Red Flags in News Reports

Red Flags in News Reports

There’s fake news, and then there’s people confusing opinions with news. As unethical tactics for influencing people go, truly fake news is the easiest to uncover. In Feb. 2017, Donald Trump gave a 77 minute press conference that many people saw as rambling and disjointed. Other sources quoted or played some of the less rambling snippets, then, summarized and judged the remainder of the conference, e.g. by stating that he “performed well.”

Discovering the facts isn’t hard. One can view the entire press conference online via any number of sources.

The bigger problems with today’s journalism are subtle, indirect. They influence us without our awareness.

To read about more influences that fly below our conscious radar screens, enter “Defense Against the Dark Arts of Persuasion” in the search line, upper right.

In this post, I focus on the professional and ethical standards that the best news reporters follow. When you spot deviations from these standards, those are red flags. Do not mindlessly accept the report.

First, learn the difference between two different forms of journalism: (1) news reporting and (2) commentary and analysis. Many people confuse these two. Unfortunately, journalists today often blur the lines, thus contributing to audience confusion.

This article is about news reporting. Listen to reporter Herbert Morrison covering the arrival of the German airship Hindenburg in the United States on May 6, 1937: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTv_RWclPls[1] He describes the approach and the preparation by the ground crew. Suddenly, the airship bursts into flames. Notice how the reporter’s emotion comes out. He weeps. He says he has to go inside where he can’t see it, that it’s the worst thing he’s ever seen. But most importantly for present purposes, he says, “I’m sorry.”

Anyone with half a heart would have expressed the same shock and horror that Mr. Morrison did. Nobody would blame him. So why did he apologize? Because, ethical journalism recognizes that news reporters have power, and that power should carry responsibility. Reporters (as opposed to commentators) should aim to inform, but not to influence. They should not directly or indirectly indicate what the audience ought to think or feel about the facts reported. When Mr. Morrison’s tone of voice showed how he felt, that influenced the audience’s feelings.

The Hindenburg broadcast is famous and memorable, not because anyone blames Mr. Morrison for letting his emotions escape when blind-sided by a disaster. Rather, it is memorable as a rare exception to what responsible, ethical news reports on more ordinary events, such as a politician’s speech, look and sound like.

But why would Morrison consider it wrong to make an audience feel horror at the airship fire? Because it isn’t ethically safe for reporters to pick and choose which emotions are OK to instill in the audience. When audiences begin to accept emotionally loaded speech from those they look to for factual information, it’s a short step from reporting to propaganda. The most professional, ethical reporters not only seek to inform, rather than influence, they seek to inform without inciting fear, anger, panic or the like.

On Sept. 11, 2001, reporters were on air live covering the first plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. At the time, it still seemed possible that it was an accident, or at worst, the act of one individual. Like Mr. Morrison, those 9/11 reporters were blind-sided. A second plane flew into the south tower live on air. Of course words like “Oh, God” popped out of their mouths in emotional tones. But notice how quickly these reporters regained control and resumed reporting in a calm tone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lKZqqSI9-s

Imagine what would have happened if those reporters had screamed and shouted, “The country’s under attack!” Many more lives would have been lost as people drove or ran around recklessly all over the country. Some would have committed suicide, as they did during the Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” incident.

It’s easy to see the need for reporters to stay calm when covering disasters. But we may not realize that emotionally loaded reporting of more routine matters can do just as much harm. Rather than goading people into running amok in the streets in fear of Martians or terrorists (which isn’t wise or safe even if the Martians or terrorists are, in fact, coming), emotionally loaded political reporting generates fear, anger and hate among fellow citizens. That, in turn, decreases our ability to work together and resolve differences.

But just as fake news is easier to uncover than deviations from ethical, responsible reporting, an emotional presentation style is easier to spot than some of the other kinds of deviations from ethical reporting.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states that journalists should “label advocacy and commentary” so that people don’t confuse it with factual news reportage. On TV, a news reporter sits behind an anchor desk on a news set or stands at the scene of an event she’s covering. Highly ethical organizations not only label advocacy and commentary, they make it look and sound different from news coverage. They show the journalist, not at the anchor desk of a news set, but rather, in a different setting, e.g. standing against a plain background.

Consequently, viewers are primed to take what they see and hear from people at the anchor desk as information, rather than opinion.

Another sign that we’re watching news: the reporter presents short descriptions of many and varied events. A gas leak caused an explosion in a school. A famous actress died. A famous athlete started a fight in a bar. Sen. Doe presented arguments against the XYZ bill sponsored by Sen. Roe. By contrast, a commentary program usually focuses on only one or two issues or events and discusses them thoroughly.

