The mainstream media flocked to Ferguson, Missouri, once the public protests started in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer. Having been one of those reporters who rush to the scene, driving long hours and often way above the speed limit, I appreciate the difficulty of the task of covering a new community with no sources and no knowledge of the local history.
In the 5Ws and H that journalists live by— the who, what, when, where, why and how— it is the “why” that most needs telling in the Brown case, but the “why” takes the most reporting, as reliable sources do not come easily or quickly.
The longstanding inverted pyramid story structure begins with a lead that highlights the 5Ws and H of an event. These elements are then supported and explained further in the body of the piece. This structure lends itself to official sources and observable actions. The “why” of the 5W and H often must go unanswered in early reporting, when the public’s attention and mindset are still up for grabs, because it doesn’t fit in a paragraph or two. Or even a story or two. And it goes unanswered because the opinions of the sources needed to explain the “why” often don’t fit into a neat narrative. And because often those sources aren’t sources at all due to the fact that few if any reporters have time to cover the unofficial business of communities.
Mainstream media outlets in particular don’t have resources for or interest in covering communities such as Ferguson, which has a population of 21,111 that is 67 percent black and has 22 percent of households living below the federal poverty level. U.S. news organizations are overwhelmingly white, as newsroom demographics from the American Society of News Editors tell us. Thus, even the most enlightened newsroom, lacking diversity, will inevitably miss important elements of a story rooted in the rich soil of race and/or ethnicity.
For this story, Twitter served as the powerful reminder of where to begin reporting the “why.” Hashtags such as #IfIWereGunnedDown, which criticizes the media’s choice of negative versus positive images used to depict black crime victims, serve to challenge the journalistic outlook on the world. See Chapter 5 in Overcoming Bias, on Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources, to learn about reporting strategies to consider in continuing coverage of the many possible “Whys” behind Brown’s death and ensuing protests, including the militarization of local police forces, the lack of diversity in local police forces and the history of tensions between local police and black youth.
For journalists and future journalists, this is a nice little example of applying the stuff of cognitive bias and error to everyday affairs. In this case, the theory is applied to the dreaded professional conference that so many of us attend at least once at some point in life.
The confirmation bias, which is discussed in Ch. 7 of my book, is the tendency for us to favor information that confirms our preconceptions, even if the information isn’t correct. We gather information selectively and recall it from memory selectively, and we interpret information to favor our preconceptions.
We cognitively get our ducks in a row so new information fits in with our existing beliefs.
The author of the linked piece is an employee at a consulting firm for conference and trade show organizers, and he applies the confirmation bias to highlight how we tend to surround ourselves with people like us – people who think like us and believe what we believe. So it is at the average professional conference, the author asserts. This type of like-seeking-like behavior causes wrong-headed thinking, he points out in his 15 myths about conference education. An example from his list, “Our education is fine because it’s the way we’ve always done it,” highlights how this sort of thinking can lead to stale conference talks and stale classroom teaching, too.
It wouldn’t be hard to tweak the idea of applying simple biases to our daily lives to come up with fresh ideas about errors that aren’t fresh at all – that is, habitual thinking missteps that affect people’s everyday decisions and outcomes. When it comes to the confirmation bias, everyone is doing it; journalists just need to know how to spot it.
Confirmation bias encourages us to accept information that confirms our beliefs and reject information that challenges our beliefs. It is why people watch Fox News or MSNBC, depending on their political bent. It helps explain why people accept common myths. We pick what we want to believe – in fashion choices and parenting and politics and business, you name it.
The confirmation bias runs rampant through our lives. Look for story ideas in the ways that everyday thinking errors affect us all – sometimes in unfavorable ways.
Examining false cause: How assuming that one thing leads to another can lead to inaccurate conclusions
Does waking up three hours before work, listening to audio books during a commute and eating fewer than 300 junk food calories a day lead to riches, or do riches allow for such habits?
