Saturday, June 21, 2008

Media Matters

As the story of the Green Shift develops and our PM reacts, I'm going to watch how each story develops in the news.

Not so much with an eye to bias, but more with a view to accuracy and how a story is shaped (knowingly or not) as the issue unfolds.

Dion got some pretty positive reaction from journalists and the media that matters, but few have pronounced on Harper's juvenile reaction or his lack of real debate on the subject. They've written about it, but no real assessment has been offered that that I've seen.

So today, after the infantile "screw everyone" comment, Dion was asked for a reaction. The Globe has a Canadian Press story on-line. Look at the title.

Dion scolds PM for harsh words on carbon-tax plan

Scolds? What image does that conjure up? Tsk, tsk? That's not what Dion did, he called Harper on not debating the issue.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion says Stephen Harper's latest comments on his party's carbon-tax proposal are vulgar and disrespectful, and he is challenging the prime minister to an “adult” debate.

Mr. Dion was reacting to Mr. Harper's harsh words on Friday, when the prime minister told a small crowd in Saskatoon that the Liberals' carbon tax plan would “screw everybody across the country.”

So okay, we know why and how headlines are written, just the same, Dion reacts to PM's harsh words would have worked just as well.

A little further in is where I see the narrative that Harper is pushing, slipping into the story just a bit.

Mr. Dion unveiled his carbon-tax plan this week , which would see $15-billion in new taxes on carbon emissions and target fuels such as heating oil.

He also wants to cut income tax rates for individuals and punish polluters by shifting the tax burden to carbon-fuel users.

There is a separation of sorts between the two concepts, (tax and tax relief) with the only linkage being, target fuels such as heating oil, in the first paragraph to, by shifting the tax burden to carbon-fuel users, in the second.

Compare that to a more detailed story in the Globe by Campbell Clark.

Mr. Dion unveiled a carbon tax plan this week that would see $15.4-billion in new levies on carbon emissions that would hit fuels such as heating oil, and especially industrial polluters. It would start with a $10-a-tonne levy on greenhouse-gas emissions, rising to $40 a tonne in its fourth year.

At the same time, income tax rates would be cut, and other breaks such as an additional child-tax credit would also cut tax bills for individuals. Personal and business taxes would be reduced to match the amount of the carbon tax.

This overview presents a far broader and more accurate description of the plan.

Am I nit picking? You bet I am because I have watched media quietly leave out salient facts that distort reality and shape a false narrative for far too long. Some of course do that with intent. Others I think, are meeting deadlines, trying to get on to the next story or are trying to be the first to report on the item. That is what I think is failing to give us what we deserve in terms of information. So, to be clear, it's not bias I'm looking for here.

I suspect the first story was reported as it was because it would take time to actually present the plan in more detail and this reporter obviously was solely interested in what Dion's reaction was. It is much easier to simply write a story focused on only one detail that you consider may be important, while providing just enough context to make the story relevant. What's missed of course is the fact that this may be the readers first exposure to that information and they have been short changed.

The intellectually curious may be prompted to look for further details, but my guess is that few actually do, particularly if the article is written in a way that feels like all the bases are covered.

Now, as stories go, this one is small potatoes, so I use it only as an example of what I intend to look for. We saw this trend in the US, we've seen it here on many issues. On this issue, I am going to try to follow it.

Well what do you know? Before I've even finished my post, there is a more extensive story.

Better headline, but again, reacts would suffice. The term 'scold' is still used, but more context is given.

Let's watch how this plays out.

As an aside related to that last article...a debate? A televised debate on the issue? Wouldn't that be fantastic? Harper doesn't possess the courage though. A 13 year old who spits from the side lines never has the courage to run on to the field.

Let's keep watching.


knb said...

ruralsandi. I think it was you who alerted me to this in the US. I don't promise to be that, far from it in fact, but I'm going to try to follow this one thread.

I thank you for the idea.

Anyone who cares to throw me a story, feel free to do it in the midst of a thread, but please don't change the discussion. Just shoot me a link or if you aren't able to do that, provide a reference that I can link to.

This might fun and informative at the same time.

RuralSandi said...

