Some Christians are so disgusted with mainline newspapers and news shows that they refuse to read or watch and merely engage in a general carping condemnation. Others understand the problems of "the media" in abstraction, but are news consumers who tend to accept what they read or see as generally accurate: "The camera doesn't lie, does it?"
Sadly, it does. Modern journalistic technology can produce products with great style even when there is ungodly substance, and many journalists have great knowledge and talent (although not the fear of God which is the beginning of wisdom). Using attention-grabbers, skillfully constructed stories, and careful placement of articles, such talented individuals are able to pull wool over untrained eyes. This chapter shows how those who attack can add specific detail to their criticism, and those who tend to accept can become more discerning.
A recent report in Detroit about a nuclear plant closed for safety reasons shows the importance of headlines. Detroit's two highly competitive newspapers, the liberal Free Press and the moderately conservative News, had similar stories about safety improvements being made at Detroit Edison's Fermi plant, but the headlines reflected a half-empty vs. half-full psychology. The Detroit Free Press headline was "Panel: Edison Slow to Repair Flaws at Fermi." The News headline was, "Outline for Fermi Improves.''
Choices of television graphics are also important. When oil prices were rising, some petroleum stories had a graphic of a man in Arab clothing, thus implicitly blaming factors abroad for the price rise. Others had a montage of U.S. oil company logos, thus implicitly blaming corporations for the price rise. Introductions to filmed stories also are crucial to watch: "Tennessee parents are challenging school officials on textbook selection-here's the story from correspondent Jim Bartleby" is very different from "Tennessee fundamentalists are fighting educational authorities-Jim, what's going on there?"
A perceptive reader thinks first about the headline and then turns to the lead (or, in a television report, the "framing" of a story). Leads can be either "summary" (designed to present succinctly the most important information about the story) or feature (designed not so much to provide news as to grab the reader's attention and get him to read on). Questions to ask about both kinds include: What impression did the lead create? What was its "hook" (the connection to a newsworthy event)? What other angles were possible? Leads are vital because at least half the readers who start a story are likely to read no further.
On a national story, it is also worth asking whether reporters took the time to localize it, or whether they reported it dutifully
but held it at arm's length while wrinkling their nose. For example, when the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press ran front-page stories on AlDS-contaminated blood in blood banks, the conservative News lead provided specific detail on how sixty-four donors to Michigan's three Red Cross centers had tested positive for the AIDS antibody. The liberal Free Press lead, however, was a general statement about blood banks tracing blood donations. Which lead might build the willingness to treat AIDS like other dangerous diseases, despite the pressures of interest-group politics?
One final element to examine before scrutinizing the story itself is the story's setting. News organizations try to regularize news coverage through institution of beats, often associated with government: State Department, City Hall, courthouse. Routine channels of that sort account for most news; on local television, death watches (fires, crimes, accidents) account for most of the rest. A television station's decision to send a camera crew to a location that is neither routinized (the beat) nor sensational shows a conscious decision to expend resources in particular ways and not expend them in others. Whose demonstrations are covered, and whose are not? Who gets free publicity, and who does not? Those are key questions that often have ideological answers.
STORIES: WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Turning to the story itself, basic questions to ask include: What words and characterizations were used to describe controversial individuals, groups, or ideas? What hard evidence was given? How were the sources of evidence identified-as participants, citizens, or experts? How was evidence made credible or not? How was the credibility of particular individuals heightened or not? Were individuals interviewed, quoted, paraphrased, or merely referred to? Were statistics used? Were governmental officials cited? Was one side more identified with the public interest, with individual freedom, or with idealism? Did one side seem to be the underdog?
The best way to check coverage is to compare stories on the same news item in roughly comparable news outlets: Two local television stations, or (in those rare cases where this is possible) competitive newspapers. Detroit, again, is probably the finest city for this, and one that provides many wonderful examples of sharply conflicting coverage. For example, one day both the Free Press and the News had at the top right-hand corner of page 1-the most read spot of the newspaper-articles on a keynote speech by union president Owen Bieber at the United Auto Workers annual convention. The placement of the story was no surprise: the UAW is very important in Motown, and each newspaper sent its own reporter to the convention site near Disneyland, rather than relying on wire services.
