Misleading headlines distort coverage


Many misleading headlines have arisen from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

CNN released a story with this headline following an attack on Tuesday titled “4 Israelis, 2 Palestinians killed in synagogue attack, Israeli police say.” Although this headline does not indicate it in any way, the “2 Palestinians” were the terrorists. An update to the headline was no better, referring to an attack on a Jerusalem “mosque” when in fact it was a synagogue.

This follows a report last month by the Associated Press given the headline “Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem.” From this headline only, one would infer that the Israeli police were the aggressors and the man the victim when in fact the roles were opposite. From the story you learn that Israeli police shot a man who slammed his car into a crowd of people waiting at a train stop in an act of suspected terrorism and tried to run.

Misleading headlines, such as these, are dangerous. Many people gather news simply by reading headlines, and while the habit is not ideal, it is a fact of which journalists need to be mindful.

For another thing, studies have shown that the initial perception formed in a reader’s mind by the headline will taint his/her interpretation of the entire story that follows.

I’m not suggesting every headline should be full of name-calling, but the perpetrator-victim relationship must not be distorted, whether misrepresented on purpose or not, as this has the potential to vilify innocent people.

Media sensationalism risks public health


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 20 measles outbreaks in the U.S. between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 of this year, spread mainly among non-vaccinated individuals. These numbers are among the highest recorded since 1997.

The practice of vaccinating children has been on decline since a 1998 study from the lab of Andrew Wakefield was published claiming that vaccinations cause developmental disorders in children. The article was later retracted when it was discovered to be a dishonest study that violated research ethics.

Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain a link between childhood vaccinations and autism, including the measles vaccine and a vaccine called thimersosal.

The only study showing any association between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was the aforementioned 1998 study, which was not surprisingly funded by lawyers and parents wishing to sue vaccine manufacturers. That was not the only conflict of interest Wakefield did not disclose at the time of publication. The year before the study was published, Wakefield patented a measles vaccine with the potential to replace the combined vaccine that was customarily given.

Despite the small sample size and far-reaching conclusions in Wakefield’s publication, the media vastly publicized it. Vaccination rates dropped substantially as parents were frightened into believing that vaccinating their children put them at severe risk for Autism.

The media has a tendency toward sensationalism, in which it gives exaggerated coverage to insignificant content. “Media exploits vaccine scares firstly to promote fear and pity among their readers which moves media product,” said investigative journalist Brian Deer.

We are still paying the costs to public health of the media’s over-dramatic coverage of the single, fraudulent paper.

‘Unseen influences’ taint media


Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS News reporter, alleged her computer was hacked by a government agency for reasons that include an attempt to conceal the causes of the 2012 Benghazi attack.

Attkisson recently discussed “the unseen influences on and manipulation of the images and information the public receives in the media.” She quite her job at CBS News because she did not like the way the network avoided stories it feared would illicit pushback from corporations or politicians. She warned that “unseen and undisclosed paid interests are behind the images.” In essence, “PR officials and propagandists may organize and fan out… to manipulate information and give the impression that there is great support for or opposition to an issue or person,” she explained.

What this means for the public is that content must be digested and contemplated thoroughly. People must become more active readers and think critically to decide whether a story is likely to be reliable.

This places undue burden on the public, since people can’t be experts in every field and since their full-time job is not as an investigative journalist.

The press is fundamental to a healthy democracy. For it to function properly, networks must not be agenda-driven, accept bribery, or be fearful of government or corporate retaliation. As one opinion columnist for The Guardian put it, the media need to stop being a “lapdog” and return to being a “watchdog.” Every appropriate measure must be taken to present accurate, unbiased information to the people it serves, the public.

Media shape attitudes toward disabled


In 2010, the United States Census Bureau reported that 56.7 million Americans, or nearly one in five, are living with a disability. For comprising such a large portion of the population, people with disabilities and policy issues related to disability are under-represented in the media.

To make matters worse, when the media do include people with disabilities in their reporting, it is generally approached from one of two ways. Either it is suggested that people with disabilities should be pitied or the individual is portrayed as heroic. Stories often describe an individual who “struggles” with disability X, yet achieves something “remarkable.”

A recent story about a girl with cerebral palsy who won the title of Homecoming Queen is a case in point. The story emphasized that her winning was not the result of “pity” votes. The takeaway point seemed to be that it is remarkable that she won and legitimately at that.

Why should it be so surprising that she won?

In no way am I attempting to downplay the young lady’s accomplishment. Being named Homecoming Queen is certainly special and she certainly deserves all of the attention that surrounds being queen. Stories just shouldn’t be framed in a way that suggest to the public that succeeding while living with a disability is unusual or extraordinary.

