17 March, 2011

BS in disguise

6 Subtle Ways The News Media Disguises Bullshit As Fact. 

By C. Coville Mar 17, 2010
Found here: cracked.com

As anybody who has ever wistfully imagined Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly fighting to the death over a pit of lava knows, most media outlets are biased. Usually it's not part of anybody's grand scheme to brainwash you, but rather just the result of newsrooms being staffed by fallible, opinionated humans.

The problem is they're generally not allowed to come right out and say they think the subject of their news story is a flaming douchebag, so they have to rely on subtle and sometimes downright dishonest methods to gently sway you one way or the other.
When you browse through the news today, keep an eye out for...

#6. Weasel Words

When someone uses language that implies a definite fact without stating it outright, they're using weasel words. The most common are when you attribute opinions to unnamed strangers. Ads include statements like, "Combined with diet and exercise, many experts agree that this pill could drastically increase the size of your penis and raise your credit card score." The "many experts agree" are the weasel words there.

How Can This Be Used For Evil?
If you're writing a news story, and want to insert your own opinion, you simply attribute the opinion to some unnamed person or group. Such as "many people":

...or "some":

The writers do not explain who is saying, asking or arguing. Their friends? God? The homeless man outside ranting about the government stealing his thoughts? Who are these people and how numerous are they? What are their qualifications?

We don't know, and in their own mind the reporter can always rationalize it with, "Well, surely there's somebody on planet Earth making that point. Why waste time actually finding them?"
Weasel words can also be used in another way, similar to the way a Straw Man is used in a debate: to introduce an anonymous but supposed common opposing argument which the writer can then rail against, as we have here:

Dude, that is not the reason we're against letting robots operate on us. It's because they'll rewire our brains and turn us into slaves, as we have plainly stated many times.

#5. Implying Without Saying

As humans, we want to know the "why" behind everything, and we get frustrated when we don't have it. We see two things--a good harvest after we've sacrificed a virgin to the gods, or our luck changing for the worse after that strange man gave us a monkey paw--and we naturally think they're connected. Where there's correlation, we want causation.

This is particularly the case with bad news, which we are usually desperate to find a simple explanation for so that we don't wind up thinking that we live in a random, Godless universe full of cursed monkeys. This can be used against you, however, since a lot of persuasion techniques involve letting you fill in that gap yourself.

How Can This Be Used For Evil?
If you play video games, headlines like this drive you nuts: "Boy, 13, Fired Shotgun Into Cousin's Face After Playing Gangster Game". The "Gangster Game" of course being one of the Grand Theft Auto games. Or perhaps it's, "Teenager Stabbed at Midnight Launch of Violent Video Game Grand Theft Auto IV."

Clearly influencing reality.

Nothing in these headlines is technically untrue, but in both cases you find out from the story that there is absolutely no indication that the video game had anything to do with the crime.
In the first one, you can replace "playing gangster game" with anything the kid did that morning. 

"Boy Fired Shotgun Into Cousin's Face After Eating Cheeseburger." "Boy Fired Shotgun Into Cousin's Face After Watching Spongebob Rerun." Oh, they're not saying the game caused the crime--they have absolutely no way of knowing or proving that. They're just wording it in a way so that you have no choice but to make that connection yourself.

Never mind that the majority of young males play video games on a regular basis. If the attacker had even one edition of the GTA series sitting out at home, that shit goes right in the headline, baby! Otherwise you get a generic headline like "Teenager Arrested Over Stabbing Death," because we fall back to the normal rule that what that teenager did in his spare time is utterly irrelevant to the story.

It's not that the news media necessarily hates video games, by the way. It's far more likely they just threw the video game aspect into the headline to grab attention, since it's just a random, boring crime story otherwise. Like when you see the headline, "Ex-prostitute 'still loves' Becks" ("Becks" being the cute tabloid nickname of soccer superstar David Beckham) you say, "Holy shit! Superstar athlete! Prostitute! Scandal!"

