Student: Mr. Naughton — I’m a journalism student who will graduate next week. I’ve noticed that on both of your blogs, you frequently complain about biased reporting. In fact, you inspired me to examine the news more critically, which led me to conclude that bias is not only rampant, but may in fact be a job requirement. Since you were a journalism major yourself, I hope you’re willing to give me some advice: namely, can you share some pointers on how to write biased news stories? In this economy, with so few jobs available for new graduates, I could really use an edge.
Fat Head: I graduated in the midst of the 1981-82 recession and know exactly how you feel. I’d be happy to help to you develop the necessary bias in your reporting, but first let’s distinguish between strategy and tactics. A strategy is plan for achieving a goal. Tactics are the methods you employ to implement the strategy. Your goal is success in journalism. You asked for pointers, and we’ll get into those shortly, but those are tactics. To succeed as a biased reporter, you must first understand the strategy, which is:
1) Whenever you tackle complex issues, you will rewrite them as neat dramatic narratives that
2) happen to be exactly the neat dramatic narratives that most appeal to your fellow journalists — especially editors and other gatekeepers.
Student: I think I may have a problem with that.
Fat Head: Look, if you care about your career, you’ll forget all that nonsense they taught you about ethics and objectivity and–
Student: No, no, no, that’s not a problem. I just don’t understand how to create neat dramatic narratives.
Fat Head: Oh, well, it’s a mostly matter of selection. If you’re a diligent reporter looking into an important story, you’ll probably find all kinds of complexities and contradictions. That’s not what your editors want. So when you sit down to write, first come up with a Hollywood-style pitch line — the whole story in one sentence. Then throw out anything that doesn’t fit. That’s your first tactic.
Student: Can you give me an example?
Fat Head: Sure, I remember one that had me screaming at the TV. CBS sent a reporter to look into why California went broke. The entire story focused on two things: the national economic recession and Proposition 13, which put a cap on property taxes. I was living in California at the time and knew that in spite of Proposition 13, California still had higher per-capita property taxes than most other states, that Proposition 13 had been around since 1978 and didn’t cause budget shortfalls in the ’80s or ’90s, that Californians paid more in combined taxes than people in 45 other states, and that in spite of the recession, the state’s tax revenues during the previous four years had actually increased by 25 percent, while spending went up 40 percent.
But the CBS reporter realized the neat dramatic narrative that would most please his fellow journalists was “Cap on taxes produces budget crisis,” so he didn’t mention a single one of those facts. And just to make sure nobody missed the narrative, he ended the report with, “Well, Dan, as long as Californians decide to set their own tax rates instead of trusting their legislators to do it for them, they may be facing budget shortfalls for a long time.” Dan looked delighted. I’m guessing that reporter got a raise.
Student: Wow … that is a neat dramatic narrative. But I’m not interested in reporting on economic issues. I’m more interested in public policy issues, especially regarding nutrition and health. That’s why I read your blog.
Fat Head: Excellent … in that case, you only need to remember a single dramatic narrative to guide all your reporting. Write this down and put it next to your keyboard. No matter what specific issue you’re covering, the narrative is: HEROIC GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS TRY TO SAVE HELPLESS AMERICANS — GREEDY CAPITALISTS OPPOSED.
Student: I love it! Good versus evil. Can you teach me to write that story?
Fat Head: Easily. Let’s take a real example from the Los Angeles Times and show how it’s done. Read this story about the FDA’s effort to reduce the salt content in food. Then we’ll discuss the tactics employed to create the narrative.
Student: Okay, I read it. Seems factual to me.
Fat Head: That’s the beauty of it. It’s factual, so it looks like an objective article. But it’s also been constructed to create a neat dramatic narrative. Look at the opening paragraphs:
The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced a gradual but potentially far-reaching effort to reduce the amount of salt Americans consume in a bid to combat high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and other health problems that have soared to near-epidemic proportions.
The FDA’s efforts will begin by seeking voluntary cutbacks by the food industry. But ultimately, the agency may resort to regulating acceptable levels of sodium in food and beverages.
Right away, we’ve established a hero with a noble cause. The FDA is going after the evil food industry to save helpless Americans from heart disease and strokes.
Student: But isn’t that the FDA’s intention?
Fat Head: Bingo! There’s your next tactic: when you are reporting on government health agencies, always judge them by their intentions. Never, ever wonder if their actions will actually produce the desired results. If the government demands calorie counts on restaurant menus to reduce obesity, just assume the result would be a reduction in obesity. Don’t ask if the nutrition labels the FDA imposed in the 1990s reduced obesity, as the FDA predicted at the time. Don’t ask if people who eat lunch at McDonald’s will actually order lower-calorie meals if they’re confronted with calorie counts. And if you do, for heaven’s sake, don’t even think of asking if those same people might just eat more later in the day because they’re hungrier. So if we’re talking about salt, then –
Student: Wait a minute … I see! The FDA is demanding that food manufacturers put less salt in processed food, but we don’t really know if that will ultimately reduce heart disease and strokes, because –
Fat Head: Stop thinking! I’m trying to help you here!