On a subconscious level (mental auto pilot) cues, like the sight of the anchor desk and the variety of events reported, register as “news.” Let’s say an anchor on a news set reports the explosion, the actress’s death and the bar fight, then, says, “Sen. Doe presented strong arguments against the XYZ bill sponsored by Sen. Roe.” The one word “strong” changes the anchor’s statement from news to opinion. It judges the merits of Doe’s arguments.

On auto pilot, a viewer’s brain may “file” the idea that Doe’s arguments are strong as a fact, rather than as the opinion it is. The viewer is more likely to do so than if the opinion had been labeled as an “editorial” or “commentary” and stated by a journalist standing against a plain background or sitting on a sofa discussing the Senator’s statements in detail. Later, the viewer thinks of Doe’s arguments as strong, and Doe as creditable, and never remembers what originally gave him those impressions.

Likewise, in newspapers, opinion pieces or editorials should appear on the “Editorial” or “Op-ed” pages. Actual news reportage appears on other pages. So we are primed to accept anything on, for example, the front page, as actual news. If an opinion, is slipped into a front-page article, it influences us more than if it appeared on the Editorial page or the Op-ed page, because it doesn’t register as opinion. And again, we never even realize we’re being influenced.

Our best defense against such influence is to view apparent news reports, not mindlessly, but mindfully, with a critical eye. Here are some red flags to watch for.

If a reporter/anchor on a news set judges a person or interprets the person’s motivations or frame of mind, that’s a red flag. A news reporter should simply quote what the person said or describe what the person did as accurately as possible. For example, “The Mayor has entered the room and approached the podium” simply reports facts. By contrast, “The Mayor strides confidently to the podium” judges and interprets the mayor’s frame of mind (confident) based on the way she walks.

The phrase “strides confidently” influences how the audience thinks of the mayor without them realizing it. It may seem harmless. But it gets people used to hearing judgmental and interpretive language in what appears to be a news report. People come to take this as normal, and even objective, reporting. Then, they are more susceptible to unconsciously accepting as facts other judgmental and interpretive remarks, such as, “The mayor’s son looks hung over and bored.”

Nowadays, many reporters bend the just-the-facts standard in matters they believe no right-minded person would disagree with. For example, an anchor on local 10:00 news recently reported on two cases of people using their children to help them commit crimes. Then he stated his opinion, that those children don’t have a real chance because they don’t have real parents, from the anchor desk without labeling it as an opinion.

While I, like many others, happen to agree with his opinion, that is not the appropriate question to ask. If we have to ask ourselves whether or not we agree, then what he said isn’t news reportage, it’s advocacy or commentary. No matter how right his opinion seems to me, some people out there disagree. How is a reporter to decide how many people might disagree before something is too controversial for inclusion in a news report? The only safe way is to leave the opinionating to the commentators and analysts.

We’re hard put these days to find any reporter who doesn’t blur the line at least a little. So I’ll call the child-crime guy’s report a yellow flag.

But a reporter is never correct in thinking that all right-minded people would agree with his opinion about politics. Politics is controversial by its very nature. She might properly report what a third party, such as a candidate’s opponent, said. And what that third party said probably includes an opinion. But as soon as the reporter at the anchor desk, directly or indirectly, indicates her own opinion about a political matter, beware.

Moreover, if the reporter’s network or publication allows, encourages, or even demands that news anchors inject judgment or interpretation into their reports; if you hear opinions, not just from one reporter, but from every reporter who appears behind that anchor desk on that channel, that’s a two-flag propaganda hurricane warning.

While newscasts with emotional loading, judging and interpreting are suspect, note that this doesn’t mean that the converse is true. The fact that a report does not contain emotional loading, judgment or interpretation doesn’t mean that everything in the report is ironclad truth. A reporter or organization that repeatedly “reports news” with emotional loading, judgments and interpretations is one I no longer waste time watching or reading. But even if the news is delivered in a professional manner, I still check multiple sources on important news.

Reporters have to summarize and paraphrase in order to cover all the news in a reasonable time. That means we never get the whole story from one report. That’s another reason to check multiple sources on a matter of importance to you.

So far, we’ve been looking at news reporters. As mentioned above, news commentators and analysts are a different animal. They are allowed to express opinions. In fact, that’s their job. But ethics and responsibility still apply, as we’ll see in a future post.

[1] I have linked to an audio-corrected (slowed down) version that is easier to understand. You can find the uncorrected version online. This is the original live radio broadcast. Only later was it combined with video footage. You can also find such combinations online.

3 comments

  1. Patricia Behler

    Very informative. I remember at least the definition of propaganda from my high school days. Thanks.

  2. Here’s another great example of professionalism in news coverage, Walter Cronkite, one of the most respected reporters ever, reporting on the death of President Kennedy. Notice how he mindfully regains control after the shocking news.

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