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Reflections on News Spinners, Sinners, and Winners

Posted: 11/03/2016
Reflections on Spinners
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Introduction

Princeton's Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of The New York Times bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow said:

Students of policy… have noted… some issues are highly salient in the public's mind while others are neglected…

People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media…

Frequently mentioned topics populate the mind even as others slip away from awareness… In turn, what the media chooses to report corresponds to their view of what is currently on the public's mind…

It is no accident that authoritarian regimes exert substantial pressure on independent media… Because public interest is easily aroused by dramatic events and by celebrities, media frenzies are common.

This was written long before the 2016 presidential campaign. Simply put, people see what is presented to them; what is not presented to them tends to be overlooked. 

And what was presented—by many in the media—was irrelevant to helping people make an informed choice of who should be America's next president.

Worse, in far too many instances, front-page news stories reveal the writer's weaknesses with respect to the subject matter, historical knowledge, and his/her personal biases.

Framing Effects and the Power of News Story Headlines

The way we "frame a problem" determines what we see and how we see it. Frames have enormous power. The way people frame a problem—observes J. Edward Russo and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their astonishing book Decision Traps—"influences the solution they will ultimately choose." 

Framing traps abound. The analogy of a window frame nicely illustrates the difficulties: 

Architects choose where to put windows to give a desired view… But no single window can reveal the entire panorama…

When you choose which window to look through—or even if you decide to keep track of what's happening through three different windows—you can never be sure in advance that you'll get the most useful picture… 

The framing of a decision inevitably sets boundaries; it controls what is in and what is out… Our frames tend to focus on certain things while leaving others obscured.

The 2016 presidential election exemplified the power of framing. With issues centering on the candidates' temperaments, personalities, and alleged character flaws, many news stories neglected substantive coverage of specific policy proposals, and the time-lagged impact of different visions on America's future.

Misframing Through Headline Grabbers

A headline or title of a news story is the equivalent to a label on a package, the sign on the door, the frosting on the cake.

In short, the title of a news story is the deciding factor regarding whether or not the reader will open the package, enter the door, or eat the cake.

A newspaper headline, of course, is designed to attract readers. Many people read just the headline of a news story and not the story itself. 

News headlines in many instances produce impressions, intuitions, and feelings of liking or disliking, with little deliberation or reasoning.

Another form of newspaper headline trickery is to ask someone (a perfectly sane person) a question such as: "Have you ever been treated for insanity?"

Assume that person is you. And further assume your name is John Smith.

Upon being asked the insanity question, you inevitably and truthfully shout, "No!"

Yet if the newspaper headline reads, John Smith Denies Ever Being Treated For Insanity!, many readers falsely assume where there's smoke, there's fire. 

Says Khaneman: "Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without you knowing how they got there."

Simply put, intuitive impressions or thoughts on a given subject or person could be due entirely to journalists' choices and framing of story headlines.

Needed: Straight Talk For Twisted Numbers 

Heather Mac Donald in her important and timely book entitled The War On Cops, provides  a much-needed reminder of the dangers of advocacy statistics and what's now being called advocacy journalism.

Ms. Mac Donald separates truth from fiction by systematically demonstrating how many news stories concerning "intentional police discrimination" are based on meaningless statistics, omissions in the data analyzed, improper comparisons, lack of rigorous definitions, far-fetched estimates, and a host of other all-too common statistical analysis sins. 

It doesn't take much to generalize Ms. Mac Donald's clear-eyed analysis related to the misreporting on today's thorny issues related to race, crime, and policing in America to a wider range of issues that suffer from convoluted (yes, bad) analysis and faulty conclusions.

Indeed, Ms. Mac Donald puts everyone with a detectable heartbeat on notice something is wrong. Very wrong. It's truly worrisome. The frequency with which bogus statistical evidence is used intentionally or unintentionally to justify a given narrative is reaching a danger point. We hope this is a trend without a future.

Relevant Drucker Wisdom With Respect to "Communications as Propaganda" 

The following Peter F. Drucker excerpt (first written in 1969) sums up the potential consequences of journalistic overreach if readers decide news stories misinform, mislead, and misdirect:

Communications are always propaganda. The emitter always wants to “get something across”... 

Propaganda, we now know, is both a great deal more powerful than the rationalists with their belief in “open discussion” believe, and a great deal less powerful than the myth-makers of propaganda, for example, a Dr. Goebbels in the Nazi regime, believed and wanted us to believe…

Indeed, the danger of total propaganda is not the propaganda will be believed, the danger is nothing will believed and that every communication will become suspect…

In the end, no communication is being received anymore. Everything anyone says is considered a demand and resisted, resented, and in effect not heard at all…

The end results of total propaganda are not fanatics, but cynics—but this, of course, may be even greater and more dangerous corruption.