Correlation does not equal cause. Such habits of thought (Overcoming Bias, Ch. 1) can cause faulty conclusions. That is, a correlation – meaning a relationship between two things, such as that wealthy people tend to wake up three hours before work – doesn’t necessarily mean that waking up early causes one to become wealthy.
A news consumer reading this infographic could be excused for such faulty thinking however.
The infographic, developed by social-media marketing company NowSourcing and based on a study by Thomas C. Corley of the daily habits of 233 wealthy and 128 poor people, makes an implicit connection that the habits of the wealthy made them wealthy, and if the poor would just follow suit, they might be rich, too! After all, the common traits of wealthy people must have some meaning aside from mere coincidence, right?
But the infographic is based on false causation.
The habits of the rich, however noble and health-conscious, don’t necessarily lead to wealth. Consider for a moment that it could be the other way around: Couldn’t it be that wealthy people can afford to eat healthier (and often more expensive) food? Or have the resources to get aerobic exercise four times a week (hard to do if you’re a single parent working full time and dependent on mass transit and with no nearby gym or safe jogging trail)? Or watch far less TV because instead of staring at a screen they are at the opera or symphony or corporate fundraiser or museum opening?
The infographic is based on the logical fallacy that an event that follows another was necessarily a consequence of the first event. In academic terminology, post hoc ergo propter hoc is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.”
The lesson here? Whenever an information source, be it human or data or document, suggests one thing causes another, be skeptical, and apply your critical thinking skills. Just because one event occurred earlier and was followed by another doesn’t mean the first caused the second. I’m sure it can’t hurt to adopt the habits outlined in the infographic, but thee correlation between those habits and wealth is not established there.
Currently, news outlets are covering the transgender community in a variety of ways. Some examples:
1. News-making transgender individuals, such as this story in The Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” section about the transgender model Carmen Carrera.
2. Stories about the variety of issues involved in being a transgender person. For example, New York Magazine wrote about parents of transgender children.
3. Transgender individuals as sources in news stories that have nothing to do with transgender living or issues. These are people tapped for their expertise, period. Appropriately, that level of inclusion of the transgender community in news stories may go completely unnoticed by news consumers. In this role, the individuals are sources of information on a particular topic, and their race, ethnicity, age—or sexual orientation or gender status—has nothing to do with their contribution to the article.
Key points to think about when covering the transgender community include:
* Writing for an underrepresented community as opposed to about it. The latter objectifies and distances the people being covered; the former seeks to explain and increase knowledge about a group of people in society.
* Ensuring the most accurate description of a person is used in the news coverage, but that the description is also explained if necessary. Try to avoid ostracizing the news audience with jargon. Illuminate the news audience with clear, concise descriptions.
Here’s a good example to follow: The author of a Rolling Stone article about a rock star in a punk band who is transitioning to a female helps readers understand the terminology (in this case, gender dysphoria), which is presumably foreign to most in the Rolling Stone audience, and also gives the space to allow the profile subject to describe it:
“For as long as he can remember, Gabel has lived with a condition known as gender dysphoria. As the textbooks explain it, it’s a feeling of intense dissatisfaction and disconnect from the gender you were assigned at birth. As Gabel explains it, “The cliché is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple. It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself.”
* Journalists are trained to emphasize a person’s humanity by leading with a person, as in: a person who is deaf or a person who is visually impaired. So too, personhood should be emphasized in coverage of the LGBTQ community. Word choice, as discussed in Chapter 8, The Power of Words and Tone, is essential to educating news consumers concerning a topic about which most have little knowledge.
Here are a couple examples to avoid:
The headline on the online site, AsiaOne.com: “Right to ban transgenders from clubs?”
Or, this New York Daily News headline: “Transgenders win discrimination tiff with American Eagle Outfitters, AG Andrew Cuomo forces changes.”
* “Transgender” is not a noun; it is an adjective, so use it accordingly. One tool for keeping abreast on the terminology for all LGBTQ individuals is the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.
