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Not “Fake News,” But Still Awful for Other Reasons:  Analysis of Two Examples from The Echo Chambers This Week

The term “fake news” is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is widely used to mean anything from “outright hoax” to “some information I do not like.” Therefore, I refrain from using the term to describe media sources at all.

Besides that, I refrain from discussing the term because I submit that the biggest problem in our current media landscape is not “hoax” stories that could legitimately be called “fake news.” What is far more damaging to our civic discourse are articles and stories that are mostly, or even completely, based on the truth, but which are of poor quality for other reasons.

The ways in which articles can be awful are many. Further, not all awful articles are awful in the same way. For these reasons, it is difficult to point out to most casual news readers how an article that is 90% true, or even 100% true, is biased, unfair, or deviant from respectable journalistic practices.

This post is the first in a series I plan to do in which I visually rank one or more recent articles on my chart and provide an in-depth analysis of why each particular article is ranked in that spot.  My analysis includes discussions of the headlines, graphics, other visual elements, and the article itself. I analyze each element and each sentence by asking “what is this element/sentence doing?”

This week, I break down one article from the right (from the Daily Wire, entitled “TRUMP WAS RIGHT: Gold Star Widow Releases Trump’s Call After Husband Was Killed in Afghanistan) and one from the left (from Pink News, entitled “Bill O’Reilly caught in $32 million Fox News gay adult films scandal”).

 

  • From the Left: Article Ranking and Analysis of:

http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/10/24/bill-oreilly-caught-in-32-million-fox-news-gay-adult-films-scandal/

Source: Pink News

Author: Benjamin Butterworth

Date: October 24, 2017

Total Word Count: 706

  1. Title: Bill O’Reilly caught in $32 million Fox News gay adult films scandal

Title Issues:

Misleading about underlying facts

There is no current, known scandal involving Fox News and gay adult films. Bill O’Reilly settled a $32 million sexual harassment lawsuit while employed by Fox, and one of the allegations was that he sent a woman gay porn. However, the title suggests some sort of major financial involvement of Fox News in particular gay porn films. No mention of lawsuit settlement in title.

                        Misleading about content of article

The article is actually about the sexual harassment settlement, with one mention of the allegation of sending gay porn, the actions of Fox News in relation to O’Reilly’s employment after the settlement, and a listing of O’Reilly’s past anti-gay statements.

                        Misleading content is sensationalist/clickbait

  1. Graphics: Lead image linked to social media postings is this:

 

          Graphics Issues:

                        Misleading regarding content of article:

The image is half a gay porn scene and half Bill O’Reilly, which would lead a read to expect that the topic of gay porn makes up a significant portion of the article—perhaps up to half.

                        Misleading content is sensationalist/clickbait

The image is salacious and relies on people’s interest what they perceive as sexual misbehavior and/or hypocrisy of others

                        Image is a stock photo not related to a particular fact in the article

  • Other Elements (Lead Quote): Anti-gay former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is caught up in a $32 million gay porn lawsuit.

Element Issues:

Inaccurate regarding underlying facts

The $32 million lawsuit is cannot be accurately characterized as being “about” gay porn. It is most accurately characterized as a sexual harassment (or related tort) lawsuit.

                        Inaccurate in relation to facts stated in article

The article itself states: “Now the New York Times (NYT) has claimed that, in January, O’Reilly agreed to pay $32 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him.”

Adjective describing subject of article selected for partisan effect

“Anti-gay” is used to describe Bill O’Reilly, which is used to make a point, to the site’s pro-LGBT audience, that O’Reilly is especially despicable beyond the transgressions that are subject of the present lawsuit being reported upon.

  1. Article:

            Genres:

  1. Embellished Reporting (i.e., reporting the timely story, plus other stuff)

Reports the current sexual harassment settlement story, relevant related timeline of events, plus extraneous information about how O’Reilly is anti-gay

  1. Promotion of Idea

                                    Idea that Bill O’Reilly is a bad person particularly because he is anti-gay

Sentence Breakdown:

                        706 total words, 28 sentences/quotes

Factual Accuracy:

% Inaccurate sentences: 0 out of 28 sentences (0%) inaccurate

% Misleading Sentences: 0 out of 12 sentences (0%) are misleading

 

                        Sentence Type by Fact, Analysis, and Opinion:

% Fact/ Quoted Statements: 24/28 (86%)

% Fact/Quoted Statements with adjectives: 2/28 (7%)

% Analysis Statements: 1/28 (3.5%)

% Analysis/Opinion Statements: 1/28 (3.5%)

% Opinion Statements: 0

 

Sentence Type by Fair/Unfair Influence:

                        % Fair: 20/28 (71%)

Sentences 1-7, and 9-20 rated as “fair” because they are factual, relevant to the current story, and timely.

% Unfair: 8/28 (29%)

Sentences 8, 20-28 rated as “unfair” because they are untimely, unrelated to title, and used for idea promotion

Overall Article Quality Rating: Selective Story; Unfair Influence

Main reasons:

-29% of sentences included for unfair purpose

-Anything over with over 10% unfair influence sentences can be fairly rated in this category

-Title, Graphics, Lead element all extremely misleading

Overall Partisan Bias Rating: HYPER-PARTISAN (Liberal)

Main reasons:

  • Focus on pro-LGBT message even though underlying story is very loosely related to LGBT issues

 

  • From the Right: Article Ranking and Analysis of:

http://www.dailywire.com/news/22540/trump-was-right-gold-star-widow-releases-trumps-ryan-saavedra

Source: The Daily Wire

Author: Ryan Saavedra

Date: October 20, 2017

Total Word Count: 257

 

 

  1. Title: TRUMP WAS RIGHT: Gold Star Widow Releases Trump’s Call After Husband Was Killed in Afghanistan

Title Issues:

Contains all caps statement of “TRUMP WAS RIGHT”

-Capitalization is sensationalist

Contains conclusory opinion statement of “TRUMP WAS RIGHT”

Directly appeals to confirmation bias with “TRUMP WAS RIGHT”

People likely to believe Trump is right in general are the most likely to click on, read, and/or share this, and are most likely to believe the contents of the article at face value

Misleading regarding context of current events, which says “Gold Star Widow Releases Trump’s Call After Husband Was Killed in Afghanistan (see explanation after next issue)

Omitting relevant context of current events occurring between approximately Oct 16 and Oct 20, 2017, the four preceding days before this article was published

-In the context of a controversy over disputed phone call between Trump and a different black Gold Star Widow than the one this article is about, in which the presence of a recording of the call was also disputed, the omission of the fact that this is a different black Gold Star Widow who received a call from Trump is misleading. It is misleading because it is likely to confuse readers who are unfamiliar with specific facts of the current controversy ( such as 1) the names of the widow and solider, Myeshia Johnson and Sgt. La David Johnson, 2) what they look like, and 3) where he was killed

 

  1. Graphic Elements: An accurate photo of the widow who is the subject of the story (Natasha DeAlencar) and her fallen soldier husband (Staff Sgt. Mark DeAlancar)

Graphics Issue:

Accurate photo juxtaposed with other problematic elements

-Though the photo is accurate, its position next to the title again may lead readers who are uninformed as to the underlying facts that this call is regarding the current controversy between Myeshia Johnson and President Trump

III.             Other Elements (Lead Quote): “Say hello to your children, and tell them your father, he was a great hero that I respected.”

Element Issue:

Accurate quote juxtaposed with other problematic elements

-Similar to the photo, though the quote is accurate, its position next to the title and photo again may lead readers who are uninformed as to the underlying facts that this particular quote was from the current controversial call between Myeshia Johnson and President Trump

  1. Article:

Genres:

-Storytelling

Here, the story of one widow’s experience

Promotion of ideas

Here, the promotion of idea that Trump is respectful and kind; promotion of idea that media is deceitful

Sentence Breakdown:

257 words; 12 sentences

Factual Accuracy:

% Inaccurate sentences: 1 out of 12 sentences (8%) inaccurate

Quote from article: “In response to a claim by a Florida congresswoman this week claiming that President Donald Trump is disrespectful to the loved ones of fallen American soldiers, an African-American Gold Star widow released a video of a phone conversation she had with the President in April about the death of her husband who was killed in Afghanistan.”

  • The widow did not release the video “in response to a claim by a Florida congresswoman.” She released it in response to inquiries from reporters in the wake of the controversy between Myeshia Johnson and Trump[1]

 

  • The congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, did not say generally that Trump is disrespectful to the loved ones of fallen American soldiers. She said to a local Miami news station, about Trump’s particular comments to Myeshia Johnson, “Yeah, he said that. So insensitive. He should not have said that”[2] All recent instances of her talking about the President’s conduct are in the context of this incident.[3]

% Misleading Sentences: 1 out of 12 sentences (8%) are misleading

Quote from article: “The video comes a day after White House Chief of Staff John Kelly gave an emotional speech during the White House press briefing on how disgusting it was that the media would intentionally distort the words of the President to attack him over the death of a fallen American hero.”

 

This quote makes it sound like the media took the words from this call in the video and distorted them to attack the President. The words that are the subject of the controversy in the current Johnson call are not quoted in this article at all. This sentence uses a strong adjective—“disgusting”—to describe an action, and the context of this sentence may lead readers to think the “disgusting” action was the media taking these kind words and reporting different, false, insensitive words.

