A masterpiece of obfuscation

The first paragraph of this TV news story from St. Louis is a masterpiece of Orwellian doublespeak and passive voice:

FERGUSON, MO (KTVI) – A shooting in Ferguson has tensions riding high between residents and police. Saturday afternoon, a police involved shooting occurred at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield. A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Department was involved in the shooting.

Here’s how the first paragraph should have read instead:

A Ferguson police officer shot a teenager at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield on Saturday afternoon.

Why is that so difficult? Why did a simple one-sentence lead turn into four kludgy sentences?

The answer is simple: The KTVI reporters, like most mainstream media reporters, presumably have a close relationship with the police department and don’t want to experience pushback from their sources. As I wrote months ago:

This unwillingness to offend powerful sources was named years ago by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky as “sourcing” … Obviously police departments are also on that list of official sources, which explains very well why police who make enormously embarrassing mistakes often vanish from headlines, leaving only an object (the “suspect”) and the action that mysteriously happened (“shot” or “killed”) without any apparent cause.

This kind of nonsense will only stop when these journalists receive pushback just as strong or stronger from communities affected by these so-called “police involved shootings.” Journalists ought to be in the business of telling the truth, not obfuscating it on behalf of powerful interests … as the New York Times did for years by refusing to use the word “torture” to describe, y’know, torture. Jay Rosen has some good thoughts on the NYT’s recent recanting of their policy.

Tools for critical consumers of media

I’ve discovered a couple of really useful tools for people who want to become more critical consumers of the news media—people who perhaps feel that they’re not really getting the full story, or that the news media isn’t quite doing the job they’re supposed to do, but aren’t quite sure how to articulate or confirm their suspicions.

The first is the SMELL test developed by John McManus, one of the people who developed the seven yardsticks of GradeTheNews.org. SMELL is an acronym:

S stands for Source. Who is providing the information?
M is for Motivation. Why are they telling me this?
E represents Evidence. What evidence is provided for generalizations?
L is for Logic. Do the facts logically compel the conclusions?
L is for Left out. What’s missing that might change our interpretation of the information?

The SMELL test is a simple, straightforward guide to vetting information of any kind, not just news, but it certainly applies to news reports. Professional journalists could benefit from applying the SMELL test to their own stories, such as the foreign policy reports that are filled to the brim with anonymous official sources making unsupported assertions.

The other tool is a guide published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking called “How to Detect Media Bias & Propaganda.”

mediabias  At 46 pages, this slim handbook is packed with useful information. Sections are devoted to topics like “Myths that obscure the logic of the news media,” “Forms of objectivity,” “Fostering sociocentric thinking,” and “Steps in becoming a critical consumer of the news.” The case studies are mainly from 2000-2004 and involve the runup to the Iraq war and the war itself. I would really like to see a second edition of this handbook devoted to more recent news stories, such as the revelation that the US media was fully aware of the US drone base in Saudi Arabia but chose not to report it — not for fear of revealing critical national security information, but to avoid causing political unrest in Saudi Arabia that might end up interfering with Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

I’ve been purchasing these guides for my Journalism 1 students for the past few years; I think it will go very well with McManus’ SMELL test and the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model (which we already cover in class). Even if my students don’t end up working as journalists, I like to think that they will be more critical consumers of news media and thus better citizens.

How the media used to write about Osama bin Laden

Originally posted by @benphillips76 on Twitter:

Here is a link to the original article, which contains this interesting paragraph:

But what of the Arab mujahedin whom he took to Afghanistan – members of a guerrilla army who were also encouraged and armed by the United States – and who were forgotten when that war was over? ‘Personally neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help. When my mujahedin were victorious and the Russians were driven out, differences started (between the guerrilla movements) so I returned to road construction in Taif and Abha. I brought back the equipment I had used to build tunnels and roads for the mujahedin in Afghanistan. Yes, I helped some of my comrades to come here to Sudan after the war.’

