Sobriety Lost

How our newspapers create opinion and report it.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

Imagine that you started receiving letters in the mail accusing your neighbor of being a child molester. Occasionally you receive photographs or even a video showing the neighbor with a child on his lap or dressed up like a clown at a children’s party. After a couple of weeks of this, someone then phones you to ask if you think your neighbor is a pedophile. What percentage of us do you think would say yes?

There you have one of the media’s favorite devices for disguising opinion as news, one on display in the coverage of the disaster in New Orleans. At the very height of the disaster reporters solicited opinions from people about what was happening and why, and unsurprisingly, the majority of poor black people asked said Bush and the federal government were to blame, a perception echoed by Democrats and black politicians for obvious partisan reasons. These perceptions of reality were then reported day after day, and not long after there followed the “scientific” poll to solicit even more perceptions based on the earlier perceptions publicized by the media. The result is then reported as news, and thus through the magic of media alchemy subjective perceptions become facts in the minds of many.

Anyone with a modicum of critical awareness can see the fatal flaws in this whole procedure. Asking people in the midst of a calamity what they think or how they feel may be entertaining to some, but it’s not very useful or even informative for the rest of us. People who are scared and hungry aren’t likely to put much thought into their answers. And at that moment, critical information necessary for a thoughtful answer simply is unavailable. The context of the response, in other words, is completely lacking. Particularly in the case of electronic media, the powerful real-time image –– usually shorn of any context and reflecting not so much reality but the point of view of the person pointing the camera –– communicates not information but dramatic emotion, intense feelings that overwhelm thought.

In short, such coverage is radically simplifying, leading us to believe that reality, and the solutions to the problems reality throws our way, are equally simple. Numerous people, including the presumably objective media, have faulted the slowness of the response to the misery the media publicized. But how many stories do you recall that explained the logistics involved in transporting food or evacuating people? Here’s a quick quiz: how many tons of food are required to feed 20,000 people for three days? How many trucks are needed to transport that food? Where does the food come from? Where do the trucks come from? Who pays for them? Who assumes the liability? How much time and how many men are needed to load those trucks? And given that roads were washed away, how would the food then get to those needing it, and how much time would that take? And most important of all, let’s not forget that anything we do will be limited by human nature: the quirky, irrational, unpredictable, self-destructive reality of people that increases exponentially the complexity and difficulty of anything we try to do. How can you in your planning prepare for people shooting at rescue helicopters?

I’m willing to bet that only a fraction of the people cursing the incompetence of the government for not more quickly alleviating the suffering visible on television know the answers to these questions. Why should they? But you would think that a media concerned with objectivity and accuracy would want to provide this crucial contextual information so that we could better understand what we are seeing and what we can do about it. Maybe the feds were incompetent, and maybe they should have been more efficient, but before we decide one way or the other, we should have the information necessary for making that judgment, the context of facts that constitute the limits to action. That information will come out, eventually, but by then the dramatized perceptions splashed across the front page and the evening news will be the reality most people remember.

The elevating of perception to the status of fact likewise compromises the whole charade of “scientific polling.” Most polls solicit the opinions of a tiny number of people. These people may be smart, they may be dumb, they may be thoughtful, they may have indigestion, or they may be lunatics. But the only opinions they represent are their own.

And let’s not forget, the pollster designs the questions, usually framed so that a simple answer must be given to a rigged question about a complex issue. No doubt, pollsters will assure us that they have all sorts of scientific techniques to control for all these variables, but given the immense variety and quirky complexity of human beings, this assurance rings hollow. I don’t care how much scientific-sounding jargon pollsters use to explain what they do: every poll generates the subjective opinions of the tiny handful of people asked the questions. The amount of uncertainty, subjectivity, and irrationality involved is enough to undermine the pretense of science created by the numbers and decimal points that accompany the poll’s appearance in the newspaper. And worst of all, once more, perceptions of reality are being reported as though they had some sort of cosmic significance, when in fact they usually have very little, and certainly not as much as facts.

A perfect example of this flawed process was reported in the New York Timesa few weeks back. The Justice Department had done a survey that presumably demonstrated minorities are more likely to be subjected to a search or force after a traffic stop. Yet according to the Times story, this information was obtained by asking 80.000 people about their traffic-stop experiences! Nowhere in the story was it indicated if the survey crosschecked these perceptions with police reports, or if anything else was done to ensure the veracity of the stories respondents told or to discover data that provided the context for understanding the information. For example, if more minorities are resistant, abusive, or belligerent during traffic stops, that could explain why greater numbers are subjected to force. Maybe the survey did these things, but the point is the Times did not think it part of good reporting to delve into these obvious reservations about the data and address them in the story. Having already decided that racial profiling is a Bad Thing reflecting endemic racism in our society — an editorial opinion, not a fact — the Times is predisposed to report on the news page any information that seemingly supports this view, and to publicize with scientific-looking numbers and decimal points poll results documenting what may be only subjective or even false perceptions.

This distortion of reality compromises just about every issue the media cover. For two years, the media have accentuated the negative in Iraq, telling us over and over how badly the war is going.  And then they take a poll and discover, guess what, a significant proportion of the

American people think the war in Iraq is going badly. Once again, we see the ideological and political biases of a media that continue to hide behind claims to objectivity and professionalism and public service. Such bias makes it all the more important that we take the responsibility to read critically and seek out other sources of information.

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