When headlines undermine news content: Detroit, abortion rates, poverty, and Third-World references

The bold story headline: “Doctor: Detroit abortion stats ‘like some Third World country'”

The quote: “We’re seeing a picture that looks more like some Third-World country than someplace in the United States,” said Dr. Susan Schooley, chairwoman of the Department of Family Medicine at Henry Ford Hospital.

The meme: “Third-World” as code for “African”.

The article: policy advocacy, or selling news?

The Detroit News published a provocative article this week about abortion rates in Detroit. The facts may be true (I would still want to verify them), but is the article being truthful in its presentation? Yes, technically, the abortion rate in Detroit as calculated is similar to that in some developing countries. But at 37.9%, one could also say that it is similar to the 2008 rates in Latin America (32%) or Asia (28%), or that it’s better than (gasp!) Europe in the 1990s (48%). However, presenting the information that way wouldn’t Continue reading

The Malaysia Airlines story, and the need for skepticism and critical thinking skills while following it

Last night I was going to put up a post regarding the whereabouts of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. But after watching the latest news, I decided I needed to hold back. Once again, some items that have been reported as fact have turned out not to be true, and that has happened enough over the past six days that I want to carefully retread the ground already covered.

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That is an axiom very familiar to journalists, but it is important for we the people to also check it out: to examine what the media publishes with a gimlet eye. The reporting on this story provides a valuable object lesson in the need to be skeptical and apply logic and critical thinking skills to media reports. We tend to believe the “facts” based on the reputation of the media source publishing them, but in the fog of ratings wars and a fast-moving story, often reporters will just get the facts “roughly right” in order to quickly shoot out the report.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the reporters were wrong, though; it is also not beyond the realm of possibility that authorities are either not releasing information or deliberately releasing not-quite-accurate information in order to see what effect it has on any communications “chatter” that they may be monitoring.

Erroneous inferences drawn from the facts are also problematic, because they’re often Continue reading

“Yahoo webcam images from millions of users intercepted by GCHQ” gasped the Guardian. But that’s not really the problem.

“Yahoo webcam images from millions of users intercepted by GCHQ” gasped the Guardian headline.

The system, eerily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell’s 1984, was used for experiments in automated facial recognition, to monitor GCHQ’s existing targets, and to discover new targets of interest. Such searches could be used to try to find terror suspects or criminals making use of multiple, anonymous user IDs.

This is not reporting, it is manipulative commentary. “[E]erily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell’s 1984” is a prairie dog-whistle phrase designed to make you pop up out of your hole in fear. Which in and of itself is kind of Orwellian manipulation, if you think about it.

The privacy risks of mass collection from video sources have long been known to the NSA and GCHQ, as a research document from the mid-2000s noted: “One of the greatest hindrances to exploiting video data is the fact that the vast majority of videos received have no intelligence value whatsoever, such as pornography, commercials, movie clips and family home movies.”

That’s a pretty neat trick: what they say they’re saying is that the videos have no intelligence value, but what the article is really trying to communicate is: they can see your naughty bits. Although only between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contains “undesirable nudity”, most of the rest of the article is devoted to discussion of the policies and restrictions around viewing it. The article is preying on people’s fears of having their homemade porn discovered in order to gin up protest that this kind of surveillance is utterly intolerable and must be stopped.

Don’t take this personally, people, but your webchat porn – no matter how talented you think you are – Continue reading

Al Jazeera America asks: Shouldn’t news just give the facts? The false god of utter objectivity

In a promoted tweet today, Al Jazeera America asked “Shouldn’t news just give the facts?”

The problem is with that word “just”. It implies a pure, no-additives-here neutral objectivity. Real news, untainted by bias. It reduces the news organization to “just” a fact-checker and news reader. But given limited time and resources, choices must be made: which news items will be aired? Which facts will be presented? What to leave in, what to leave out…those are editorial judgments.

Those choices are increasingly perceived to be driven in some news organizations by ratings or ideology, rather than the public interest.  In a 2010 opinion published by the Washington Post, Ted Koppel decried the death of real news, calling cable news biased and calling for a return to facts:

We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly – individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.


What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts – along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.