The news media have a powerful role in creating perceptions and influencing the views of the public. Reporting that pities people with disabilities or on the other extreme deems them heroic for doing things not generally seen as heroic are an obstacle to the acceptance of people with disabilities into society.

Equal coverage needed for all missing


Hannah Graham’s disappearance has opened old wounds. Cassandra Morton disappeared in 2009 but her name didn’t make national headlines the same way Graham’s has.

Just six days after Morton went missing, Morgan Harrington disappeared. Harrington received more news coverage than Morton.

Morton’s stepfather says it’s because Harrington’s family was able to offer a reward for their daughter and because Morton didn’t fit the media’s preferred image.

According to The Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson:

“A damsel must be white. This requirement is nonnegotiable. It helps if her frame is of dimensions that breathless cable television reporters can credibly describe as ‘petite,’ and it also helps if she’s the kind of woman who wouldn’t really mind being called ‘petite,’ a woman with a good deal of princess in her personality. She must be attractive — also nonnegotiable. Her economic status should be middle class or higher…”

Morton came from Tinbridge Hill, a historically black neighborhood. She experimented with drugs and moved around a lot.

Harrington’s parents made television appearances and a website was made to find their daughter. Morton did not receive such attention. Without speaking with both Morton’s and Harrington’s parents, I cannot know the degree to which each family sought coverage and the degree to which the media approached each family to be able to pinpoint the cause of the difference in coverage between the two girls’ disappearances.

In any case, this should serve as a reminder for journalists that content should be dictated by neither aesthetics nor money. We need to strive for fair, unbiased coverage that represents the diversity of our population.

The age of 24-hour news filler


News used to be delivered in the form of daily newspapers. First with cable television and increasingly so with the Internet, coverage has become nonstop. 24-hour news channels are constantly on the air. Ironically, as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of “Warp Speed,” comment, news is delivered less completely as a result of 24-hour coverage because stories are now often presented in little pieces interspersed with speculation.

The concept of newsgathering is becoming distorted. What once valued significance and thoroughness becomes a waiting game with superficial filler. This is heightened by the desire to be broadcast live. Reporters may stand around waiting for breaking news to occur.  As Richard Sambrook and Sean McGuire at theguardian.com noted, “when a presenter feels compelled to say, ‘Plenty more to come … none of it news … but that won’t stop us,’” while waiting for the royal birth in 2013, “then there really is a problem.”

This deterioration is further driven by the desire to be first. The Internet enables videos and other forms of communication to be transmitted instantly. It is a race between channels to be the first to air breaking news. This has ethical implications since speed often correlates with inaccuracy. The traditional function of journalism, which is to share true, reliable accounts, is sometimes replaced by journalism in which the information is published before being verified.

Not all inaccuracies can be easily erased. Such was a case with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The media repeatedly misreported information in the rush to share new discoveries. In addition to erroneously reporting 12 dead, The New York Post linked Salah Barhoun to the attack. The innocent 17-year-old was featured front page as one of two “bag men,” suggesting that he was a suspect in the bombing. You can imagine the toll this false accusation took on his reputation, which may follow him throughout his life.

Leave climate change to the experts


Being fair and balanced is a dogma of journalism. But in an attempt to offer balanced reporting, journalists may in fact introduce inaccuracy and deception.

There is a consensus amongst scientists about climate change. According to climate.nasa.gov, 97 percent of scientists believe that global warming trends are the result of human activity.

If journalists feel they must have balance in their stories, who does that leave them to turn to for the opposition? Well, not scientists.

Quoting politicians on the scientific evidence surrounding climate change is committing the fallacy of inappropriate expertise. Rick Santorum remarked that scientific evidence cannot even withstand common sense, sarcastically saying, “man-made carbon dioxide — a gas that humans exhale and plants need to live, a gas that represents less than 0.1 percent of the atmosphere — is a dangerous pollutant threatening to overheat the world.”

The truth is that although in terms of percentages the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is small, it is very potent and even trace amounts can have disastrous effects.

So let’s leave it to the experts. We wouldn’t ask Albert Einstein for commentary on comparative politics, would we?

It is completely acceptable to consult and quote politicians on policy issues and economic issues surrounding global warming. But our discussions with them should stop there.

White House tries to control watchdogs


Earlier this week, Paul Farhi with The Washington Post reported cases of the White House demanding that members of its press-pool change their reports.

The White House functions on a system whereby a small group of journalists known as pool reporters receive exclusive access to presidential events. The reports of these journalists are e-mailed to a database, including news outlets, for them to use in stories nationwide.