The headlines, though, made it seem as if two different speeches were being covered. The conservative News proclaimed, "UAW Chief Threatens Wage 'War.' " The liberal Free Press reported, "New UAW Group to Chart Future." Further reading did not lessen the confusion. The Free Press's lead of thirty-four words was: "In a spirited keynote address to the first session of the UAW's 26th Constitutional Convention here Sunday, President Owen Bieber announced the establishment of a new commission to guide the union in the future." The News lead of thirty-five words was: "The United Auto Workers will 'go to war' with the Big Three auto makers unless substantial gains are made in wages and job security during next year's contract negotiations, UAW President Owen Bieber said Sunday." Same speech, same length of lead, but two very different impressions. The Free Press, in its headline and lead, stressed the positive message (in today's culture) of future-orientation, while the News provided the negative message of "wage war."
Nor did succeeding paragraphs provide what the leads lacked. The Free Press story, continuing onto an inside page, contained twenty-two paragraphs, but nowhere was wage war even mentioned. The News story also went onto an inside page and was also twenty-two paragraphs long. It at least mentioned the commission, but not until the eighteenth paragraph, by which time most readers would be long gone to the comics, sports or lifestyle pages.
Sadly, few cities have such standout competition, so questions about subtle specific detail are necessary: What descriptive words or settings were used: Were seemingly trivial aspects included in the story? For what reason? Any pattern? In an age when abortion is labeled termination of pregnancy and abortionists are "pro-choice," evasive language should not be overlooked: Why are pornography shops, patronized by those in arrested stages of development, referred to as "adult bookstores"? Why do many major media outlets use the words "dictator" or "strongman" to describe autocrats allied to the United States, but the word "leader" to refer to Communist dictators such as Jaruzelski, Ortega, or Kim II Sung?
Newspaper readers must remember that specific, descriptive detail is the guts of journalism. Reporters quickly learn how to load stories not by distinguishing explicitly their perceived good guys and bad guys, but through the use of evocative descriptives.
For example, when Tennessee parents in 1986 protested the teaching of anti-Christian doctrines to their children in public schools, reporters for Time, Newsweek, and major newspapers did not say, "We think the parents are nutty." Instead, they reported that the parents were objecting to the reading of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella, The Wizarad of Oz, Jack and Jill, and so on. In actuality, the parents were objecting to stories that preach the acceptability of lying, stealing, cheating, and disobeying parents, preach that motherhood is an inferior activity, and so on. The parents also objected to children being instructed in the writing of witchcraft incantations or the use of New Age meditational exercises.
Newsweek mentioned none of this, but padded its story with description of how the school board's lawyer "spread his hands in exasperation" because the Christian parents apparently were impossible to please. Then the magazine added a bit of local color in the form of an ersatz public opinion poll: "Customers at The Ivory Thimble needlework shop in nearby Church Hill thought the parents were making 'mountains out of molehills.'" Reporters often use such unnamed sources to indicate their own impressions.
Such loading is easier to spot in print than on videotape. News film tends to go by so fast that it is generally necessary to tape a story on a VCR and run it by several times, perhaps with the sound off, to see what subliminal impressions a particular story might have created. Did quick cuts from one activity to another suggest a causal link between the two? Were people interviewed at different times, with material spliced together so it appears that they were engaged in a debate (one that never happened)?
Bias in news coverage of demonstrations is relatively easy to spot. At a rally, were news cameras focusing on a few or on a crowd? Were viewers left with an accurate impression of how many people actually were there? (A large crowd can look small and a small one large simply by changing camera lenses.) Did cameras focus on kooky stuff or typical activities? It is easy to trivialize a demonstration through emphasis on the silly, or to marginalize it by suggesting that those involved are deviant or irrational.
Through camera work, impressions can be influenced in both obvious and subtle ways. The normal camera angle for news interviews is straight across, simulating the way one adult of average height meets and talks with another adult of average height. If the camera either looks up at the subject (that makes him seem more powerful) or down (that belittles him), the reason is either incompetence or ideology. Worm's-eye or bird's-eye views are such obvious slanting devices that they rarely are used. Differences in distancing are more frequent. Interviewees are typically shot in medium closeup (after perhaps an opening shot to "establish" the setting). Closeups, though, are used to bring out emotion (in an accident victim) or to show sweat (during an unfriendly interview). On the other hand, a full-length or long shot of an individual during the middle of an interview generally depersonalizes him and distances viewers. Departures from the normal medium close-up should be examined carefully.
Freeze frames (also called Jack Ruby frames ever since they were used in November 1963 to stop the action at the moment Ruby's bullet hit Lee Harvey Oswald) have become fashionable. Freeze frames give the impression that an individual has been caught doing something significant at what journalists believe to be a particularly important moment. As the previous chapter's discussion of the case of patrolman Coughlin showed, that moment may be crucial only in the eyes of an ill-informed reporter.
Few nonjournalists realize how frequently "experts" and "statistics" are used to bulwark a reporter's ideological position. An "expert" almost always can be found to support virtually any position. Books with titles such as How to Lie with Statistics also are valuable. Regardless of the statistics involved, skilled makers of line graphs or pie and bar charts can create almost any impression they want. Verticals in line graphs can be compressed, bar charts can leave out center sections, and picture graphs can leave the impression of much greater change than actually occurred, since doubling
height often quadruples bulk.
Statistics often are misused in articles trying to make political points. Some ten thousand U.S. draft evaders in Canada during the early 1970s were transformed by the Boston Globe into "over 50,000," by Newsweek into fifty thousand to seventy-five thousand, by CBS into one hundred thousand, and so on. During the late 1950s and 1960s, several hundred abortion-related deaths of women each year were turned into annual totals of five to ten thousand, and several hundred thousand illegal abortions per year became one to two million.
Even apparently straight question-and-answer segments may be open to distortion. Some interviewers have been known to change the questions they asked, for the camera, following conclusion of a taped interview. For example, Geraldo Rivera in one interview asked a subject, "Did you make a mistake?" During the refilming, though, he asked an implicitly more critical question: "Do you admit that a mistake was made?" He used the original answer and thus made his respondent seem evasive.
The viewer, of course, would never know about that type of hanky-panky. Careful watching, though, often raises suspicions, as does general knowledge of journalistic practices. Since the classic news story structure is "inverted pyramid," with the most important information in the opening paragraphs and successively less important material bringing up the rear, deviations from that order gain significance. Readers can learn to spot changes and ask "why" whenever something apparently unimportant is given top billing.
BEHIND THE STORY: GATEKEEPERS
Why does one particular story make the front page or network news, when hundreds of other possible stories end up circularly filed? Many scholars suggest that journalists have their prime influence on society not so much by coverage of particular stories as by the choice of what to cover; journalists are sometimes called "gatekeepers" or "agenda-setters." Readers and viewers should keep asking: Why was the story considered newsworthy? Was it tied to a particular event? Did it have dramatic elements, such as violence or conflict? Was it something unusual? Was it a new development in a continuing issue? Did the activity reported affect many people? Was there a celebrity involved?
A story should be examined in the context of an entire newspaper or program. Where was it placed? How much space or time did it receive? Was it treated as hard news or feature? Could it have been either? How did it compare in interest to stories given more prominent space or time, or less? One other question is hard to answer from the outside, but it is well worth asking: Who might have been behind the story? Did someone outside the news organization start the ball rolling, or shape the story as it developed? Who benefited from the story? Who was damaged?
The best way to see how much of news is discretionary, again, is to compare coverage in different publications, then ask questions about contrast in information and handling. Did a story appear in just one publication or on one program, or many? For example, one day the Detroit News gave big play to a report calling the Detroit mayor inactive concerning "hundreds of thousands of vacant and abandoned homes," "abandoned cars by the thousands with nowhere to store them," and serious problems with the water, sanitation and other departments. The liberal Free Press, which has given consistent support to Detroit's mayor, at first did not cover the charges at all, and the next day buried on page 18A a tiny article about the controversy.
A CLASSIC: THE CHAMBERS-HISS AFFAIR
Leads, stories, and story selection: All the elements come together in a comparison of how the Chambers-Hiss affair mentioned in Chapter Two was covered in the liberal Washington Post and the conservative Chicago Tribune. A jury in January 1950 found Hiss guilty of perjury. Historians have no real doubt that the jury verdict was correct. Yet, five of my journalism history students who read about the trial in the Washington Post, without any other knowledge of the case, concluded that Hiss was innocent. Five other journalism students who read only the Tribune came to the conclusion that Hiss was guilty.
