The Media's "How-To" Guide for Manipulating the Truth

By: Joe Messerli

"It is easier to believe a lie that one has heard a thousand times than to believe a fact that one has never heard before." --Robert S. Lynd

Other than politicians, there is perhaps no group in public life that garners the same level of mistrust as today's news media. A Goggle search of "Media Bias" returns over 3 million results, indicating this is not a new problem. Outlets like Fox News and the Washington Times are constantly criticized as being conservatively slanted. The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, Time, USA Today, and most of the remaining mainstream media is regularly accused of being liberally slanted.

Whether you agree on these assessments or not, it's clear that the vast majority of our news & information come from sources that have agenda-driven goals which include many things, one of which is NOT objectivity. The mainstream media has abandoned virtually every rule of Journalism 101, and has not even approached the reliability of the Scientific Method.

So why would people in the media break these rules? It's simple--just like everyone else, they have personal beliefs & opinions about society and about how it should be changed. If you ask virtually any journalism student why they chose the field they entered, they will say "to make a difference", "to help people", or "to change the world". Thus, although some often have good intentions, they use a series of methods to manipulate stories to achieve their ends. Lets examine these methods.

  1. Using Anecdotal evidence This is the method where reporters use a single example as "evidence". In statistical terms, this amounts to a sample size of one, which by my calculations, equals roughly a statistical margin of error of 100 percent! What was the attitude of parents who had kids fighting in Iraq? Although every parent worried about their child, did they support the war? Did they believe Saddam Hussein had to be stopped? Were they proud or ashamed of the U.S. military? I can't answer these questions because the news media never presented opinion surveys or scientific studies to tell us. Instead, they found a anti-American nutcase named Cindy Sheehan (the "anti-war mom") to present the mood of all parents of soldiers. Was this truly representative of parents or did this story further their goals of turning the public against the war? Anecdotal evidence is almost always useless in any scientific study because the sample size is too small to make an accurate assessment, in addition to the fact that the researcher can manipulate the outcome by selecting the sample. This is why weight-loss products will always show you before-after pictures of a few people that lost weight rather than give statistics such as average weight gain six months after going off the diet. For the news media, it's easy to always find anecdotal exceptions that "prove" what they want to prove.

  2. Providing only one side of stories Most journalists seem to forget there are two sides to EVERY controversial issue, otherwise it wouldn't be controversial! Unfortunately, these same journalists usually believe in one side over the other and will work to make sure only their side is fairly presented. For example, in analyzing the pros & cons of withdrawing from Iraq, the media can focus on soldiers or Iraqi citizens dying or the high financial cost if we stay, without presenting points from the other side such as a potential civil war breakout or an Iranian takeover if we leave too quickly. On my website analysis of this issue, I came up with 11 reasons to withdraw and 14 reasons to keep troops there. How many of these have you heard in the news media? I would venture to say that if you follow the news, you've probably heard everything on the withdrawal side at some time or another.

  3. Choosing only certain stories to run or emphasize A media source shows it's bias not only by how it presents it's stories, but also in what stories it chooses to run. For example, CNN news is a strong advocate of banning the death penalty. Thus, if a story arises about a perceived mistake in a death penalty case, you can bet it's a top headline on CNN. Here's a quiz, if a paroled murderer goes out and kills again, do you think it's a top headline, or even mentioned at all at CNN? Then there's the Iraq War. Fox News is a strong advocate of the war. So any time good news comes out of Iraq such as political agreements or a terrorist capture, you can bet it's a top story. CNN and the NY Times, on the other hand, are wholeheartedly against the war. Thus, they make it a daily duty to dredge up any bad news they can find, whether it's a military canine killed in action or a study related to a soldier suicide. The daily drip-drip of negative news is designed to change viewer opinions, not present an objective assessment. Another example: how many stories have we seen about Valerie Plame and the supposed CIA-leak scandal? Since it hurt a Republican, the mainstream media ran constant updates over every aspect of the case for years. How much have you heard about the Sandy Berger scandal, in which the former Clinton official was caught trying to smuggle out classified terrorism documents? The scandals came out at the same time and had similar sizes of magnitude. Could it be that most of the media didn't want to hurt Bill's legacy and wanted to stick it to Bush?