The pool reporters share their reports with the White House press office, which is responsible for distributing them to the members of the database. Reporters say this office has forced changes in reports before their release to media outlets. Essentially, the White House is trying to control which information is circulated and allowing only the coverage it sees as favorable.

The press, commonly referred to as the fourth branch of government, is supposed to be a check on government. How can journalists be watchdogs if their content is being reviewed?

In the majority of cases, a journalist should not allow his/her sources to review an article prior to publication, as this would give the source undue power over the journalist. It is the journalist’s responsibility to report as accurately as possible that occasionally provides an exception to this rule.

Such an example would be when writing an article concerning a complex subject, such as astrophysics. Since the journalist is not an astrophysicist, he may need to verify the accuracy of his report with the expert source.

The changes being demanded by the White House press office are not complex matters. In fact, they are oftentimes quite trivial, such as a statement that an intern fainted during a press briefing. It is the principle of government infringement on freedom of the press under fire here.

BBC worked to avoid misrepresentation


With Scotland’s independence on the line, the historic referendum permeated newsrooms around the world this week.

News organizations reported as usual, interviewing voters who expressed their reasons for voting “Yes” or “No” for Scottish independence. Such reporting came to a halt at 6 a.m. on voting day for several news organizations.

On Sept. 18, BBC News was entirely devoid of opinion on the subject of Scottish independence. Following its code of practice, the BBC reported only uncontroversial factual accounts such as the number of polling stations, the percentage of the electorate registered to vote, and even the weather in a “commitment to impartiality and fairness.”

These sorts of practices are vital to avoid misrepresentation and to ensure that the outcome of an election truly reflects the population’s beliefs as a whole. If an election is predicted to be neck and neck, it is likely that more people will go to the polls. If, on the other hand, reported polling suggests a landslide victory, supporters of the minority party may feel that there is no hope so why bother voting? Or quite the opposite, if the popular candidate is “sure to win,” people may feel that it’s okay not to make it to the polls because so many other people will vote in favor of their cause. If enough people have that mentality, the minority opinion might win after all!

Having said that, as journalists, we must ensure that proper polling techniques were used, such as obtaining a representative sample, before reporting results. We certainly don’t want another case of the 1936 Literary Digest blunder. This applies even when sharing the results of a poll conducted by another organization. The information given to the public may bias their actions and we as journalists don’t want to be responsible for changing the course of history against true public opinion.

Just how much do we need to know?


For journalists, reporting involves deciding what is newsworthy as well as what is ethical.

Such considerations are currently up for debate surrounding the dissemination of the video of journalist James Foley’s beheading by ISIS last month. Some argue that the video should not be banned as such censorship infringes on First Amendment rights. Others see the video as too gruesome and say it only gives ISIS the publicity they so strongly desire.

The first question to be asked is, Is the story newsworthy? Since it involves human rights and terrorism it is indeed a story of public interest. Furthermore, the ISIS militant in the video gives a “message to America” explaining that Foley’s death is the result of U.S. military intervention so it is of public concern for American citizens and residents.

But is sharing the footage ethical and even necessary for telling the story?

Death is a personal experience. A devout Catholic, Foley spoke of prayer on multiple occasions. For Foley, the moments leading up to his death were likely very spiritual, which is often considered a private matter. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, people should be aided to “live their last moments in dignity and peace.”

The revisiting of his barbaric execution by viewers is not respecting the emphasis his faith places on having a peaceful death. And while it was most certainly an honorable death, I doubt it to be the moment by which Foley would like to be remembered.

While in the moments leading to his death Foley would not have had any expectation of privacy since he was aware of ISIS’ motivation in filming it, this cannot be used as grounds for arguing that he forfeited his right to privacy. Foley had no choice.

On Aug. 20, the day after Foley’s murder, the New York Post published a picture of Foley with the ISIS militant holding the knife blade to his throat moments before making the fatal cut. There is no question that this blatant display went much too far.

While the inclusion of such pictures on pages deep within a newspaper may be up for debate, featuring them on the front page is inexcusable. Cover pages do not give the option for viewer discretion. Just as there are laws protecting children from exposure to obscene material, should this graphic image be accessible to the eyes of young children walking to school?

Sure, a New York Post reporter didn’t film the event and therefore can’t be blamed for the act of invasion of privacy, but is a news organization’s decision to disseminate it equally at fault?

The decision of whether the material containing graphic visuals should be public comes down to deciding whether the gory footage of Foley’s death is a ‘need to know’ or a ‘want to know’ situation.