How could that happen? In the Post, evidence against Hiss that was irrefutable in the courtoom-microfilm, stolen documents retyped on his typewriter-was downplayed. Instead, Post readers were told of the personal battle between "tall, lean, 44-year-old Hiss," with character references from Supreme Court Justices, and "short, fat-faced" Chambers, with his "customary air of complete emotionless detachment." In the pages of the Post, Chambers wore a "supercilious expression" while Hiss "calmly strode to the stand" and was always "sure of himself, answering the barrage of questions without hesitation, showing no uneasiness or equivocation.'' The Tribune, though, stressed the evidence and supported Chambers.
On June 2, 1949, for instance, Chambers testified that Alger Hiss had furnished government secrets to the Soviets, and also admitted having himself lied while a Communist during the 1930s. The following day the Washington Post headline emphasized Chambers' past derelictions: "Lies Admitted by Chambers." The Chicago Tribune, though, spotlighted Hiss' activity: "Hiss Aided Reds: Chambers." Each newspaper also described the emotional state of Chambers as he was testifying: The liberal Post reported that "Chambers seemed to be showing discomfiture," while the conservative Tribune noted that Chambers "never lost his composure."
On June 6 Chambers again provided two possible story emphases: He testified that another federal official had spied for the Soviets, and he also admitted additional lies. The Post again played the Iying angle big, even running a banner headline across the top of page 1: "Chambers Admits He Lied to Congress," followed by a pro-Hiss lead: "Under vigorous cross-examination which sought to depict him as a confused neurotic, Whittaker Chambers admitted some further conflict in his account." The Chicago Tribune, though, headlined the day's new development: "Chambers Says Wadleigh Was 2d Spy Source.''
One week later the testimony of Whittaker Chambers' wife, Esther, became crucial to Chambers' contention, denied by Hiss, that Chambers and Hiss had been close friends during the 1930s. The Washington Post transformed one faltering moment on the witness stand-Esther Chambers could not remember whether she had seen the Hisses twelve years earlier at an anniversary party or a New Year's Eve party-into a front-page headline: "Chambers' Wife Alters Testimony.''
The Chicago Tribune, though, emphasized the main part of her testimony and even suggested comfortable cruelty among the Hisses: "Hiss, resplendent in a cream colored summer suit, and his wife, in a cotton frock and a pert green hat, beamed as the 49 year old witness grew pale and exhausted, hesitated and faltered . . . under a merciless, four hour cross-examination.''
Two days later newspapers reported the testimony of a State Department secretary who had worked for Hiss. Part of her testimony was damaging to Hiss' case: She testified that four memoranda in Hiss' handwriting on top secret subjects were not made in the course of regular State Department business. Part could be construed as supportive: She also noted that State Department employees other than Hiss had access to some of the documents Chambers said he had received from Hiss.
The Chicago Tribune's lead was pro-Chambers, describing how the secretary had "stunned the defense at the Alger Hiss perjury trial today with a series of damaging assertions," most notably the one about Hiss' secret memoranda. The Washington Post's story was pro-Hiss, beginning with the headline "State Secrets Open to Many, Hiss Trial Told," and continuing with a direct presentation of the spin put on the story by the Hiss camp: "Trial attorneys for Alger Hiss today emphasized that dozens of other State Department employees had access to documents which Whittaker Chambers said he received from Hiss in 1938.''
Throughout the trial, then, Tribune and Post readers would have received radically different impressions. It so happened in this case that readers of the conservative newspaper would have been much better informed than readers of the liberal Post. It is not always that way, since the key dividing point of our era is materialistic vs. theist, not liberal vs. conservative.
Furthermore, Tribune readers would have been no better informed of the theological implications of the story than were Post readers. Chambers, throughout the affair, had tried to teach that communism could not be defeated by American materialism; he argued that it was the near-religious vision of communism that attracted to its ranks persons like Alger Hiss. Chambers had stated that only faith in God could allow Americans to stand up to Marxist faith. The Tribune, though, generally ignored Chambers' message.
