Bias and the Seven Criteria of Newsworthiness

Be selective about what you pitch and be sure to pitch to the right people

By Mike Cronin

In the “About” section of this blog, I say that bias is one of the main “filters” we have to apply in our media consumption in order to make sense of it all.  The mainstream media (ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and others) are notorious for being biased. The right wing maintains that (with the exception of Fox) the bias is unabashedly liberal. Liberals are certain that Fox News is a propaganda machine for conservative Republicans.  There is no shortage of examples of bias to be found on each side; but for us to detect that bias reliably, it might help to first know what a “pure” news story is supposed to be about. The foundation of a news story is its newsworthiness.  In Journalism 101 courses throughout the country, students are taught several criteria to apply in order to determine if a story is newsworthy. There are various versions of the model, all of which boil down to roughly the same basics. The version I am familiar with has seven criteria:

Impact: The significance, importance, or consequence of an event or trend. The greater the consequence, or the more people affected, the greater the newsworthiness. “If it bleeds, it leads” fits here. National election results, wars, terrorist attacks, mass murder, natural disasters, and major industrial or transportation accidents are prime examples. 9-11 is the quintessential example.

Timeliness: This is the new in news. The more recently the event happened (or the more recently new information became available about an historical event), the more newsworthy it is. It doesn’t get much newer than when an event is broadcast live (or nearly so) as it happens. On the other hand, one can get headline fatigue when a “Breaking News” or “News Alert” ticker demands attention for reportage of every minor development in an ongoing major story.

Prominence: The doings and antics of prominent people (or corporations, major league sports teams, government agencies, etc.) are newsworthy – because they are prominent. Thus, almost anything a sitting president does is newsworthy, but nothing I routinely do is newsworthy.

Proximity: The closeness of an occurrence, either geographically or in terms of connections or values, is a factor in its newsworthiness.  The astronauts making the Apollo 11 moon landing were as far away from us as any humans ever have been, yet they were fellow Americans making momentous history, and that made them “close” in the sense of this criterion. (Of course, the first manned moon landing was newsworthy according to just about all of these criteria!)

Bizarre: The classic “man bites dog” headline is a classic example of the essence of this category.  It’s not news when a dog bites a man, but when the tables are turned, the situation is freaky, so it becomes newsworthy. There are entire publications devoted to this critieria:

Conflict: Controversy, drama, hypocrisy from leaders, investigative reports, political wrangling, etc.

Human Interest: Those stories that are funny, charming, cute, heartwarming, or otherwise entertaining fit here. Here’s a great example.

These criteria can give us a “baseline” to use when examining stories for bias. Sometimes it is not what a newscaster or reporter says or doesn’t say that exposes bias, it’s the selection of what is to be reported, or the time span a particular story spends in the headlines. If you read or watch a story that doesn’t seem to meet any of the newsworthiness criteria, or you know of a newsworthy story that has been ignored or downplayed, or you note that story X has received much more coverage than story Y, even though both are newsworthy, you are be observing bias in action.

America: Republic, Democracy, or Empire? Part III

UncleImperialist

By Mike Cronin

In parts I and II, I opined that the U.S. is supposed to be a republic, but that we have become dysfunctional as such, and that people think we are a democracy, but if we adopt true majority rule vs the rule of law, we will descend into dictatorship.  Whether we are a republic or a democracy or a dictatorship speaks to our domestic governance, but what about our foreign relationships?  Some say America is an empire, and we have certainly done things that are imperialistic. But what is an empire, exactly? According to Paul Schroeder, Professor Emeritus of History, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

“…empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from and alien to it. Many factors enter into empire–economics, technology, ideology, religion, above all military strategy and weaponry–but the essential core is political: the possession of final authority by one entity over the vital political decisions of another. This need not mean direct rule exercised by formal occupation and administration; most empires involve informal, indirect rule. But real empire requires that effective final authority, and states can enjoy various forms of superiority or even domination over others without being empires.”

America certainly wields enormous power and influence across the world. We have the most powerful military and the largest economy. We have a military presence in something like 75-80% of the countries, and our Navy and Air Force can hold any target anywhere on the globe at risk. A few words from the president or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve can affect the fortunes of investors the world over.  We have acted imperialistically in many historical cases, but we are not fully an empire yet. The critical distinction is that we do not maintain “final authority” over other polities. In the historical cases where we had such power, we kept it only temporarily. (For example: the Philippines, Japan post WW II, Panama, Iraq.) We may not ever become an empire…unless we do descend into dictatorship. A dictator needs to accumulate power in order to keep accumulating power. An American dictator would have enormous power indeed – certainly enough to enable his or her ambition for empire.