Actually, the op-ed piece was more about Koppel’s slightly bitter opinion that news organizations had transitioned “from a public service to a profitable commodity”, and that “company bean-counters” trimmed, cut, and eliminated Continue reading

Sounds like a staged leak: Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul caught on hot mic (via @Politico)

Ah, the “gotcha” of inadvertent eavesdropping. A microphone left live, picking up a confidential strategic conversation. We lean in gleefully, listening over and over again to the supposedly unvarnished truth.

Really? The brief conversation between Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul sounds more like a carefully staged leak designed to get some movement on the impasse over the Obamacare-for-government hostage situation. And that’s a good thing.

Listen to Rand Paul at :23 talk about compromise on Obamacare:

“I think if we keep saying we wanted to defund it, we fought for that, and now we’re willing to compromise on this….”

The Politico article is here.

What is wrong with you, Lawrence O’Donnell? The Last Word’s Monday night Fox News-style ambush rant on Anthony Weiner

Last night on his MSNBC show The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell did two things that I didn’t think were possible: he made former representative and current NYC mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner look like a sympathetic, reasonable candidate and made himself look like a stereotypical haranguing Fox News hack.

O’Donnell began the segment with a sucker-punch question to Weiner: “What is wrong with you?” He continued almost without letting Weiner complete a full sentence, let alone a full answer, constantly interrupting and peppering him with judgmental opinions disguised as “journalism”:

  • What is wrong with you that you cannot seem to imagine a life without elective office?
  • …what seems to be your absolute desperate need for elective office and what seems to be your inability to live outside of it.
  • You have been pursuing elective office for over 20 years now….it does not seem to be a fully healthy pursuit.
  • If you take in the totality of your life, Anthony, do you think you’ve spent your time well?
  • Why didn’t you do something for no money?
  • What drives you?…. I mean it from a psychiatric level…. You are being driven by some kind of demons….

And Murrow turns over in his grave….

O’Donnell repeatedly accused Weiner of “hustling his services” as a lobbyist. His proof? “Come on, I know the racket of ex-officials in this town.” Yes, that’s it: superiority without substance – always good to fall on when facts fail you. He calls Weiner a lobbyist because it wouldn’t sound as sneeringly gotcha to say “consulted to businesses that do business with the government”. Consulting to businesses that lobby the government or do work for the government is not lobbying, no matter how much your straw man wants it to be.

O’Donnell must remember replaying Bill O’Reilly’s February 2011 Fox News interview with Obama and keeping count of how many times O’Reilly interrupted the President. The final count, according to O’Donnell, was more than 70 (live and taped parts combined). The number of times that O’Reilly allowed Obama to complete an answer uninterrupted: 0. We all thought at the time that O’Donnell was being scornful of O’Reilly when he reported this…but maybe he was really just watching the Continue reading

Why words matter: shaping public opinion about the NSA

“NSA Analysts Intentionally Abused Spying Powers Multiple Times” blared the Bloomberg article headline. The article’s tone suggests that deliberate and willful violations of American’s privacy were made by “people with access to the NSA’s vast electronic surveillance systems” and “were the work of overzealous NSA employees or contractors”. The NSA, it clearly should be inferred from the language in this article, is a nefarious organization that Must Be Reined In.

But a closer read of the article, stripped of its shellacking, shows that:

“The deliberate actions didn’t violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or the USA Patriot Act, the NSA said in its statement. Instead, they overstepped the 1981 Executive Order 12333, issued by President Ronald Reagan, which governs U.S. intelligence operations.”

Executive Order 12333 outlines the authorities and responsibilities of the various intelligence agencies. It marks the boundaries of each agency’s scope of work. In other words, it’s a who-does-what document. The careful quote by an official who spoke on condition of anonymity makes it clear that that’s what’s important:

“The agency has taken steps to ensure that everyone understands legal and administrative boundaries….”

In other words, it’s a turf battle, folks. Note that no one is saying that these actions couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t have been undertaken by another agency; they are only saying that the NSA overstepped its bounds. The reader is left to leap to the conclusion that the violations would not have happened otherwise. If the “correct” agency had undertaken those actions, it is quite probable that no privacy right would have been violated because there would have been no privacy right: the “correct” agency would have been acting within its authority.

The Bloomberg article is not so much reporting news as it is shaping the news: attempting to Continue reading