In retrospect, it is clear that Chambers' agenda and the conservative press agendas deviated as he emphasized Christian beliefs and criticized materialism of all stripes. After listening to Chambers' statements, one observer suggested that the question was "no longer whether Alger Hiss is guilty. The question now is whether God exists." Many conservative journalists, like many of their liberal counterparts, seemed uncomfortable with the debate on those terms. They did not understand the deeper implications of the ideas of Chambers and the fall of Hiss.
CONCLUSION: NEWS PERSPECTIVE
Christians should not assume that news pages are any less biased than editorial pages; sometimes the only significant difference is the degree of subtlety. It is always important to keep in mind the importance of what writer David Altheide has called "news perspective." As Altheide points out, most stories are too complex to fit into a dramatic and easily understood standard news format. Journalists look for a lead or theme which will help them to structure the story and determine which facts are important. Once that theme has been developed, subsequent news stories on the same subject will be reported according to the same theme. Details which do not fit will not be pursued.
The Sherri Finkbine abortion story from 1962, discussed briefly in Chapter Two, provides a good example of journalistic grasping for a new theme. The problem of what to call the being in the womb was difficult. Even though the use of the word "baby" went against the thrust of most stories, the Finkbine articles early on were sprinkled with references to "unborn baby" and "child." The New York Times on July 26 reported that Finkbine "feared her child would be permanently affected." The next day the Times referred to "Mrs. Sherri Finkbine, pregnant for three months with a baby she fears will be deformed." The New York Journal-American mentioned "her baby" and "the unborn child." The Los Angeles Times reported that Finkbine "wants to prevent the birth of her child." The Chicago Tribune referred to the "expected child [who] is threatened with deformed birth."
Medical language provided the eventual solution: Dump the word "baby" and substitute the neutral-sounding term "fetus." Early on, the word "fetus" (and occasionally the word "embryo") found use when reporters focused on the medical aspects of the situation. After the abortion occurred, the Journal-American used the term "fetus" on August 18. The New York Times reported on August 19 that, in the Finkbine case, "the fetus" was deformed. Journalists needed this new vocabulary to avoid using language that contradicted themes. Reporters could create sympathy for the Finkbines by emphasizing their appearance, children, love for children, professions, etc., but implicitly pro-life language could create tension by making readers believe that the abortion would affect a baby and not a thing. The tension was reconciled when reporters focused on the possibility of deformity (suggesting that the baby was less than fully human) and took from the medical profession a neutral term, "fetus."
Use of a dehumanizing term allowed reporters to stress more consistently Finkbine's "unselfish" willingness to sacrifice her privacy to promote "more humane" abortion legislation. The Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying, "I hope that in a small way we have contributed toward achieving a more humane attitude toward this problem.'' The Chicago Tribune quoted Robert Finkbine's observation that his wife went public to "help others who may get trapped in the same horrible thing."
Clearly, a new story format for abortion incidents was emerging. The old "abortion as crime" structure viewed the aborted infant as a murder victim, but in the new format sympathy was with Finkbine. Coverage was always from her perspective.
Providentially, though, new developments in medicine are making it more difficult for journalists to use implicitly pro-abortion language. Recently, when doctors announced that they had opened a mother's womb by cesarean section, removed her twenty-three-week-old baby for three minutes to correct a urinary tract infection, and put the baby back in the womb, the word "fetus" did not sound quite right even to some hard-boiled reporters. Baby Mitchell, after all, had been a fetus with his own doctor, his own medical records, even his own medical bills. One network news show still referred to him five times as just a "fetus," but the New York Times several times called the child in the womb an "unborn baby." That is not great progress, but it may indicate a turning of the tide.
In general, mainline American journalism is still stuck in the ruts of a modernism now grown old. The refusal of many journalists to change should come as no surprise to Christians who recall Psalm 73's description of those who have power without godliness: "They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth." The refusal is still a sorrowful sight for journalists and for journalism, because God is not mocked.
We should mourn the present and future of leading denizens of the current journalistic night. We should be joyful, though, that God is now raising up new technology, new institutions, and new journalists to take the places of those fallen away. The next section discusses the coming opportunity for return.