Newspaper of dumb wrong on numbers

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Last updated on June 10th, 2017 at 07:59 am

“Blogs of war wrong on bias,” claimed a Sydney Morning Herald headline the other day. According to Michael Gawenda, the paper’s Washington correspondent:

Media coverage of the Iraq war by the American media was not biased in favour or against the war, according to new research, despite claims the coverage was generally biased and negative.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington think tank affiliated with Columbia University’s school of journalism, looked at more than 2000 stories in newspapers and on television and websites.

Most were “straight” news reports, according to the survey’s director, Tom Rosenstiel, with 25 per cent of the stories positive and 20 per cent negative.

The survey is unlikely to pacify conservative critics of the mainstream media who have argued the media has concentrated on all the things that have gone wrong in Iraq while downplaying positive developments.

Conservative bloggers – who far outnumber liberal ones – have run a relentless campaign against what they see as the liberal bias of the mainstream media.

We also enjoy pointing out humiliating errors. Here’s the actual survey:

Over all, across all media studied, stories about the war were just slightly more likely to carry a clearly negative tone than a positive one (25% negative versus 20% positive).

Gawenda has flipped the figures. The man needs help with numbers.

(Via the excellent Attila the Pun and Alan R.M. Jones)

Posted by Tim B. on 03/15/2005 at 08:52 AM
    1. Found out his favorite sports teams. He probably writes about them winning all the time.

      Posted by bc on 2005 03 15 at 11:25 AM • permalink


    1. One of the rules about reorganizing under bankruptcy laws is that if you have a Center of Excellence, you have to get rid of it.

      Posted by rhhardin on 2005 03 15 at 11:26 AM • permalink


    1. Comsidering the reporters and columnists the SMH employs, is it time to start referring to it as Australia’s Newspaper of Stuck Record?

      Posted by richard mcenroe on 2005 03 15 at 12:12 PM • permalink


    1. Is the SMH trying to say that the war was only going 20% good so they were accurately representing the situation?  Seems like we’re doing better than that.

      Posted by rk260395 on 2005 03 15 at 12:13 PM • permalink


    1. There is a lot to that story, including the idea that people weren’t that concerned that the media was more negative about Bush than Kerry.  Apparently, they just don’t think the mainstream media is that important anymore.

      More here.

      Posted by roborant on 2005 03 15 at 12:25 PM • permalink


    1. It seems this part

      across all media studied

      is the most important part.

      I know, let’s just aggregate different sources ‘til we get a statistic we like. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

      I’ll bet “across all media studied” this report will be overwhelmingly supported. The MSM won’t question it at all. Bloggers will split roughly 50-50. And there’s your statistic.

      Posted by Birkel on 2005 03 15 at 12:32 PM • permalink


    1. Good to see that aggressive, strenuous fact-checking at work.

      Posted by Vasco on 2005 03 15 at 01:01 PM • permalink


    1. I wonder what criteria they used in determing the percentages of good and bad stories.  Did they simply count the number of good and bad stories and calculate a straight ratio?

      In business we are constantly faced with the question of how to accurately measure differing factors.  One cannot simply use a straight count, since things differ in impact and importance.  To handle this measuring of apples and oranges, we develop various methods of weighing factors.  One issue might be assigned a weight of 1 while another might be considered to have far more importance, thereby requiring a weight of 10, 100, or whatever is realistic.

      It would seem necessary that any group conducting a survey would have to similarly come up with a system of weighing.  After all, the interruption of garbage collection for 3 days is not equal in importance and effect to the conquering of Fallujah.  The lengthening of the wait for refueling one’s automobile by 30 minutes is not equal to the lengthening of the number of hours of electricity service in Basra.

      Otherwise, it’s equating apples with oranges or, er, dates with pomegranites.

      Posted by wronwright on 2005 03 15 at 02:51 PM • permalink


    1. I have it on good authority that 90% of American adults believe Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

      Posted by RebeccaH on 2005 03 15 at 05:09 PM • permalink


    1. This does not explain why we have to go to the lengthy reports produced by Chrenkoff and others, and the Iraq blogs, to get a fuller picture.
      I would have to go along with wronwright that this survey’s methodology needs closer scrutiny.
      The analysis smacks of ABC tactics – deny all complaints, explain how balanced you really are, then continue to allow your presenters to run the agendum.
      By carefully selecting the stories you run, carefully selecting the experts you interview, carefully avoiding the stories which Chrenkoff runs, you can present a different picture.
      You could write a book on subtle media spin tactics.

      Posted by blogstrop on 2005 03 15 at 05:28 PM • permalink


    1. It also depends on what you call ‘positive,’ and how positive that news is.  Consider two headlines:

      1. “Hundreds die in worst terror attacks since war began”
      2. “Death toll of 50 lowest in a year”

      You could say that #1 is negative, #2, positive.  But #1 is worse than #2 is good – in fact, by leading with ‘death toll of 50’ even the positive news is given a negative spin.  The net effect is negative.

      Then you can consider that the first headline will probably be front page, above the fold, while the next headline, three months later, will wind up on page 14 next to an ad for weed killer.

      In ten years, the press will start saying stuff like, hey, Iraq has just had its fourth consecutive national elections, they’ve got a new prime minister, and that hot new Arab band just played to 25,000 fans in a stadium that used to hold Saddam’s mass executions.  And the lead singer’s son is named George W al-Salaam.

      BUT the headline will be that he had a bad head cold and couldn’t be there.  Must be President Rice’s fault.