An extremely useful discussion can take place in newsrooms and classrooms due to the recent appearance of writer and trans activist Janet Mock, on the primetime CNN interview show, “Piers Morgan Live.”
Perhaps we can stop this post right now, because the hurried, harried reader might have already quit reading, wondering: What is a “trans activist”?
As comedian Steven Colbert said on his show, The Colbert Report, when introducing Mock as a guest: “You see, as a broadcaster, when it comes to transgender issues, I don’t know what I should say to these people. Here to say what I should say to these people, please welcome transgender activist . . . Janet Mock.”
As usual, Colbert nailed it. Yes, journalists’ primary allegiance is to their audience and that means clarity and conciseness. However, in complicated matters of individual identity, gender expression and transitioning from one gender to another, the brevity of news writing does not always serve the laypeople in the news audience or the transgender community being covered.
Which brings me to the Mock-Morgan clash, a true learning moment for all. Mock, the author of the New York Times bestseller Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, appeared on CNN to promote her book. The video is here.
After the interview, Mock tweeted that she was displeased that Morgan repeatedly described her as having been born a boy and that she used to be a man. Mock posted on her Facebook account that she and fellow transgender woman, actress Laverne Cox, “did not appreciate the lack of nuance in framing my story.”
Mock asserted that Morgan’s persistence in differentiating between the before and after of her surgical changes missed the nuanced point that she was female long before she physically took on female characteristics. This can be difficult to convey quickly in a headline or a news story, but it is important to maintain the goal of accurately representing a source.
Morgan’s response was anger that Mock hadn’t said anything to correct his depiction of her during their interview, which both agreed was a pleasant exchange. Morgan said he didn’t think he had said anything offensive or inaccurate during the interview but had emphasized his support of Mock’s identity and her work. Morgan insists he is an ally, supportive of Mock and a champion of equality for LGBTQ people. Here was his Tweet in response to the maelstrom of criticism he received from Mock supporters and the transgender community:
Morgan invited Mock to return to the show to sort out the terminology and her reaction. If you don’t have much time, watch this second appearance as opposed to the first interview. It highlights the perspectives of both journalist and source in a head-to-head exchange:
In addition, Morgan invited three guests on a later show to critique the interview and his performance. Each guest had a different take on what went wrong and right during the interview. Watch a portion here, or simply read a quick text recap at the same link.
Take a moment to think about the perspectives presented in both of the exchanges. What points do you agree with and why? What lessons are to be learned here? What stereotypes or clichés come to your mind with the topic of transgendered individuals? Try to identify your personal attitudes about this group of people; then, take the next step of addressing how you would combat unfair or biased attitudes when reporting on the transgender community. (For tips in identifying and managing stereotypes, “Ch. 4, Story Without Stereotype, may be helpful.)
Journalists can find their way through this changing landscape with a few basic tools:
* First, the Associated Press, among other style guides, advises journalists to use the pronoun preferred by the source. If no preference is given or available, then use the pronoun that reflects the gender that the person lives publicly.
* Second, always ask a source how they want to be described. If the person goes by a different name than the one on their birth certificate, use it. Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga and other celebrities get that treatment. (In legal and crime cases, a full legal name is necessary to report the story and track the documents.)
* Third, get educated. Read up on the LGBTQ community and its issues, including proposed laws, demographics, crime stats against community members, economic issues and more.
* Fourth, only mention where the person is in his or her medical transition process if it is relevant to the story. Move beyond the before-and-after coverage of transgendered individuals. Capture their humanity in their daily living and focus on what makes them the subject of a news story in the first place.
Journalists’ first service is to their readers/viewers/listeners. Dean Baquet, the managing editor of the New York Times emphasized this when explaining that the news outlet’s decision, initially at least, was to continue using the name Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning, who was convicted of releasing classified U.S. government documents, announced a day after the court sentencing that she was a female and requested to be called Chelsea Manning.