  4. Cherry-picking research & statistics There are hundreds of thousands of newspapers, magazines, TV stations, and radio stations all collecting & reporting information. There are thousands of universities and millions of students doing research. All this doesn't even scratch the surface compared to the information transmitted on the Internet. Thus, on almost any subject, if you look hard enough, you can find virtually any research & statistics to support your views. For example, when debating whether we should allow oil drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, you can find several studies estimating the oil there will only sustain the U.S. energy needs for a few weeks. You also can find several studies estimating the oil there will sustain the U.S. energy needs for decades. Now, which studies do you think those opposed to drilling will cite? Which studies do you think those in favor of drilling will cite? This type of cherry-picking of research is widespread in the mainstream media. Think about the debate over a universal health care program. When analyzing universal plans in Canada, there are 1000s of health statistics to compare to the U.S.--cancer survival rates, nurses per patient, new drug patents, average life span, and so on. So what is the one most mentioned (and often the only one mentioned) by the news media? Infant mortality rate. The news media managed to wade through a ton of comparison research to finally find one statistic in which Canada has a favorable rating. Obviously, they now have the "scientific" evidence that Canada's system is superior, correct?

  5. Using biased polls or selectively reporting results If you're a regular watcher of cable news shows, can you remember a day when some new poll wasn't presented? Polls open a whole new set of possible biases and manipulations. Polls can use leading questions, a small or unrepresentive sample size, sloppy recording methods, and dishonest poll-takers. The results can be displayed in misleading ways, and like all research, you can cherry-pick the polls to use. For example, a poll result may show 65 percent of the public favors an immediate withdrawal of troops in Iraq. The media may trumpet this result, omitting the fact it was asked only of Democratic primary voters or recorded by the radical anti-American group Code Pink. Another poll may ask if your economic situation is better off or worse off than it was 5 years ago. Most Americans may want to answer "about the same", but it isn't one of the options due to sloppy poll construction. Many polls nowadays are scientifically sound and unbiased. However, that doesn't matter to the majority of the mainstream media. They will find whatever polls support their positions and make them "news".

  6. Using out-of-context quotes and clips Barack Obama and most of the media has frequently mentioned John McCain's statement that American troops may be in Iraq "for a hundred years". This obviously means McCain is a psychotic warmonger who wants endless bloodshed in Iraq, correct? In the full context of the quote, McCain explains that he means a small contingent of troops similar to what we've had for decades in Germany and South Korea; these troops would provide a deterrent factor and be available to respond to hot spots in the Middle East, the center of world terror. Now, whether or not you still disagree with McCain's position, the quote sounds very different when explained in context. The same technique applies to film clips. Remember the videotaped Rodney King beating? A jury managed to acquit the officers when viewing the full video, not the scaled-down end of it. How many of you can remember seeing the full video on any news program even one time? It's possible you still may have believed the officers crossed the line, but you weren't allowed to see the full video and decide for yourself. The news media wanted you to believe that LAPD officers were racist and brutal. Once again, they were pushing an agenda over objectively presenting the story.