Only when you read the very, very end of the story do you realize that 1) only the woman claims to have had a relationship with him; 2) she wasn't a prostitute at the time and in fact; 3) had only been a prostitute once, for a couple of months, years earlier.

Not many people will read that far, which by the way brings us to another common technique...

#4. Burying Inconvenient Facts

Let's face it, most of us don't have much time to read. If you get your morning headlines on Drudge or Yahoo! News, you almost certainly don't devour every word of every link. You browse headlines, you skim stories, you get the gist of what's going on in the world.

For that reason, journalism schools teach writers to format articles like a backwards version of an M. Night Shyamalan movie: The only part worth seeing comes first. So, you have the headline which is written to grab you, even if it's mildly confusing (see "US Court Rules 'Zombies Have Free Speech Rights'"). And after that comes the first sentence or lede, which summarizes all the important facts of the story that follows ("A court has allowed a group of protesters dressed as zombies to continue with a lawsuit against police who arrested them for disorderly conduct.")

When there is no more room in hell, the protestors will walk the Earth.

As the story goes on, the information supplied becomes steadily less and less important, a style some call the "inverted pyramid." They used to do this for stories appearing in physical newspapers where space was limited, because editors know it's safe to cut from the end without losing anything crucial.

That's the way it's supposed to work, anyway.

How Can This Be Used For Evil?
Obviously if you're a reporter and you have a certain bias one way or the other, the method is simple: Just make sure that whatever facts contradict your point are buried. Nobody can claim you left the facts out, yet you know that most of the readers won't see them.

Can you prove this isn't true?

The most blatant, yet frequent, use of this is just flat out doing a headline that doesn't match the story. After all, people who surf portal sites like Digg or Reddit often read the headline and nothing else. So for example: A news outlet runs the headline, "The Internet Will Make You Smarter, Claims Study."

Most readers will simply scan the headline, and miss the fact that 1) the "study" was just a survey of random people and 2) it was an "online" survey at that. That makes the study about as reliable as a poll on nuclear physics conducted via Tila Tequila's Twitter feed.

Not a physicist, possibly a ninja...

But at least the part that gives it away is near the top. That's opposed to this article from a Seattle newspaper with the provocative headline, "Police Insist: When Huskies Win, There's More Trouble." The "Huskies" here are the local college football team, if you were wondering, and headline seems to say that when they win, crime goes up. Holy shit! Better put a stop to that!

The first hint that the headline might not be accurate comes in paragraph four (that "the stats may not necessarily bear it out") and the information that actually completely contradicts the headline's claim doesn't pop up until freaking paragraph eight (that this very paper did an analysis that showed no increase in police calls on game day, whether the team wins or not).

That's right; without changing a word of the article, the paper could just as easily have run the headline as, "Study Shows No Increase In Huskies Violence."

Keep that in mind as you browse headlines today.

#3. Biased Photos

Some historians say that one of the big reasons Americans were solidly behind World War II but opposed to Vietnam is the pictures the public saw: During WWII we were fed photos of heroes raising flags over liberated territory, in Vietnam we got innocent Vietnamese children running from napalm.

Whether you agree with that or not (there were certainly other factors) you have to admit that appearances matter. A lot. We like to think we base most of our decisions purely on logic, but the dearth of non-manipulated personal photos on Internet forums and Facebook suggests that at least a lot of the time, we don't.

How Can This Be Used For Evil?
This isn't about the news media outright faking images with Photoshop (though that certainly has happened before). This is about the everyday choices editors make about which photo to run with a story, and where they choose to crop it.

For example, here's a photo of a politician helping prepare a meal for his loving family:

Here's a violent madman stabbing a butcher knife into something, probably human flesh.