Fat Head: It’s okay. You’re right. We don’t know if putting less salt in packaged food will lead to people eating less of it overall, and we certainly don’t know if eating less salt will reduce heart disease and strokes. But we’ll come back to that. Look at this next paragraph:
The FDA’s decision was applauded by public health advocacy groups and scientists, who have long pointed up the link between high salt intake and a host of serious – and costly – medical problems.
Student: I see it. It’s that “link” thing. You’ve mentioned many times that associations don’t prove anything.
Fat Head: Correct, but that’s not the tactic I’m pointing out here. It’s more about establishing the narrative. Remember, the first part of the narrative is HEROIC GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS TRY TO SAVE HELPLESS AMERICANS. So how do you prove to your audience that the government officials are heroes? Why, you just tell them that health advocacy groups and scientists are applauding.
Student: But that seems like a factual statement.
Fat Head: Read it again carefully. The decision was applauded by “scientists.” Really? All scientists?
Student: Oh, I see …
Fat Head: That’s the tactic. Arrange the narrative so it appears that all the good and smart people are on the government’s side. That means you write “scientists say” or “scientists support” instead of “some scientists say” or “some scientists support.” Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS reporter, described the process brilliantly in his book Bias: you call around for quotes, but then only use the quotes from the experts who support your narrative.
Student: Now wait a minute. In journalism school, I was taught to present both sides of an issue.
Fat Head: So was I. The trick is in how you do it. Take a look:
But it was also criticized by some industry groups, and some conservative political leaders denounced it as another government assault on personal freedom.
I noticed this tactic years ago: When you need to quote someone from the other side, make sure it’s someone your audience doesn’t like or doesn’t trust. So, an industry group is criticizing the FDA? Who the heck is going to trust some industry group? They’re not health experts; they’re self-interested capitalists. The whole purpose of quoting them at all is to set up the GREEDY CAPITALISTS OPPOSED part of the narrative.
But the head of the salt lobby blasted efforts to curb salt consumption as unwarranted and overly broad. “It’s not scientifically sound,” said Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute. “They’re talking about some very drastic reductions. They could be harming people.”
So the salt lobby doesn’t like the proposed regulations. Who would’ve predicted otherwise? Compare that paragraph to these:
The 14-member panel’s findings, more than a year in the making, come on the heels of a welter of studies tallying the health and economic costs of excessive salt intake.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health predicted that, if dietary sodium consumption declined to the levels recommended in the 2005 federal guidelines, some 90,000 deaths could be averted yearly.
A Rand Corp. study published in September estimated that reducing American sodium intake to recommended levels could save $18 billion yearly in treatment for hypertension, stroke, renal disease and heart failure associated with excessive salt consumption.
“There is now overwhelming evidence that we must treat sodium reduction as a critical public health priority,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health’s department of nutrition.
So we’ve been objective and factual and presented both sides, right? Heroic government regulators and scientists versus the salt lobby and conservative politicians we don’t trust anyway. Very neat and tidy.
Student: I don’t get the part about not trusting conservative political leaders. Isn’t a large percent of the audience conservative?
Fat Head: You’re assuming the readers and viewers at home are the intended audience. Remember, your narratives must appeal to other journalists. A successful career in journalism requires thinking exactly like your peers. That’s why, as Goldberg points out, conservatives are always clearly labeled as conservatives in news stories… a conservative think-tank contends that … a conservative group is opposing the regulation, etc. The message is: here’s what the other side says, but you should be suspicious of them because they’re a bunch of right-wingers.
Meanwhile, you can read the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times for years and never see a reference to “a liberal think-tank.” I’ve seen members of pro-government, pro-regulation liberal groups simply referred to as “experts” or “researchers” in countless news stories. Even the vegan wackos at the Center for Science in the Public Interest are usually introduced as “consumer advocates.” Well, gee whiz, who the heck wants to oppose good people who are just looking out for us?
Student: “Us” being all those helpless Americans?
Fat Head: Indeed. Here’s how helpless we are:
The institute declared that expeditious “regulatory action is necessary” because efforts to educate the public about the perils of excessive dietary salt and voluntary sodium-cutting efforts by industry have failed …
Now, a reporter not trying to pound a complex story into a neat dramatic narrative might just stop and wonder if the reason “efforts to educate the public about the perils of excessive dietary salt” have failed is that people like salt and choose salty foods on purpose. She might even wonder if the public’s reaction to “voluntary” sodium-cutting by the food industry will be to reach for the salt shaker whenever they taste a low-salt food. But that would raise pesky questions about whether the FDA’s actions will actually reduce salt consumption. And worse, it would undermine the HELPLESS AMERICANS part of the narrative. Which leads to our next tactic. Here’s an example:
On a daily basis, Americans consume almost 50% more than the roughly one teaspoon of salt recommended as a maximum by the federal government’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, according to the institute’s report.
