Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Media Manipulation: A First Course

     Robert Spencer has written a fine dissection of an attempt at the manipulation of public opinion by a South Dakota newspaper. It’s too good to excerpt, so I exhort my Gentle Readers to go thence and return after having finished it. As always, I’ll wait.

     Wasn’t that informative? I’ve seldom seen it done as well. But lest we consider the subject closed, allow me to add a couple of thoughts that can aid one in separating out the biases from the reportage.

1. The Narrative.

     A journalist who seeks to shape public opinion through a nominal news piece must first decide on The Narrative to be promoted within the story. This isn’t always obvious, even to the most biased of reporters. At this time there are several narratives contending for promotion by the American Left and its handmaidens in the media. Those narratives fall into a few categories.

  • There are crisis narratives, intended to promote formless fears of forces beyond the capacity of individuals to counter without the “help” of the Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent State. Perhaps the best example here is “global warming.”
  • There are enemy narratives, in which John Q. Public is encouraged to see some category of persons, whether inside or outside the U.S., as working in concert to do him harm. During 2017 the “Russian election interference” narrative was most prominent among that sort, though these past few days the “NRA wants to kill your kids” narrative has risen to public attention as well.
  • There are bad person narratives, intended to defame specific individuals by implying low motives on their part. The story Robert Spencer cites in the linked article is a good example.

     (This taxonomy has a mirror image of sorts: stories intended to celebrate or glorify forces, organizations, or persons dedicated to opposing the supposed villains at the foci of the stories above. But that’s a subject that deserves its own screed.)

2. What’s The Story?

     Once the journalist has selected the narrative he wants to promote, he must then choose his tactics:

  • Story selection;
  • Frame selection;
  • Data selection and presentation.

     Story selection – the journalist’s choice of organizations, persons, or events to write about – must come first, for obvious reasons. This, of course, is heavily influenced by the selected narrative.

     Positive selection bias hunts for stories that might otherwise not be reported on at all. Many years ago, a Northeastern regional paper whose editors were determined to promote the notion that anti-Semitism is a rising influence in America chose to dedicate several pages to a story about Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus exercise machines. The story returned several times to Jones’s anti-Semitic views. Happily, the story received little attention and faded out of view.

     Negative selection bias chooses to exclude or minimize reportage on events that would undercut the chosen narrative. For example, if a reporter must cover a shooting-spree story in which the perpetrator was eventually stopped by an armed civilian, he will be motivated to minimize the importance of the good guy’s firearm. He might not even mention it. Similarly, stories in which muggings and armed robberies are halted through the defensive use of a firearm receive little to no coverage.

3. Setting The Frame.

     A photographer, conscious of the limited field of view of his camera, will carefully frame the image or item he wants to photograph so that things he deems irrelevant or distracting will be minimized or omitted. The same goes for the reporter bent upon promoting a particular narrative.

     For example, a reporter determined to bias his readers against the recent tax bill might elect to focus on the benefits the bill confers upon corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Such an emphasis would serve the narrative that the Republican Party, currently in the majority in both houses of Congress, is concerned solely with serving “the donor class.” The frame would be set to omit or distract from the benefits to middle-class taxpayers, which would cross-cut that narrative.

     Similarly, coverage of a “protest” used to silence a conservative speaker would set its frame to omit or minimize the “protesters’” use of violence and vandalism. It would use terms intended to imply that if there was violence, it was minimal (or “from both sides,” regardless of the facts of the matter). Imputations by “protesters” that the silenced speaker was a promoter of bigotry or violence would be reported without comment, whereas refutations of such calumnies would be cast as self-serving and therefore dubious, or would receive no attention.

4. Selecting And Presenting The Data.

     Stories with a compendious nature – i.e., intended to cover an “issue” rather than a particular, time-and-place-delimited event – will present only data that serves the biases of the reporter and his editors. There are always ways to present “objective” data in such a fashion, our notions that “figures don’t lie” notwithstanding.

     Darrell Huff presents several examples of how this can be done in his invaluable little book How to Lie with Statistics. Here’s a good one, in which Huff describes the perversion of graphics to create a false impression of rocketing prosperity. The first graph shows an increase in aggregate American incomes, as reported to the IRS, during a year in the Thirties:

     “Now that’s clear enough,” says Huff, and it certainly is. It’s an honest pictorial representation of a 10% increase in the aggregate of national incomes. The second graph shows the same data – or does it? – but gives a far different impression:

     “That is impressive, isn’t it?” says Huff. “Anyone looking at it can just feel prosperity throbbing in the arteries of the country. It is a subtler equivalent of editing ‘National income rose ten per cent’ into ‘climbed a whopping ten per cent.’ It is vastly more effective, however, because it contains no adjectives or adverbs to spoil the illusion of objectivity. There’s nothing anyone can pin on you.”

     That’s only one of a multitude of deceptive techniques. Tendentious selection of base year is another: What was national income doing before the selected year? Was it lower than $20 billion...or higher than $22 billion? We’re not told. Were large-scale shootings more common before our present day, or less? Did they reap more lives on average, or fewer? My Gentle Readers can surely see the possibilities.

5. The General Degradation Of Human Testimony

     To doubt whether a man of eminence has told the truth about his own birth, in appearance to be very deficient in candour; yet nobody can live long without knowing that falsehoods of convenience or vanity, falsehoods from which no evil immediately visible ensues, except the general degradation of human testimony, are very lightly uttered, and once uttered are sullenly supported. – Samuel Johnson, in his biography of poet William Congreve.

     Deceit begets further deceit. It always has and it always will. When the deceivers, as a class, occupy the pedestals of journalism – they whom we’re exhorted to trust as honest purveyors of objective accounts – we’re in particularly dangerous territory. A misled people can do themselves and others great harm. A people convinced that it has been misled is prone to even greater exertions. The first targets of its fury will be the deceivers themselves.

     And it won’t matter whether they “meant well.”

No comments: