Tag Archives: journalism

News are gradually biased by re-reporting

The (science) news cycle occurs when the original source is quoted by another news outlet, which is quoted by another outlet, etc, creating a “telephone game”, a.k.a. “Chinese whispers” familiar from kindergarten. Each re-reporting introduces noise to the previous report, so the end result may differ diametrically from the original story. This news cycle has been identified and mocked before, e.g. by PhD Comics.
The telephone game of news outlets has an additional aspect that I have not seen mentioned, namely that the re-reporting does not add random noise, but noise that biases the previous source deliberately. Each news outlet, blog or other re-poster has a slant and focusses on those aspects of the story that favour its existing viewpoint.
A single outlet usually does not change the story to the complete opposite of the original, because outright lying is easy to detect and would damage the outlet’s reputation. However, many outlets in a sequence can each bias the story a little, until the final report is the opposite of the original. Each outlet’s biasing decision is difficult to detect, because the small bias is hidden in the noise of rephrasing and selectively copying the previous outlet’s story. So each outlet can claim to report unbiased news, if readers do not question why the outlet used second-hand (really n-th hand) sources, not the original article (the first in the sequence). A single manipulator thus has an incentive to create many websites that report each other’s stories in a sequence.
The moral of this text is that to get accurate information, read the original source. Whenever you see an interesting news article, work backward along the sequence of reports to see whether the claims are the same as in the first report. The first report is not guaranteed to be true, but at least the biases and honest errors introduced later can be removed this way.

On reporting on the Syrian war

According to the media, there are no ordinary towns in Syria, only key towns, strategic towns and key strategic towns. The same holds for villages, highways, road crossings, border crossings etc. There are no minor skirmishes in the Syrian war, only major offensives, strategic offensives and similar very important actions in very important places. What the media calls major campaigns usually involve from a few dozen to a few hundred fighters. Entire cities are attacked and defended for months by some hundreds at most, with the media reporting major clashes every day.

On journalistic privilege

Journalists have certain privileges over the average citizen – they get access to inside information, public figures and press conferences. An attack against a journalist creates more outrage, because it is seen as damaging the free press. These advantages are not given so that journalists could make money or satisfy their curiosity. The privileges are provided to help journalists serve the public interest, similarly to the delegation of decision power to politicians. People being people, some journalists abuse the privileges. They do not inform the public, only entertain to make money. This takes the form of sensationalism: covering frivolous topics that sell well, but do not provide useful knowledge. For example celebrity gossip, funny animals, manufactured controversy.

It would be fair to remove journalistic privileges from tabloid reporters and stop calling them journalists. They are just nosy people. The problem is that whoever decides on giving or taking privileges, gets power over the media. Therefore this authority should not be the government, but an independent organization. However, some rights and protections of the media are legislated, so a non-governmental body cannot change them. The legislature would have to delegate its authority in this sphere to the hypothetical independent regulator first. Given how much politicians wish to influence journalists, this decision seems unlikely.