the problem with news aggregators (or, why michael arrington was right)

Shortly after Octavia Nasr was fired from CNN for tweeting a statement indicating that she respected a member of Hezbollah, who had recently died, Michael Arrington at TechCrunch posted a piece entitled “We Need More Opinion In News, Not Less.” (This is another piece that I would recommend taking the time to read in full) Arrington says that instead of pretending that our journalists are totally unbiased and asking them to report “facts” not “opinion”, we should recognize that it is impossible for anyone to completely remove the bias from their reporting. Once we recognize this, Arrington argues, we can start focusing on ensuring that reporters publicly disclose this bias, rather than just pretending it isn’t there.

I think Arrington is dead on here. Everywhere you look, we have people accusing those with whom they don’t agree of injecting bias into their reporting, often while attempting to claim that their own reporting is bias-free (or “Fair and Balanced”, if you will). But can anyone really completely separate their opinions from their interpretation of a given set of facts? The idea of “confirmation bias” is well-established, so why do we think that reporters are somehow exempt from its effects?

A number of the commenters responding to Arrington’s article said things like “I don’t want opinion in my news, I just want facts! If I wanted opinion, I’d turn to the op-ed pages.” But in failing to recognize the fact that the inclusion or exclusion of certain facts in a “news piece” can be the same as opinion, these people are doing themselves a disservice.  Take, for example, this article by Jonathan Strong published at dailycaller.com on August 23rd, about political campaigns paying bloggers.  It was featured on the front page, right near the top, with the headline “Members of both political parties feeding cash to bloggers.”  Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  If you saw that posted but didn’t click through to read it, you’d think that Democrats and Republicans were both engaging in some under-the-table paying of bloggers.

makes it seem like everyone's guilty here, doesn't it?

Screenshot from dailycaller.com, 8/23/10

But upon reading the article, you would discover that the primary sources for that headline are a “Republican campaign operative” who says “[i]t’s standard operating procedure”and a “GOP blogger-for-hire” who estimates that half of the Republican blogosphere “getting remuneration in some way beyond ad sales.”  Strong goes on to cite an example of a Republican blogger who was paid to write articles about the Poizner campaign, and another who was getting extremely high-cost ad buys from the Whitman campaign. So there’s the Republican side… I’m sure he’s got something similar for the Democrats.

But that’s the thing… the examples he cites on the Democrat side aren’t even remotely the same.  He gives two examples: Lowell Feld, of Blue Virginia who did some consulting for a Virginia candidate for Lieutenant Governor, and disclosed that consulting on his blog, and Jerome Armstrong, who “has consulted for numerous Democratic candidates, raking in tens of thousands of dollars in fees”.   After another example of a Republican doing consulting work for the RNC without disclosing it and a conservative blogger saying “Advertising buys good will,” he closes with some weasel words:

“Some critics allege that [liberal organizations that fund or employ liberal bloggers] have distorted the once vibrant voice of the liberal blogosphere, discouraging dissent in favor of staying ‘on message’ to help President Obama and Democrats in Congress pass their legislative agenda.”

Who are these critics? Is Jonathan Strong one of these critics?  We’ll never know.  But this is a far cry from the numerous examples (not allegations, examples) he gave of Republican blogger misdeeds.

Now it’s not surprising that a site with a conservative focus like dailycaller.com would try to draw this equivalency in the headline. It’s also not factually incorrect… there were indeed “members of both parties” paying bloggers.  Some (Democrats) were doing consulting work and disclosing that potential conflict of interest on their sites, while others (Republicans) were getting money without disclosing it.

So, to return to my original point, we see here an example of a headline based on facts that, despite that, shows bias.  When it’s at a site like the Daily Caller that leans the opposite direction I do, it’s easy to pick out.  When it’s at a site like the NYTimes, or the Huffington Post (where it would likely be shaded in a way that agreed with my worldview), it might be a little harder.

(Full disclosure: nobody pays me anything to do this. Seriously, who would?)

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One Response to the problem with news aggregators (or, why michael arrington was right)

  1. Nicholas Kramer says:

    All communication has inherent bias – essentially between being in support of the mainstream narrative or against it.

    In my Politics of Terrorism class, my professor assigned a reading from Time Magazine dated from before the Oklahoma City bombing, on the subject of extremist groups in the United States (Michigan militias and that kind of stuff). We weren’t told what the purpose of the assignment was, but just to read the article and record our observations. I couldn’t figure it out, no matter how many times I re-read it.

    When we discussed it in class, the professor asked us to look more closely at the words used to describe the different groups in the article. They were called “extremists,” “white supremacists,” “radicals,” “militias,” and so on. Only in the very last paragraph was the word “terrorist” used. Why? The only conclusion we could make is because that particular group was a group fighting violently for Puerto Rican independence, and thus constituted an “other” or “outgroup”, despite the fact that Puerto Rico is an American territory. (As I said, this was before Oklahoma City, when the word “terrorist” was first applied to an American in the mainstream narrative). Once realizing that, reading back through the article, it became absolutely absurd how hard the author had to work to avoid using the word “terrorist” to describe any of the American-based groups.

    Your example is a good one, but the bias inherent to the news is much more prevalent and subtle than that.

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