principal” vs. “principle”; avoid the passive voice) as well as the fundamentals of journalism (seek the truth and report it; be the watchdog of democracy; hold power accountable). One common practice in modern journalism that combines bad grammar with bad reporting is the vanishing subject.

There are plenty of examples out there:

Who shot these suspects? The headlines don’t say. Perhaps readers will assume that police shot them, but in at least one case that’s not true. In all three of the above examples, passive voice is used to remove the subject of the sentence — the actor that is taking action against the suspect.

After Jeffrey Johnson shot Steven Ercolino at the Empire State Building on August 24, headlines from all over made the same mistake:

Everyone who saw these headlines probably (understandably) believed that it was another lone-gunman multiple-victim massacre like the Aurora movie theater shooting or Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage in Arizona. But the fact that police were actually responsible for the nine victims outside the New York landmark was (A) not a secret; (B) known to reporters at the time (see paragraph 8 of the CNN story); and (C) completely omitted from many headlines.

This is not the result of some type of conspiracy. The culprit is more likely to be a combination of lazy reporting and fear of offending sources (about which more below).

Aside from blatant use of the passive voice to make actors disappear, there are other ways to disclaim or mute responsibility for horrific acts committed by powerful people. For example, look at these two New York Times headlines:

What’s the difference? Look closely. Perhaps you noticed right away: in the first headline, the active voice is used to report a mass murder by a suicide bomber. In the second headline, the passive voice is used to cast doubt upon the death toll from a US drone strike. Note that it’s not “US drone strike kills 60 in Pakistan” … instead, the strike is “said to kill” 60 people. Who said it? According to the article, it was local residents and news reports. The cited source for the first article is “officials and medics.” What indication are we given that the latter sources are less reliable than the former? None. And yet the second headline waves away the facts of the matter. Oh, someone said that sixty people were killed. People can say anything, you know, especially when it comes to casting aspersions upon our great nation.

And yet several other news organizations had no problem reporting the drone strike in a more direct way:

Although they disagree on the final body count, there is no disagreement on culpability for the massacre, and no attempt at inserting weasel words like “alleged” or “said” to obfuscate that culpability.

Perhaps the media sources above are simply anti-American and too quick to believe the worst about the United States? Perhaps. But that still doesn’t explain the NY Times’ willingness to print the Yemen suicide bombing death toll as a fact and the Pakistan funeral bombing death toll as an allegation. What would very easily explain this discrepancy would be the Times’ unwillingness to alienate their official Pentagon and White House sources who have a vested interest in both maximizing fear of al-Qaeda in Yemen and minimizing civilian casualties and military atrocities in Pakistan.

This unwillingness to offend powerful sources was named years ago by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky as “sourcing,” the third filter of their propaganda model:

Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out that ‘Professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate.’ (source)

Obviously police departments are also on that list of official sources, which explains very well why police who make enormously embarrassing mistakes often vanish from headlines, leaving only an object (the “suspect”) and the action that mysteriously happened (“shot” or “killed”) without any apparent cause. Journalists ought to be on guard against this phenomenon and write their stories–and headlines–accordingly.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.