  7. Choosing other poor sources as "evidence" Few people watching a news report or reading an article pay attention to sources of reports. Here are a new other poor choices of evidence to be aware of:

    a) "Anonymous" or unnamed "expert" sources A frequently-used method is to say something like "An anonymous source inside the White House has confirmed that Bush changed his policy position after pressure from the oil lobby". Sometimes, reporters will even add a word like "credible" or "expert" ("a credible source inside the White House..."). The beauty of this method is that reporters can say almost anything without having to back it up. If a reporter is called on his supposed source, he inevitably squeals for "First Amendment" protection and nobly vows to defend his source even if sent to prison.

    b) Remote sources or those with questionable credibility The show 60 Minutes ran a story discussing a study that concluded the happiest country on Earth was Denmark, while the U.S. was way down in 23rd place in the ranking. Among the reasons for this happiness was a socialized health care system, high taxes that reduced the number of the classes, and education paid for by the government & taxes. In other words, Denmark is the socialist Utopia liberal reporters dream of! Obviously, the U.S. should adopt this strategy now that a definitive study has been done to confirm it's effects on happiness, correct? Well, 60 minutes had to scour research all over the world to find a small liberal study done in Britain by a university most Americans haven't heard of (University of Leicester). There are plenty of studies from Stanford, Yale, Cato Institute, and a myriad of other credible institutions, but 60 Minutes chose to use this one. Why do you suppose that is?

    c) Citing secondary sources that use one or more of the other manipulations techniques Think about what happens when a well-known news or research source such as Harvard University or the New York Times uses one of the other flawed methods of data presentation. Unfortunately, it can start a chain of flawed research. For example, let's say the New York Times uses a flawed poll result and "anonymous" sources to present a story. That article now becomes a primary source which may be cited by hundreds or thousands of other articles. So, for example, the Chicago Tribune and CNN can now put out an report stating "A New York Times report concluded..." Then, students at universities can now cite the story from CNN, New York Times, or Chicago Tribune in a research paper. The chain of flawed presentation then echoes throughout world media.

  8. Controlling the timing of stories to do maximum political damage This is a technique in which journalists sit on a story until it can be released at a most politically opportune time. Timing can be everything since stories that are fresh in voters minds often influence elections. Plus, even if a story is false or misleading, it often takes time to refute it. For example, in the 2000 presidential election, with George W. Bush seemingly heading for victory, the media "discovered" an old DWI arrest from Bush's youth only weeks before the election. Bush had been in public life for decades, yet by some coincidence they learn of the story only weeks before the election? This pattern of trying to influence elections with last-minute stories is so commonplace that a term has been coined for it -- the October Surprise; i.e. the story that comes out immediately before the November elections. Another high-profile example of timing control occurred recently with John McCain. In January of 2008, in the heat of the Republican nomination process, the New York Times editorial staff endorsed McCain as the Republican nominee. Then, after McCain had all but locked up the nomination, it came out with a supposed scandal between McCain and a female lobbyist. If the Times knew a real scandal had taken place, then why would they endorse him only a few weeks earlier? A true scandal may have knocked McCain out of the nomination race, but as possibly the most liberal, pro-Democrat paper on record, they wanted to make sure the choice of McCain was locked in as the Republican nominee before they released the story.

  9. Using "critics say" to express their own beliefs Beware whenever you read or hear the words "critics say". A reporter will often use these words to stir up controversy or to express their own beliefs. For example, three weeks after we launched military action in Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11, reporters were anxiously spewing lines such as "Critics say the military is bogged down in Vietnam. Is this another Vietnam?" Who were these "critics"? Who else besides weasely media elites would connect Afghanistan with Vietnam three weeks into the war? The "critics say" line is one of the most general, useless statements in existence. Can't any man or women on Earth with communication skills be a critic?

Most media outlets nowadays simply cannot be counted on to provide an objective, balanced discussion of the issues. We all have to keep our attention and critical-thinking skills sharp so we're not led by these deceptions. Perhaps the best way to punish manipulative media sources is to boycott them--stop buying their paper or tune to a different news station.  And to really get an accurate assessment of the world, we have to read or listen to multiple sources of information. It's the only way we'll be able to come together as a nation and solve the challenges of our generation.

"To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective and being honest." --Stephen Schneider, reporter

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." --Mark Twain

Links

Media Bias Basics
Media Presidential Bias and Decline
Media Research Center
Wikipedia: Media Bias

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Page Last Updated:
07/14/2011
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