Meanwhile, camera angles can be used to make a person look like Batman, or like Aquaman's smaller, pussier cousin. A lower angle makes a person look taller, while a wider, higher angle makes them look small and insignificant. This president will come to rescue you from zombies, and then steal your lady. And you won't even mind.

But this guy...

...is that one dude who always wants to borrow your stapler and then loses it. Also notice that the decision of which facial expression to capture is huge. Once again, no actual trickery or fraud is required; you just shuffle through the thousands of pictures available of a famous person on any given day, and pick the one that suits you.

Female politicians may get the worst of this, since you can add or subtract 20 years based on the facial expression and lighting:

#2. The Active Voice

As you hopefully know already, the English language contains two ways of describing an action, the active and the passive voice. For example:
An angry stripper suffocated John. (Active) John was suffocated by an angry stripper. (Passive)

Either way, John is boned.
You're technically saying the same thing, but the emphasis is different (the stripper in the first, her victim in the second). And in fact, in the passive voice you don't actually have to name the attacker at all. The second could have read simply "John was suffocated." You can totally let the stripper off the hook because your wording implies it could have been anyone--or no one at all. Dude could have passed out in a bowl of pudding.

We're not saying it was Cosby, but do the math.

How Can This Be Used For Evil?
It all depends on how you want the audience to feel about the stripper. Take the headline "Man Shoots Daughter's Boyfriend in Groin." The active headline makes clear to the reader that the man shot his daughter's boyfriend in a crotch-splattering rage, presumably deliberately and in cold blood. If they had run it as, "Man Shot in Groin Over Teen Girlfriend," it takes the dad out of the equation and makes it sound more like his own actions naturally led to the shooting, like, "Car Explodes After Running Off Cliff."
Or: Gold Pants Expose Gayness.

For that reason, when the shooting is done by law enforcement or somebody else who is allowed to shoot people on occasion, you tend to get passive headlines like "Men in Stolen Car Shot on AF Base." Hell, that almost makes it sound like the shooting is an unsolved mystery. It might have been the base security guards that killed them, or a wildly off-target shot from a local archery club (it was the first one). But when it's a bad guy doing the shooting, you get the active, "Man Shoots at Deputies, Ends Up Dead." You especially have to love the "Ends Up Dead" there. What, did he have a guilt-induced heart attack? Nope. The cops shot his ass. But you wouldn't know from the headline.

Watch for this in war coverage. Often the difference between the headlines:
"Dozens Killed in Bombing."


"Canadian Bombers Kill Dozens."

...depends entirely on how you want the reader to feel about Canada.

#1. Guessing the Motives Instead of Reporting the Facts

You've probably done this one in your everyday conversation just within the last 24 hours. Rather than just say what happened, you give yourself the freedom to speculate about what the other person was thinking. We could just give a short and accurate description of how some dude backed into our car at the supermarket, but usually we add details about how the guy probably wasn't paying attention because he was too busy thinking about his child-porn ring and how quickly he could get home to beat his wife.

But enough about Jay Leno. Zing!

How Can This Be Used For Evil?
Let's take a look at the same event, as reported in two different outlets:
"Obama Pledges to Press Ahead on Goals."

You know, upstanding President stuff.

"Obama Tries to Boost Beleaguered Democratic National Committee."
The first headline presents what Obama actually did. It's factually true; Obama did in fact pledge to press ahead on goals. Then you have the second, which gives him a motive and adds a backstory: the Democrat party is "beleaguered" and his supposed pledge to press ahead on goals is just an attempt to boost a political party.

Boring world stuff.

Now, some may say that the first one is just blindly repeating the politician's talking points, but the second is flat out mind reading. For a more ridiculous example, a newspaper in California sent a Freedom of Information Act Request to several tech companies to find out how many minorities they have working there. A few companies (including giants like Apple, Google and Yahoo!) refused the request. Headline?

"Steve Jobs Tries to Cover Up Apple's Racial Profile."
Damn! When's the next Klan meeting, Steve Jobs?

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