Analyzing two news stories from three different perspectives
Examining news sites for spin and bias
You will analyze two news stories, choosing 3 different news articles covering each story in the news. You’ll be looking for evidence of bias, filtering, etc.—differences in coverage explainable in terms of biased reporting. The bias could be political, could be commercial, and the use of techniques designed to deceive, either by the news media outlet or by newsmakers. The book ‘How to detect media bias & propaganda’ will be indispensable—you’ll want to read through it carefully, probably more than once, to help you identify and describe the techniques of manipulation covered by the authors. This assignment will be easier for you if you pick stories where there are some pretty clear differences of political opinion, and the stakes are high.
Spin involves the manipulation of language, used to defend one’s views, attack others’, move public opinion, etc. It is but one of many techniques used to persuade. For instance, was the war in Iraq about freedom and democracy? Or empire and oil? Why were their (alleged) weapons called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ while the US weapons had names like ‘daisy cutters’ and ‘bunker busters?’ Do the enemies of the U.S. really hate our freedoms? Or do they have quarrels with U.S. foreign policy? Did the US military ‘torture’ prisoners, or engage in ‘enhanced interrogation?’ Is a person who supports a woman’s reproductive rights pro-choice, pro-abortion, or anti-life? Are those who oppose abortion pro-life, anti-abortion or anti-choice? Is the republican party really the party of ‘family values?’ Are the democrats really the ‘tax and spend’ party? Is Obama really a socialist? Is withholding evidence of state-sponsored spying on US journalists really about national security, or avoiding bad press? Is a whistleblower who exposes secret domestic spying operations a hero, or a traitor?
There are many tricks of the trade, and part of what I’ll be looking for is to see if you can identify them when they are used by people in the news, and those who report the news.
Deception could come from individuals quoted in an article, it could be the spin of the media outlet or the author of the story, or the author might take an entirely uncritical view of quotes or statements in the story (reporting newsmakers’ spin as straight news). Even the headline of an article can be spun—so watch for spin, deception and propaganda in different places.
Some basic rules
- Same topic please! You’re examining two stories, and for each story you choose, choose articles covering the same topic. In other words, choose three articles covering the same story in the same time period, so they’re comparable. Stories change fast, so the further apart your three versions are in time, the more likely they’re not comparable. I’ll notice. And . . . this isn’t a history class—don’t choose a story from the past. There are stories every week that will work for this assignment.
- Things to avoid. Among the three articles you choose to compare for each story:
- Avoid editorial articles—focus on news stories—they’ll be easier to compare (though you could supplement them by reading a couple editorials to help you with your analysis). Now it may be true that some news is editorialized, but you should be able to tell the difference between an article that is reporting, versus one that is clearly an opinion piece. Stick with articles that at least claim to be news. You will lose points if you don’t.
- No more than one newswire story (e.g., Reuters, Associated Press). Many news organizations subscribe to newswires and can use their stories in their own papers/websites. That means that they may reflect more the perspective of the newswire than the subscribing organization (but the organization did choose to carry it, right?), and you may not find variation from one site/paper to the next if they’re both carrying the same newswire story—nothing to compare, and that won’t be good for your analysis or grade because you should have caught it when documenting the source. It also means that the same AP or Reuters or Cox story covered by two outlets is going to read pretty much the same. So part of this assignment requires you be able to identify a newswire story. Basic news literacy.
- Choosing stories, sources. For each story, you must choose one article from each of these three groups:
- Center: Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, CNN
- Left-leaning: Common Dreams (from the news stories column) or Reader Supported News (do not choose the op-editorial pieces! They’re usually in the right column, news in the left column).
- If you’re not finding the same story across three sites, try some expanded choices at ‘Front Page News’. But if you leave out representation from the right, center, or left in your analysis, it will come out in the points.
- Choice—your choice of articles is important. You’ll probably want to find three sources that report on the same event or issue, but in quite different ways. This should help you identify deceptive techniques that might vary, for instance from a commercial to a non-profit or public site, and also shows that you understand that different outlets/authors ‘spin’ in different ways. Make sure you are not using the same story appearing on two different sites (e.g., from Associated Press, or AP).