Student: Okay, we so consume too much salt. I don’t see the tactic being used here.
Fat Head: The tactic is this: in order to present government regulators as heroes saving helpless Americans, always cite government recommendations as gospel. You need to create the impression that the evil food industry is overdosing us on purpose, so just breathlessly report that “this double cheeseburger contains more sodium and saturated fat than the federal government recommends for an entire day!” Never, ever ask if those recommendations are based on real science.
Student: You mean the salt recommendations aren’t based on science?
Fat Head: I told you not to ask that.
Student: Sorry, but -
Fat Head: Okay, since you’re in still in training here … no, they’re not based on science. Neither are the recommendations about fat intake.
Remember our neat little narrative? The food industry versus the FDA, which is being applauded by all the scientists? Well, I don’t have access to the same resources as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, but it only took me about five minutes to come up with quotes like these:
The INTERSALT researchers conveniently neglected to mention that the population of the four countries responsible for skewing the total figures to coincide with their preconceived conclusion also had less stress, less obesity, ate far less processed foods and much more fiber from fruits and vegetables. They also tended to die at younger ages from other causes and often too soon to have developed any significant degree of coronary atherosclerosis.
When the available data from the other more civilized societies was reviewed, statisticians found that as sodium intake increased there was a decrease in blood pressure, just the opposite of what had been reported. The lowest salt intake seemed to be in a subgroup of Chicago black males despite the fact that their incidence of hypertension was above average. Conversely, high blood pressure was relatively rare in participants from China’s Tianjin Province even though this study group had the highest salt intake.
– Dr. Paul J. Rosch
President, The American Institute of Stress
Clinical Professor of Medicine
New York Medical College
In a meta-analysis of 56 clinical trials done since 1980 in people with normal blood pressure, extreme salt reduction offered little benefit.
– GRAUDAL ET AL., Journal of the American Medical Association
The salt hypothesis has no large-scale studies to back it up. Fifty-eight trials published between 1966 and the end of 1997 were reviewed to estimate the effects of reduced sodium intake on systolic and diastolic blood pressure, particularly as in recent years the debate has been extended by studies indicating that reducing sodium intake has adverse effects. They found that reducing salt intake did reduce blood pressure slightly, but that it increased LDL cholesterol, the so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol. They conclude that ‘These results do not support a general recommendation to reduce sodium intake.’ Many thousands of papers have been published in the medical journals over the years which failed to show any benefit from reducing salt intake. These are not mentioned.
– Dr. Barry Groves
The most slender piece of evidence in favor of a salt-blood pressure link is welcomed as further proof of the link, while failure to find such evidence is explained away.
–Dr. Olaf Simpson, Otago Medical School, New Zealand
This observational study does not justify any particular dietary recommendation. Specifically, these results do not support current recommendations for routine reduction of sodium consumption.
– Dr. Michael Aldeman, from his study published in The Lancet
Dr. Aldeman, by the way, has characterized drastically reducing the salt content of food as “an uncontrolled experiment” and said he’s concerned about the unintended consequences. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s the CBS tactic … only present the facts that support your narrative. The reporter could’ve dug up any of these quotes, along with dozens of studies that concluded reducing salt is worthless, but that wouldn’t fit the narrative. Now it’s not just the evil food industry that’s against restricting salt, it’s other scientists as well. You don’t want to risk leaving the audience confused.
Student: Well, most newspaper readers aren’t that scientifically literate.
Fat Head: I’m talking about the other journalists.
Student: I keep forgetting.
Fat Head: As for the audience at home, you certainly don’t want them thinking that perhaps the government is wasting a lot of time and taxpayer dollars trying to force them to eat less salt for no good reason.
Student: I think I’m getting the hang of it. The strategy is to create a neat dramatic narrative. The tactics are to select only the facts that support the narrative, establish the government regulators as heroes by suggesting all the scientists and health advocates are on their side, always judge the regulators by their intentions instead of speculating about the actual results, quote government recommendations as gospel even if they’re not based on scientific evidence, present the opposing viewpoint by quoting people the audience doesn’t trust anyway, and portray Americans as helpless victims of evil industries who are overdosing them on purpose. Thanks, Mr. Naughton. If I keep all this in mind, I may just wind up with a job as a journalist after all.
Fat Head: And if that doesn’t happen, you can always work in Hollywood.