      Posted by Nightfly on 2005 03 15 at 06:38 PM • permalink


    1. For years now I’ve had a problem with network news correspondents mentioning a chosen course of action or an achievement and then trying to be balanced by giving equal exposure to criticism by ardent opponents.  Regardless of how flaky the critic is, say for instance Polly Tornbee of the Guardian. Often they will not even give the names of the critics but simply say “but critics say that so and so policy will create unforeseen harm to potentially millions of innocent victims, thereby creating greater hate against the US”.

      When this happens, I often reply to the television or radio (usually NPR) “who, who says that, God?, Robert Fisk?, there’s a difference in the quality of opponents and critics, you know.”

      If it was possible, I’d almost want them to employ an objective party to weigh the importance and impact of every darn thing they say.  And list it on the screen as they say it.

      Today the US invade Iraq:  100 units
      His Holiness the Pope is upset by this:  20 units
      Margo Kingston is terribly upset by this:  .01 unit

      Then I could treat it with the weight it deserves.  Otherwise, I’d have no other choice but to say, OK, President Bush says so and so, I trust him, I give it 100 points, but Dan Rather says there might be a problem with that policy, but I don’t trust him because of the faked memos, so I give him -5 points.

      Who would make a good news weigher?  My vote would go to Mark Steyn.  He could be very objective.

      Posted by wronwright on 2005 03 15 at 06:40 PM • permalink


    1. Then there’s artful use (or abuse) of nuance.  Consider the following:

      John Smith disclosed that Kitty Malone wore a skimpy blue dress to the party, but Joe Smith alleged that she wore a skimpy green dress.

      Most people are going to be picturing Ms. Malone partying down in a skimpy blue dress, and no few wondering what kind of nefarious Rovian plot the shady-sounding Joe Smith was trying to cover up by denying it.

      Posted by Achillea on 2005 03 15 at 06:47 PM • permalink


    1. What about daily news time devoted to honoring the DEAD in Iraq or the constant streams of stories about the HARDSHIPS suffered by the families of those deployed in Iraq. While I agree these can be respectable things to do the motives of news organizations are suspect. Are these old traditions or simply new “traditions�? that help the cause of eroding public support for the war?

      Did tactics like the above count in this survey?

      Posted by Dorian on 2005 03 15 at 06:47 PM • permalink


    1. #9 RebeccaH — The other 10% were Dean donors…

      Posted by richard mcenroe on 2005 03 15 at 08:22 PM • permalink


    1. The same report contains the following:-
      “NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. media coverage of last year’s election was three times more likely to be negative toward President Bush (news – web sites) than Democratic challenger John Kerry (news – web sites), according to a study released Monday. “

      but I don’t remember that statement being made.  (I only scanned the Gawenda article when I saw who it was by.)

      Posted by SezaGeoff on 2005 03 15 at 10:30 PM • permalink


    1. These media bias surveys would be hard to do even if one were thorough and rigorous and thoughtful; as it is, that rarely seems to be the case.  Other commenters above have noted how suspect the methodology is, especially the selection of media covered and the issue of weighting.

      But there’s even more complication, all of which would tend to understate the amount and intensity of bias.  Wire-service stories on Iraq are often chock-full of literally untrue, speculative, or otherwise dubious material.

      Use of phrases like “widespread violence throughout Iraq”—when that’s not the case; “insurgents” for people who are often paid street criminals or foreign nutcases; “Sunnis fear marginalization in the new Iraq” without pointing out that this situation is entirely their fault, notably for having been complicit in the past depredations of the former regime and the current crimes of that regime’s remnants.  And the list of stock distortions goes on and on.  Inserted into every wire report, together they help create a fundamentally distorted framework.  Within that framework, it’s almost meaningless to discuss “positive” and “negative”.

      Today there was a hilarious example.  Perhaps only a headline, but an online version of a wire report on today’s convening of the Iraqi assembly carried the headline “Blasts Mar Opening of Iraqi Assembly”.  Perhaps—though the blasts were not audible in the chamber, and elicited only passing curiousity in the press center in the same building.

      An alternative headline and story theme that actually had some basis in logic, history, and common sense, might have been: “Armed Opposition Again Fails To Block Iraqi Political Process”.

      Posted by IceCold on 2005 03 16 at 09:12 AM • permalink


    1. An alternative headline and story theme that actually had some basis in logic, history, and common sense, might have been: “Armed Opposition Again Fails To Block Iraqi Political Process�?.

      True, but incomplete.  The follow up, in smaller italics, would read, Media, however, still trying their darndest.

      Posted by Nightfly on 2005 03 16 at 02:13 PM • permalink


  1. Did anyone else WASTE two and a half hours on Tuesday night watching the “documentaries” screened by SBS to “commemorate” the commencement of the Iraq war? As far as I could tell, this Tuesday was no different from any other Tuesday on SBS, which on almost 100% of occasions screens documentaries soley devoted to undermining efforts in Iraq and vilifying Americans. Typically SBS’s audience were treated to ONLY the views of critics with no dissention. That’s how much faith they had in their position, they had to resort to North Korean style propaganda! This from a broadcaster who dares to condemn others for bias and who likes to be seen as a champion for diversity and a diversity of views. An alleged ‘multi-cultural’ boadcaster who frequently chides the American media for being self-obsessed, yet itself seems interested in little else. This is the message one gets form SBS…if you’re not being abused in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, or being “occupied” by Americans then YOU’RE SCREWED, because the so-called ‘bleeding hearts’ at SBS couldn’t give a F*CK about you! Now THAT’S bias!

    Posted by Brian on 2005 03 16 at 07:40 PM • permalink