“Generally speaking we call people by their new name when they ask us to, and when they actually begin their new lives. In this case we made the judgment readers would be totally confused if we turned on a dime overnight and changed the name and gender of a person in the middle of a major running news story. That’s not a political decision. It is one aimed at our primary constituency—our readers.”
The Times shortly after adopted the policy of using the “she” pronoun and the wording “Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning.” But in the midst of an ongoing news story, clarity ruled.
Edgar Tamayo was described in many ways in the hours preceding and following his execution by the state of Texas. The range of descriptors assigned to him captures the range of interpretations of his story.
In reading these descriptions, it is telling to note the news source, whether is U.S.-based or Mexican-based or somewhere else altogether, and how Tamayo is presented. In each case, the headlines and leads are enough to get the sense of how his story is being framed: Tamayo as a convicted cop killer or Tamayo as victim denied his rights.
These various descriptors highlight the power of words as discussed in Chapter 8 of Overcoming Bias, as well as the notion of perspective — U.S. or Mexican or global — that is discussed throughout the book. Consider the “Fault Lines” of race/ethnicity and geography discussed in Ch. 1, Context, Culture and Cognition, when looking over these examples:
— headline from The Global Dispatch (an online news site)
“The 46-year-old Mexican was controversially executed in Texas less than two weeks ago for the killing of a Houston police officer in 1994, despite outrage from human rights groups and last minute appeals from his lawyers for clemency on the grounds that Tamayo was mentally disabled.”
— headline and lead from the UK’s Daily Mail
“Texas executed Edgar Tamayo Wednesday night after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an 11th-hour appeal to keep the Mexican national from death at Huntsville State Penitentiary in Texas. Tamayo, 46, was convicted of fatally shooting Houston police Officer Guy Gaddis in 1994.”
— headline and lead from AlJazeera America
— lead from the BBC News
— lead in The New Zealand Herald, which used an Associated Press story.
— the lead from NewEurope (which describes itself as “the European Political Newspaper that mainly publishes and discusses news concerning EU politics and issues”).
Many in the U.S. media apply the tradition of horse-race coverage of presidential campaigns to the Olympics as well, tracking on the front page the number of medals won and lost by major countries.
However, a particular element of the 2014 Winter Olympic coverage by the New York Times provided a nice example of looking for the invisible, which I discuss in Chapter 6: Training the Reporter’s Eye. As the book states, “Because people naturally turn their attention to the novel and extreme, journalists need to train themselves to look where others don’t naturally look. One of the most important things about attention is to note what isn’t being noticed.”
“Fourth: What it’s like to just miss an Olympic medal” captures the reactions and faces of the athletes who finished in 4th place in their events in Sochi, Russia. The cumulative series was a crisp use of online storytelling. In several cases, a simple graphic depicts the seconds or points — whatever the events’ measure of greatness — by which the 4th place finisher missed a bronze medal.
The Olympic sports news coverage is focused on who won a medal. But the great majority of us, the great majority of your readers, never win our equivalent of a medal – landing the big promotion, becoming valedictorian, making the cut for the starring role in the class play. As I discuss in the book, much more interesting to readers is not the first and last but the great grey middle. It is where most of life happens, and finding those interesting and nuanced stories is often the key to relevancy for your readers.
TribCityHallReporter Kristen Mack, interviewed here in March, 2013, offers advice on what to do when a story’s focus changes, how to keep personal biases out of a news report and important traits to have as a journalist.
CLICK ON THE LINK above to play the video.
Mack was the Chicago Tribune’s City Hall reporter until last September, when she took a job as press secretary to the Cook County board president.
Mack was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune since 2009. Mack’s coverage of the Chicago Teachers Union strike brought her national attention.
According to Chicagoland Radio and Media’s website: “Prior to coming to Chicago, Kristen Mack was a reporter for the Washington Post for two years and a political columnist/reporter for the Houston Chronicle for six years. Before joining the Houston Chronicle in 2001, Mack was in the Hearst Newspaper Fellowship program, interning with the Seattle Times, Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Miami Herald. She was an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta and received her Masters Degree from the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.”