Sentence Type by Fact, Analysis, and Opinion:

% Fact/ Quoted Statements: 9/12 (75%)

% Fact/Quoted Statements with adjectives: 3/12 (25%)

% Analysis Statements: 0

% Analysis/Opinion Statements: 0

% Opinion Statements: 0

 

Sentence Type by Fair/Unfair Influence:

% Fair: 84%

Sentences 2-11 rated as “fair” because they are factual and relevant to the underlying story

% Unfair: 16%

Sentence 1 rated as “unfair” because inaccurate statements are generally used unfairly for persuasion

Sentence 12 rated as “unfair” because misleading statements are generally used unfairly for persuasion

Overall Article Quality Rating: Propaganda/Contains Misleading Facts

Main reasons:

-Anything over 0% inaccurate automatically rated at least this low

-Anything over 2% misleading automatically rated at least this low

-Title, Graphics, Lead element all misleading

Overall Partisan Bias Rating: HYPER-PARTISAN

Main reasons:

  • Opinion statement in title
  • Misleading and inaccurate statements used for purpose of promoting partisan ideas

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/10/19/listen-soldiers-widow-shares-her-call-with-trump/?utm_term=.f615c80f2bd7

[2] https://www.local10.com/news/politics/trump-speaks-to-widow-of-sgt-la-david-johnson

[3] The author of this analysis is unaware of any general statement by Rep. Wilson that “Trump is disrespectful to the loved ones of fallen American soldiers,” but will revise this analysis if such quotes are brought to the author’s attention

9 thoughts on “Not “Fake News,” But Still Awful for Other Reasons:  Analysis of Two Examples from The Echo Chambers This Week

  1. I like what you are doing here. I do a similar “column” at my Facebook author page except I am hyper-focused on error, uncertainties, and biases of numerical results. Like your approach, I usually take a number reported in the media, advertising, policy circles, etc., and dissect it based on the twelve commandments I espouse in Painting By Numbers: How to Sharpen Your BS Detector and Smoke Out the Experts.

    The essential problem we all face is that this mis-infomation gets propagated through real-time network effects faster than any fact-checkers or analysts (you and I, e.g.) can counter them.

    https://www.facebook.com/authorjasonmakansi/

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you are doing a similar thing with numbers in the news. I’ll be sure to follow you. You are so right about the biggest challenge of this kind of work–bad content gets churned out so much faster than we can counter that. Hopefully we can find ways to solve this problem.

  2. […] separately scores the title, graphics, lede, and other visual elements. See a couple of examples here. Categorizing and ranking the news is hard to do because there are so very many factors. But I’m […]

  3. Very interesting stuff. Not being trained in this kind of analysis, I appreciate the information. I had some inclination of what you are talking about, but your article opened my eyes to the quality of the news I am reading and is causing me to adjust my reading sources.

  4. This is a wonderful resource! Thank you very much for the time and energy you’ve applied. I am wondering how to contact you with an idea to use this as a tool for social media/media landscape health. Is there a contact email listed on your website?

    1. You’re welcome! I’ll e-mail you.

  5. Interesting analysis. I love the approach that helps people develop a sharper eye for so-called news.
    I would like to have seen you take on more nuanced stories from highly respected news sources. One story that comes to my mind is a NYT article about the teenagers who couldn’t get on the flight because they were wearing leggings.

    The title brought viewers in with something that sounded unfair, sexist and just plain bizarre.
    “After Barring Girls for Leggings, United Airlines Defends Decision”

    Buried deep in the story is the fact about a longtime policy that the teenagers knew about because they were flying as “Pass Travelers.” So, this really seems like a story about teenagers being teenagers and seeing what they can get away with.

    But the NYT article buries the airline’s policy. Bringing it up AFTER there have been enough “facts” and embedded tweets to get a reader all stirred up.

    This is dangerous because the “fake news” aspect of this is way more insidious than a story that starts off with questionable claims and partial truths.

    1. I absolutely agree that the unfairness in such an article is more insidious, especially given the source’s reputation. One thing I noticed when fact-checking the “Trump was right” soldier story against higher quality sources is that even those sources (The Hill, WaPo, NYT) also did some sneaky things. They were not as egregious as the Daily Wire tricks, but I was still quite disappointed. Their headlines could have been much more fact-based and neutral, and the relevant information could have been presented much earlier. I think it has to do with getting clicks and views; focus on reader engagement has brought down the quality of headlines and ledes even in the more reputable stories.

      My next post in this series will rank such stories from these higher quality news sources. I think there is much more to learn there.

      1. YES YES YES YES!!!
        Engagements, clickbait, pulling people away from other platforms and websites, trying to force people to turn off their ad-blockers if they aren’t going to pay for news …

        This mad struggle for attention has turned news inside out. Neil Postman wrote about this in 1982, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He closed the book with a warning that home computing was going to make media worse because the need for attention in a crowded world will create more incentive to do weird stuff.

        So, Vanessa, I appreciate what you’re doing to make people more aware, and more critical in specific ways. I look forward to your next article. We need your kind of insight.

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