Do your eyes roll?

The NY Times raised a stink in a story about a potential candidate for president’s wife. Joe Gandelman explains why in Smelly Journalism Dept: Fred Thompson’s Wife

To those of you who roll your eyes and groan when you hear people go on and on about the biased news media that injects its personal opinions into news stories and peppers them with assumptions … it’s an incredible example of a manufactured story that should be shown by journalism professors to students about lazy, assumption-filled journalism. … journalistic standards are being relaxed in these days of competition from tabloids, talk radio, blogs (where anything goes and goes quickly), Ophra — and a general relaxation and degradation of what Americans allow politicians and at times the press to inject into elections as “issues.” … this Times story has a basic assumption that neither the writer or the editor could prove — one that should have been edited out from the lead of the story. …

It is interesting that Joe starts off with presuming a defense, those “who roll your eyes” at allegations of media bias. To me, that says that defensive behaviors are sufficiently generalized and obvious to be of note. The ‘note’ is that the defense is defending something not defensible. That is why Dr. Sanity’s comments are so often found pertinent.

There is a good need for a comparison and contrast in these examples of media bias. The debate usually gets down to trivialities. How many examples can one find for one side or the other? How important is each example? How is the accuracy of the example measured in terms of both factualness and of context? Is it really an example of bias? Who does it more and who less? What is balanced, anyway?

These are not simple measures which is why the argument can get so involved and emotionally charged. It is also why secondary measures that involve more objective data can be important. These include things like patterns in journalist voting records, party affiliations, and campaign donations. A fundamental concept in both journalism and science is accepting that the observer has an inherent bias and that needs an appropriate consideration in the evaluation of the precision and accuracy of an observation or measure.

And, as we tend to do here, you can look at the pattern of the argument. Joe’s explanation sticks to the issue. Innuendo about particular individuals or groups of individuals is minimized. As a contrast, Real Climate often offers examples that drip with condescension, delve into motivations and personalities, and illustrate questionable debate methods. For example:

However, in the new found enthusiasm for digital photography, many of the participants in this effort seem to have leaped to some very dubious conclusions [No man is an (Urban Heat) Island]

“new found enthusiasm” ? – “leaped …” ? No recognition of the points raised or the logic used, just denigration as in “dubious conclusions” which is a judgment or opinion expressed as fact. This is followed by an army of straw men that are then destroyed. Again, bad form for debate if intellectual integrity is desired.

These are only examples, singular items to represent a poorly measured phenomena in a subjectively interpreted statistical analysis. The issue is not to ‘prove’ bias or anything else but to provide a starting point for your own critical reading and interpretation of news and opinion. Don’t “roll your eyes” without have a good objective understanding of what stimulates your response!

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