- Discussion—you need to exhibit some insight. What did you learn? Where is this story likely to go from here (i.e., how do you think the press will report it? Will it die? Become front page? Why?). Start with a brief summary, and move into analysis of the articles, the points made, sources, media outlets, and use what we’ve learned in class, and the ‘How to detect media bias & propaganda’ handbook to identify techniques of deception being used, and to try to explain the differences between different outlets’ coverage of a story. This is where choice of outlets and story are key.
- Documentation—full citations at the end of the assignment. Original sources (some of the news sites pull stories from other sources—show where you found it online, but the cite should include the original source)! Documentation can also include location (front page, home page, living section, etc.), length (if you copy and paste into word, you can go to the ‘tools’ menu and do a word count), what sources are used in the article (are they identified, who are the individuals, are they experts, do they work for think tanks, industry, academe, etc.?). Then you may want to check out a source on Google, or sourcewatch, to see if an ‘expert’ sold to the news audience as independent might in fact have a conflict of interest. Also—you need to use your articles—don’t make statements without supporting them with evidence or quotes from your articles. You must show me you read them, absorbed them, analyzed the differences, and can point them out in a logical fashion that exhibits what you’ve learned from the ‘How to detect media bias & propaganda’ book and the class.
- Detective work—I want to see that you have done some research on the topic, on sources quoted in the article, organizations mentioned in the article, the author, etc. Then you may want to check out a source on Google, or sourcewatch (an excellent source), to see if any of the ‘principals’ in the article have any ideological baggage or commercial interests, unbeknownst to the audience. I would also like you to check out at least two news blogs your story—one should be from each side of the political spectrum (and please, try to find blogs that have something of value to say).
- Following the ‘rules’—I expect that you’ll follow the structure I’ve laid out for this. You simply cannot do this assignment well in less than three pages, double-spaced. Nor can you do this in the last week of the course.
- Insight you’ve gleaned—I would like your last paragraph to be a reflection of the insight you’ve gleaned from doing this assignment. If you enjoyed it great, hated it, I’m sorry, but I want to know what you got out of it. And be thoughtful about it.
The Media bias and propaganda book (downloadable pdf) gives you examples of deception in action. I would recommend ordering it through the Critical Thinking Foundation’s website, though. However, there are many places online that may help you think through this assignment.
There are many ‘weblogs’ whose owners analyze, critique, and/or fact-check the day’s news.
- You can find some left-leaning blogs here
- Right-leaning blogs can be found here (dated, but still a good list)
- The blogs will give you many ideas about various angles taken in stories.
These sites keep an eye on news outlets and coverage they suspect of bias:
- sourcewatch covers the PR industry and media spin
- Fact Check. Pretty much what it says, but it doesn’t cover a wide range of stories.
- These are sites where you can look up individuals, organizations, people used as experts on TV and in print, etc. Watchdog sites could have their own biases, so be careful—this is one of the more effective means of using 3rd parties—as supposed impartial arbiters of other media.
It’s your job to figure out which sites might lean conservative or liberal, or seem to be mostly providing ratings ‘bait,’ which points of view represent conservative or liberal stances, and you might have to do some homework to do this (some of the above sites should help). Remember—sometimes ‘left-right’ controversies are just distractions—there may be other biases at work. Also, you can get resources from the news page.
You will produce a report, covering news stories from different sources. It should be 5-6 pages in length, double-spaced—plus a short conclusion. Here’s how points will be assigned:
Choose from each ‘group,’ a story of political importance
Summarize each story and use the tools/resources/guidelines given to analyze each version of it; support your conclusions with evidence from the articles
I want full citations, not URLs (each missing cite = 1 point)
Demonstrated use of blogs, other websites to do research on story topic, watchdog sites, and the ‘How to detect bias’ book
a concluding paragraph analyzing/critiquing what you learned from this process, and from the analysis of the story
Papers are due before midnight, August 30.