The Manti Te’o hoax may well become a newsroom verb of caution for any large-scale digital dupe. Before giving the OK to proceed on an Internet-centric story, editors will warn: “Just make sure we don’t get Te’o-ed.”
Te’o, a 21-year-old linebacker for the University of Notre Dame hoping to be drafted into the NFL, has since told ESPN and Katie Couric that he wasn’t part of any hoax but the victim of a scam. But he did admit to leading people to think he had met the person with whom he had an online relationship before she died.
Journalists did not check every single fact of the Te’o – Lennay Kekua love story.
But who can blame them?
You’d be in good company if you believed Te’o. See the list of those who did believe Te’o and didn’t check out the whole story. An element of what I’ll call “gotta confirm”-ation bias courses through this story. For more on the confirmation bias, see Ch. 7 of Overcoming Bias: “Critical Decisions Before Deadline.” The subhead of that chapter is particularly worth mentioning in this post: Why even experienced journalists neglect certain facts and what to do about it.
Until more reporting brings forth the why and how of this saga, the story remains so extremely bizarre that any reporters who claim they wouldn’t have been duped aren’t being honest — with themselves, mostly. (See Jeremy Schaap on ESPN.com on this topic.)
Too Good to Check
Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at the New York Times, wrote a column about the newspaper’s Te’o coverage. The paper’s coverage was fairly limited but nonetheless Sullivan urged a “trust but verify” approach to all stories. In an appearance on msnbc’s “Morning Joe” news show, she stated: “There’s a category of journalism called ‘too good to check.'”
In Ch. 3 of my book on how the mind organizes and interprets information, I quote Kurt Andersen of New York Magazine reiterating the longtime newsroom joke about how “some juicy fragment of reporting is a ‘fact too good to check.'” (p.41)
With any dramatic tale, the journalist (or at least a part of him or her) prays that no source or document will come along that will undo the magic of the story. You hold your breath that it checks out so you can run with this great read. The Manti Te’o story was such a compelling one because it was all there: young lovers, tragedy, heroism, inspiration. It caught the attention of reporters from Sports Illustrated to ESPN to the South Bend Tribune and many others.
(See this Poynter column examining why journalists didn’t find out about the hoax sooner.)
When journalists fall in love with the story, just like with true love, they can lose their judgment. The can lose their critical thinking skills.
Instead of playing Monday morning quarterback (sorry), I’d like to acknowledge the power of the age-old narrative coupled with something comparatively new: The Internet. One tool that can help a journalist avoid biasing herself toward a story is to limit her consumption of the master narrative already coursing through the digital veins of the Internet. In cognitive terms, it’s called exposure control. (Ch. 10: Journalism and Reflective Practice, p. 181)
Controlling exposure to biasing information — in this case the stories that had already been reported on Te’o and his girlfriend — may have prompted more scrutiny and less acceptance of the master narrative.
That said, what journalist doesn’t do his homework and check out the prior coverage when doing background research? The lessons in this hoax aren’t easy to learn because this story is so strange it feels like the exception and not the rule. Ironically, it’s an ideal time to remember the tried-and-true guidelines that protect against digital dupes on both the everyday and the exceptional stories.
So, Potential Lesson One: Don’t follow the pack. (Ch. 6, p. 107).
Huffington Post writer Michael Calderone wrote that: “Te’o’s story was the type sportswriters — or really, journalists in general — flock toward. Here was a talented young man, who in the face of deep personal loss, triumphed on the field…The Deadspin investigation may be remembered as much as an indictment of the media’s herd mentality than for its revelations about the hoax itself.”
