To be Fair…
I heard a political analyst use this phrase on a news channel this morning. The analyst to his right immediately laughed.
“To be fair?” she scoffed. “How can you pretend your analysis is in any way fair?”
And so it goes.
And doesn’t it feel like this political season is worse than ever?
In a series of posts over the next couple of months, I’m going to attempt to address issues of fairness, truth, accuracy and bias. Why am I qualified to do this? First, I have a degree in journalism and studied media bias extensively during my years at Arizona State University. Second, I am completely and utterly disenchanted with BOTH presidential candidates this year, meaning I’m not inclined to defend either of them. If that doesn’t sell you on my credentials, read on for my incredible insights and be prepared to change your mind!
Is that a Fact?
Facts are the first thing I think about when analyzing fairness, truth and bias. We all learned the difference between fact and opinion in elementary school, right? (Sally’s pants are blue. Sally’s pants are pretty. Which is a fact? Which is an opinion?) But our brains play tricks on us sometimes. Unless you have perfect recall, you may not remember exactly what was said.
Example: Where were you born? Where is your hometown?
Some would say that’s the same question, but is it?
Fact: I was born in Phoenix, Arizona.
So where is my hometown?
For most people, the answer would be the same. But “hometown” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. For a kid like me, who moved constantly, it isn’t an easy answer. If you are my Facebook friend, you’ll see my hometown listed as Santa Cruz, California.
So am I a liar?
No. It’s just that Facebook didn’t program their forms for crazy-pants parents who dragged their daughters all over the place (ie: no LIST option for “hometown.”) If the field was “birthplace” I would have put Phoenix, but I put Santa Cruz because I lived there during my most formative years (age 10 to 15). Plus, I really, really liked Santa Cruz.
Application: When you are analyzing TRUTH in a news article, pay close attention to the words that are used. Did Obama say he was FROM Africa or that he was born in Africa? (I am NOT taking a position on where he was born, folks, just pointing out that word choice is key here.)
Yeah, but that’s exactly how some people hide the truth – by carefully answering questions.
Absolutely. Just make sure you are analyzing their words fairly – whether you like them or not.
But everything I wrote was True!
Can people tell the truth and still lie?
Yes, they can.
Yes, they can.
Example: I was reading an article about Bank of America last year and one of its many law suit settlements. The tone of the article was decidedly anti-corporate (I’ll talk about tone some other time) but what really struck me was the reporter’s parting shot. He said that, despite Bank of America’s financial setbacks and their really bad decisions, their stock had tripled in value.
Now, I’m not huge fan of B of A. They laid off my husband last year. But what I DO know (based on my husband’s pension statements) is that his statement is both TRUE and FALSE.
How so? Well, in November of 2011, B of A stock was trading at just over $5 a share. Two years later, it was around $15 a share. (So, TRUE.)
What he didn’t say was that five years earlier, B of A stock was worth about $53 a share, making the $15 per share price a drastic reduction in value over the course of the time relevant to their litigious woes. (So, LIE).
Why would he do that? I can only guess that he wanted to leave readers with the impression that B of A was just fine and dandy, despite all the litigation (that rotten, greedy corporation), so he only shared selective data.
Application: You can’t just assume something doesn’t reflect bias because it’s TRUE. Reporters rarely share the WHOLE truth. My suggestion? Read or watch multiple sources before drawing conclusions. Make sure some of them are reliably left-leaning and some of them are reliably right-leaning. I’ll talk about what I mean by reliable some other time, because you have to be careful…
News articles are written by people who have to analyze newsworthiness, which I’ll write about in more detail at some point. But, boiled down, it is the answer to the question:
Does it really matter?
But doesn’t that question have a different answer, depending on who you ask?
Example: When the FBI decided not to indict Hillary Clinton for mishandling e-mails during her tenure as Secretary of State, there was a LOT of conversation about what really mattered and what didn’t. Naturally, those who love Hillary said different things than those who hate her.
But what about the media?
According to an article in the New York Post, FBI agents investigating Clinton’s case had to sign Case Briefing Acknowledgment forms at the close of the investigation – a kind of special nondisclosure agreement above and beyond the nondisclosure agreement that all FBI agents sign. Interviewed agents said they had never heard of such a thing ever being used on any other case.
Does that seem relevant to you? (It does to me, by the way.)
Of all the mainstream media sources, only the Post and Fox News shared this report.
The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC and CBS all must have thought it was irrelevant.
Or they didn’t like way it looked.
A lot of times, media bias isn’t so much about HOW something is being reported, it’s about what’s not being discussed at all.
What do you think? I would love to discuss these topics with you in more detail. Also, let me know what areas of bias, truth and fairness you would like me to address. I’ll see what I can do.