Media Manipulation?

Image result for unbiased media

By Mike Cronin

This week has provided us with yet another example of how the mainstream media has given up on political neutrality. How?  We’ll get to that in a minute, but first a very quick recap on what journalism schools and editorial boards generally deem to be “newsworthiness criteria:”

1) Impact

2) Timeliness

3) Proximity

4) Human Interest

5) Conflict

6) The Bizarre

7) Celebrity

With those criteria in mind, let’s look at the fast one the media pulled this week:

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s ploy to embarrass President Trump with regards to her claimed Native American ancestry backfired.  When Senator Warren’s announcement that her DNA test showed her to indeed have Native American ancestry, the mainstream media were falling all over themselves to capture the “see, I told you so” moment.  Then more of the story surfaced.  The DNA test revealed that Senator Warren’s native ancestry was a minuscule percentage. Worse for her, the Cherokee Nation announced that the test didn’t tie her to a North American tribe at all, let alone the Cherokee tribes (which she had claimed previously), and denounced her. The entire episode has revealed Warren’s true character: She is a white woman unsatisfied with the supposed privileges thus bestowed, so she appropriated some grievance entitlement from a more disadvantaged group and tried to leverage it into political clout.

When that information came out, the media cranked up the emphasis on the Jamal Khashoggi story.  Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist/activist who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, supposedly for business related to marrying his fiancé. He didn’t come out alive.  After “investigating,” the Saudi Government offered the dubious explanation that Khashoggi died in a fist fight inside the consulate.

The assumption in the media is that Khashoggi was killed by agents of the Saudi government for his “dissident” writings. Why is the alleged murder of a foreign journalist half-way around the world more newsworthy than a US Senator’s political blunders and character self-destruction during election season?

While there is no doubt a certain amount of “wagon circling” going on among journalists in response to the probable murder of one of their own, there is another reason: The Khashoggi affair can fill the void caused by the failed Warren gambit: To make Republicans look bad right before the midterm elections.  How?  By attempting to paint the picture that the Trump Administration is taking it easy on the Saudi government over the Khashoggi investigation because looming sanctions against Iran threaten to upset oil markets. The reasoning is that President Trump needs the Saudis to increase oil production to replace whatever Iran will not be allowed to inject into the global market. This will theoretically keep oil prices stable before the election, benefiting Republicans.

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The alleged blasé attitude of the administration towards the Khashoggi case couldn’t possibly stem from the fact that the US has absolutely no jurisdiction in the matter, could it?

The Warren story meets several, if not ALL, of the newsworthiness criteria, but the media de-emphasized it as soon as it lost its potential value to benefit Warren or damage Trump. Then they inflated the Khashoggi story – which normally might rate a short mention under the “conflict” or “timeliness” newsworthiness criteria – and are making it out to be an international crisis that the administration is mishandling.

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.