Well, Mr. bin Laden, you may not have seen evidence of American help, but here are your mujahedin brothers meeting with Ronald Reagan:


And the fact that Reagan sent truckloads of weapons (including 1000 anti-aircraft Stinger missiles) to the militant Muslim fighters in Afghanistan was and is well known. Sylvester Stallone even made a movie about it.

The whole mess is a pretty clear-cut example of the Chomsky/Herman propaganda model’s fear filter: the idea that the press goes to great lengths to depict official enemies of the US as the Worst Monsters Ever, while the enemies of those enemies are depicted in a more positive light as long as they are also our allies. But as soon as they become our enemies in turn, they are suddenly the new Worst Monsters Ever.

Other clear-cut examples include Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin. This is part of the reason it’s a little difficult for me to get too worked up over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, currently depicted by our brave, reliable, independent, watchdog media as the Worst Monster Ever.

Passive voice makes perpetrators disappear in news headlines

As a journalism educator I try to teach my students the mechanics of writing (apostrophes are for contractions and possessives; “principal” vs. “principle”; avoid the passive voice) as well as the fundamentals of journalism (seek the truth and report it; be the watchdog of democracy; hold power accountable). One common practice in modern journalism that combines bad grammar with bad reporting is the vanishing subject.

There are plenty of examples out there:

Who shot these suspects? The headlines don’t say. Perhaps readers will assume that police shot them, but in at least one case that’s not true. In all three of the above examples, passive voice is used to remove the subject of the sentence — the actor that is taking action against the suspect.

After Jeffrey Johnson shot Steven Ercolino at the Empire State Building on August 24, headlines from all over made the same mistake:

Everyone who saw these headlines probably (understandably) believed that it was another lone-gunman multiple-victim massacre like the Aurora movie theater shooting or Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage in Arizona. But the fact that police were actually responsible for the nine victims outside the New York landmark was (A) not a secret; (B) known to reporters at the time (see paragraph 8 of the CNN story); and (C) completely omitted from many headlines.

This is not the result of some type of conspiracy. The culprit is more likely to be a combination of lazy reporting and fear of offending sources (about which more below).

Aside from blatant use of the passive voice to make actors disappear, there are other ways to disclaim or mute responsibility for horrific acts committed by powerful people. For example, look at these two New York Times headlines:

What’s the difference? Look closely. Perhaps you noticed right away: in the first headline, the active voice is used to report a mass murder by a suicide bomber. In the second headline, the passive voice is used to cast doubt upon the death toll from a US drone strike. Note that it’s not “US drone strike kills 60 in Pakistan” … instead, the strike is “said to kill” 60 people. Who said it? According to the article, it was local residents and news reports. The cited source for the first article is “officials and medics.” What indication are we given that the latter sources are less reliable than the former? None. And yet the second headline waves away the facts of the matter. Oh, someone said that sixty people were killed. People can say anything, you know, especially when it comes to casting aspersions upon our great nation.

And yet several other news organizations had no problem reporting the drone strike in a more direct way:

Although they disagree on the final body count, there is no disagreement on culpability for the massacre, and no attempt at inserting weasel words like “alleged” or “said” to obfuscate that culpability.

Perhaps the media sources above are simply anti-American and too quick to believe the worst about the United States? Perhaps. But that still doesn’t explain the NY Times’ willingness to print the Yemen suicide bombing death toll as a fact and the Pakistan funeral bombing death toll as an allegation. What would very easily explain this discrepancy would be the Times’ unwillingness to alienate their official Pentagon and White House sources who have a vested interest in both maximizing fear of al-Qaeda in Yemen and minimizing civilian casualties and military atrocities in Pakistan.

This unwillingness to offend powerful sources was named years ago by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky as “sourcing,” the third filter of their propaganda model:

Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out that ‘Professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate.’ (source)

Obviously police departments are also on that list of official sources, which explains very well why police who make enormously embarrassing mistakes often vanish from headlines, leaving only an object (the “suspect”) and the action that mysteriously happened (“shot” or “killed”) without any apparent cause. Journalists ought to be on guard against this phenomenon and write their stories–and headlines–accordingly.