So, to sum up this series of posts: are we a republic, a democracy, or an empire? If the answer eludes you, don’t feel bad. If you asked 100 historians or social scientists, you’d get 100 different answers.  In my opinion, we are stuck between modes of governance, that is, we have a mix of systems, and pressure is building.  “We the people” are supposed to have a republic, with representation in furtherance of protecting our rights; instead we get lip service. Where our votes are supposed to matter, instead corporate lobbyists and issue-based pressure groups buy or bully for the legislation they want and turn America against itself in the doing. Our elected leaders pass laws we don’t want, waste money that isn’t theirs on programs the Constitution doesn’t authorize, and empower armies of bureaucrats to regulate with the force of law. Then they then exempt themselves from their own handiwork. Our Supreme Court to often tries to legislate new rights out of thin air in an effort to achieve “social justice” and ignores the  Constitution, or says it’s a living document and re-interprets it to mean exactly the opposite of what it says. Ayn Rand was prescient when she wrote: “… no one’s interests are safe, everyone’s interests are on a public auction block, and anything goes for anyone who can get away with it. Such a system—or, more precisely, anti-system—breaks up a country into an ever-growing number of enemy camps, into…groups fighting one another for self-preservation in an indeterminate mixture of defense and offense, as the nature of such a jungle demands.”

If it seems like we are the most powerful nation on the planet, but that we are in decline because we can’t get our governmental act together , you are seeing things pretty clearly.

 

America: Republic, Democracy, or Empire? Part II

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By Mike Cronin

In modern usage, the original meaning of the word “democracy” has been camouflaged. Whereas most folks understand it to mean electing our leaders and having a say in the affairs of our government, that is not what democracy means.  The hard reality is more insidious: the word democracy comes from the Greek word dēmokratiā, which was coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”). Democracy literally means “the peoplerule.”  We interpret that as “majority rule.” That sounds pretty good, right?  Isn’t that what we are supposed to have in America?

“Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. In a republic, the sheep is well armed and able to contest the vote.” – multiple attributions.

But what if you are not in the majority?  Especially for an issue that has to do with your rights?  Should the majority be able to dispense with your rights just because they are the majority? The founding fathers didn’t think so; through the Constitution, they gave us the rule of law and a republic, not the rule of the majority. Our Constitution is designed to protect our rights – both from the government and from any majority who might wish to “democratically” vote them away. It does so via the techniques of splitting the government into three branches (legislative, executive, judicial) and by placing various checks and balances against them. For example, we elect our leaders, but they can’t legally impose any law on us that violates the Constitution. To make those laws requires great effort. First, both sides of Congress can pass proposed legislation, i.e. bills, by a simple majority vote, but they don’t become law unless the president signs.  If the president vetoes a bill, Congress can try again, but it takes a two-thirds majority to overcome the veto.  Meanwhile, if a law comes into dispute, the Supreme Court can rule it unconstitutional and order it struck down. In our system, the people are supposed to get their say by electing their representatives; the people don’t get a direct vote on legislation, and neither “we the people” nor our elected representatives can legally bypass the structures and processes our Constitution imposes on the government. Thus, we are supposed to have the rule of law, not a democracy (in the strict sense of the word).  In fact, believe it or not, the word “democracy” does not appear in either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence! But  why shouldn’t we have a democracy? I’ll let historian Alexander Frazier Tyler explain:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policies, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.” 

Well, judging by the state of 237-year-old America today, it looks to me like the republic is giving way to democracy, but the transition is not complete, nor assured. Will we complete the transition and give in to dictatorship, or will “we the people” restore the republic?

America: Republic, Democracy, or Empire? Part I

framers

By Mike Cronin

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government had been created. He replied “A republic, if you can keep it.”   Yet today, you almost never hear people call the U.S. a republic. It’s often called a democracy.  It is also sometimes spoken of as an empire, usually in a derogatory way.  So what are we supposed to have, and what do we actually have?

Let’s start with “republic.” The word republic, derived from the Latin res publica, or “public thing,” refers to a form of government where the citizens conduct their affairs for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of a ruler. It’s the form of government we are supposed to have, it’s the form of government our Constitution establishes, and that our presidents, military, and other public servants swear oaths to support and defend.   That’s what our founders gave us.