After the hoax was revealed, senior columnist Gene Wojciechowski, who covered the story for ESPN, said on SportsCenter:
“Well, I sat across from him and I was moved by his story and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming and as it turns out totally untrue. But short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case. But in researching it before I wrote the script, I remember trying to find an obituary for his girlfriend and could not. And couldn’t find any record of this car accident. But we asked Manti, could we contact Lennay’s family and he said the family would prefer not to be contacted. Could we have some photos of Lennay? He said the family would prefer not to provide those. And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes. But in retrospect, you can see where some of those things simply were not adding up to make sense. Easy to say now. At the time it never enters your mind somebody was involved in that kind of hoax.”
But wait. It’s not as easy as all that, to pin the blame for believing on journalists’ love of a good story and pack mentality of journalists. Some smart journalists were on this story, and ESPN was also investigating its veracity.
So, Potential Lesson Two: Counterargue the story’s premise. In this story’s saga, this means counterarguing not only someone’s death but her very existence. Which, as the NYT sports editor Joe Sexton pointed out when he responded to Sullivan’s question for her column, is pretty ludicrous:
“I could never imagine in editing such a story, with the references existing as they did, asking the reporters: Do you know for a fact his grandmother is dead? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend is dead? Do you know for a fact his grandmother existed? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend ever existed? And any editor who tells you they would have or should have asked those questions is kidding you.”
Sports Illustrated senior writer Pete Thamel’s account of his recorded interviews with Te’o and other sources shows that he asked a lot of good questions — probing questions, questions to pin down time and place and circumstances. Wrote Thamel: “[Te’o] never specified that he’d met her in person, and I didn’t ask. Why would you ask someone if he’d actually met his girlfriend who recently died?”
Potential Lesson Three: Acccountability.
Deadspin reporter Timothy Burke, who broke the story with colleague Jack Dickey, told Poynter’s Mallary Tenore that, “You can learn a lot about what happened by looking at the contradictions between other journalists’ stories. That was what really tipped us off, after all, that something was weird here. Major news organizations disagreed on the date of a person’s death by up to four days.”
Deadspin.com’s fact checking was a simple and thorough search for verification, as you’ll see here:
“Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.”
The lasting legacy of the Manti Te’o hoax may well be that it becomes a cautionary tale around newsrooms, much like the Richard Jewell case has taught journalists to avoid jumping to conclusions when it comes to reporting on suspects, or the Duke lacrosse case taught them to avoid stereotypical narratives. Instead of “a fact too good to check,” we need to rewrite the age-old motto to fit these digital times: No fact is too good to check.
“The illusion of explanatory depth.” This is the cognitive term for thinking we are smarter than we really are. Turns out we are limited in our understanding of how limited our understanding is.
That tongue twister sums up a useful bit of knowledge for journalists: When interviewing sources who seem supremely confident about what they know, never fear pressing the point. Ask: How do you know what you know?
Researchers Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 wrote about how people are generally overconfident about their abilities and their knowledge. They also have an overinflated view of how well they understand how things work — from a piano key to a flat tax, it turns out.
A New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday referenced this illusion when people are asked to explain political policies. The column, written by two of the four researchers, asked people to explain how political policies work. The result was that not only do people not understand how the policies work, but that in trying to explain them, “they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them.”
The researchers, Steven Sloman and Philip M. Fernbach, noted that politicians should be driven to explain just how their pet policy will function if put into play, not just why voters should back the policy. “We should demand that Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney explain how in addition to why,” they wrote.
It strikes me that this is excellent advice for journalists as well. Demand of our sources and ourselves that we can explain the how behind complex stories and issues.
Rozenblit and Keil also noted that “people grossly overestimate their ability to remember what they have observed in a scene.” Just because a scene is vivid doesn’t mean we remember it vividly.
Again, the science is a useful reminder to careful journalists; this time the point being to be wary about taking eyewitness reports as fact.
Sources: Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002). “The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth.” Cognitive Science, 26, 521-562.
Sloman, S. & Fernbach, P.M. (Oct. 19, 2012). “I’m right! (For some reason).” The New York Times. Sunday Review: The Opinion Pages. p.12.