So, do we Americans conduct our affairs for our own benefit, or for the benefit of a ruling power?  How long do you have to work each year to pay your tax bill? How much paperwork do you have to fill out to file your taxes? Is the NSA spying on you? Can you sell your product without some kind of mandatory labeling to warn idiots not to do something stupid with it? If you decide to home school your kids, or send them to private school, do you still have to pay for your neighbors’ kids’ public schooling? If the local government thinks your house and yard would be put to better use as a shopping mall, will you be able to keep your own property?  Can you conduct any financial affairs without government scrutiny? Can you travel anywhere you like via any mode of transportation you want without having your papers checked and/or your property or your person searched? Are your particular vices allowed or prohibited?  Can you marry whichever mutually consenting adult(s) you’d like? Can a male over 18 NOT register for the draft without consequences?  If you decide to hire candidate X instead of candidate Y, are you going to get into hot water for not supporting affirmative action or diversity goals?  Once that has been settled, can you pay the candidate what the work is worth, or do you have pay them what the government says you must?  Are you obligated to provide a benefit package to boot? Do you have to take a drug test in order to work, so that the government can give some of your money to people who don’t work and couldn’t pass a drug test? Can you keep your insurance plan and /or your doctor this year? Are you in compliance with all of the millions of pages of other laws and regulations our government has levied on us over the last 237 years?

I think we can say, that based on the definition above, we are no longer fully functioning as a republic. To be sure, and for now, we still have many freedoms, including the freedom to write a blog like this one, and many other trappings of a republic, including the ability to vote. But are we truly able to conduct our own affairs for our own benefit?

Is Your Understanding of the World Distorted by the Maps We Use?

By Mike Cronin

Here are two ways maps can mislead:

1.            Physical Distortion. Since the earth is a sphere, every flat map we look at distorts the physical geography of the planet. The most common flat map is the Mercator projection.  In order to depict the spherical surface of the earth on a flat map, the Mercator projection distorts our perspective in two ways. First, the northern and southern latitudes are stretched way out of proportion.  Consider: Greenland is not really the same size as Africa, and Antarctica is not as big as all the rest of the world!  The second distortion is more subtle: the image of the earth is centered on Western Europe. It could just as easily be centered on the Pacific Ocean, or the Middle East, or North America.  This orientation may subliminally reinforce Europe-centered thinking.

773px-Mercator-projection

2.            Political Distortion. A country and a nation are not the same thing. While most countries have nations, and most nations have countries, there are exceptions that are the source of much conflict in world affairs.  Consider Central Asia and Middle East. When we look at a map and see the country Afghanistan, we are looking a region bounded by lines drawn about 100 years ago. Those boundaries don’t really correspond to the ground truth.  There are many ethnic/tribal groups in Central Asia. Some of those groups’ territories cross several country borders, such as the Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks.  Although there is a semi-functional central Afghan government, it would not be much of a distortion to say that the nation of Afghanistan is not nearly so recognizable as the country of the same name. 

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Conversely, Kurdistan is a nation without a country. Spread over portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the Kurds have a central government, but no defined territory to call their own:

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Will You Vote for a Beekeeper?

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Image from https://www.facebook.com/Capitalists

By Mike Cronin

The realm of politics is huge, and it can be confusing. Pundits are always talking about liberals & conservatives, Democrats & Republicans, ideologues & demagogues, and many other terms.  How can we make sense of it? In basic social studies or political science classes, teachers may introduce and discuss a model called the political spectrum. If you “google” images for “political spectrum,” dozens, if not hundreds, of different models will be displayed.  The most basic (and most commonly employed) model places Fascist totalitarianism (like Germany under Hitler) on the extreme right side of the scale, and Socialism or Communism (like the former Soviet Union or modern North Korea) on the extreme left side.  A government, a country, or a person’s political position can be gauged on this spectrum.

The problem with this model is that while the ideologies of Fascism and Communism may differ on the surface, in practice they result in the same conditions for the vast majority of people who live under them: tyranny, fear, and poverty. There may be distinctions between the two on paper, but in reality both ideologies are collectivist; that is, they believe that the state, or the party, or the race, or the group, i.e. the collective, is more important than the individual, and that the individual exists to serve the larger group. In other words, both of these forms of politics, communism and fascism, treat humans like bees or ants, i.e. as drones (or slaves). No individual is important, only the party, or country (or hive/colony, i.e. collective), matters.

The achievement of the founding fathers was in creating a nation founded on the concept that the individual has rights that are inherent, that is, they are not granted by the state, and that the purpose of the state is to protect those individual rights.

So, with mid-term elections coming this November, consider this: Whether a politician identifies as a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, does not matter as much as this: What does his or her character and voting record reveal about their understanding of individual rights?  Will you elect a defender of your rights, or a beekeeper?