Yes, I did - I read the US Media Matters and it's amazing what so-called quality journalists leave out, misinform, etc.

This is great.

The US also have a site called FactCheck - it checks out what politicians claims - does the research and shows how truthful they've been.

I think a FactCheck idea would be good - especially with all the misleading and, quite frankly, the out and out lies the Tories have been telling.

I think Red Tory would be good at this, but he probably would want to bother. It would take some work.

knb said...

The headline has changed again.

My only comment on that is every reader is getting a different view/grab. So far headlines seem to be important.

In a matter of hours, Dion went from, scolding, to railing, to calling for a debate. Is news being written and measured, or at least headlines, by hit's?

It's a rhetorical question.

Anonymous said...

Good rhetorical question, though. I have long wondered about headlines (articles too) but particularly headlines. The G&M is particularly bad at having bold headlines that in some cases actually don't have much relevance to the meat of the article at all.

I suspect for some papers, the headline and editorial content are intentionally skewed. But for many others, and particularly on the matter of headlines, I think they are just looking for quick hits.

"FIRE DEVASTATES DOWNTOWN" is always going to sound better to an editor wanting to sell papers or on-line hits than "FIVE BUILDINGS PARTIALLY DAMAGED BY FIRE" even if the latter might be just as truthful or more accurate.

knb said...

Sandi, you are right. RT would be great at this as would Steve V., ottlib, Scotian, (gee I wish he'd come back) and many, many others.

I'm a one person deal here, so I'll do what I can.

Those who contribute to my posts, are much smarter than me. You'd be the example at this moment I count on contributions.

A collaborative effort would be great.

Omar said...

Those who contribute to my posts, are much smarter than me.

What? Puh-leeze. Knb, your posted opinions are of the highest calibre and I for one find them indispensable. I can only dream of being able to tap out as deep and insightful thoughts on as regular basis as you do. Keep up the fantastic work and never sell yourself short.

knb said...

Joseph: I suspect for some papers, the headline and editorial content are intentionally skewed. But for many others, and particularly on the matter of headlines, I think they are just looking for quick hits.

We're agreed. The person who doesn't seek more information is therefore left with whatever the writer and/or headline writer gives them.

Watching how opinion is shaped is fascinating to me.

knb said...

Omar, you would be one on the top of my list who shed's more light than I can on most issues.

Thank you though for your kind words.

Anonymous said...


I don't know if I have any abilities to help, but I'll keep an eye out for things.

The project I want someone (not you, but someone ; ) is the secret life of polling. Not the obvious candidate push-polls, but "legitimate" polling firms. I'd love some insight on just how much skewing of polls for political purposes or agendas, both in the questions asked the actual timing of release.

My favorite is when a poll asks an off-topic question about some specific thing:

1. "Was the Prime Minister right to fire the banking regulator?"

But the the press release speculates something like:

2. "Prime Minister reputation unharmed by banking scandal."

I always find myself thinking, "Why didn't they just ask 'Is your opinion of the Prime Minister harmed by the recent banking scandal?' if that is really the question they think they are answering. It just makes me think the direct question wouldn't yield what they want their "analysis" to show.

That's a sloppy, quick example; but hopefully it makes sense. I just think there is a method - and in many cases a plan - to the release of polls as they relate to issues that come up.

Anyway, I've always just wished someone - maybe an insider - would pull the curtain back so the public would know what are the real motivations of polling businesses.

At any rate, off topic I know. But your comment about the fascination of shaping public opinion made me think you might have wondered about that as well.

Anonymous said...

This is completely off-topic but thought I'd alert a few bloggers.

Attached is an article revealing how new immigration applications are on hold (and have been since February) -

With the green shift dominating the news, I almost didn't even see it. I am really surprised someone hasn't talked about this already. How insane to just stop processing applications while "awaiting" the priorities from the immigration minister's office.

Talk about great ways of throwing a wrench in a process while claiming to offer solutions. Sounds like they are really working on that immigration process backlog - not.

RuralSandi said...

You know, the progressive side of bloggers do have some really intelligent people - no doubt about it.

I've read some NDP, Green - whether you agree with them or not, at least they provide intelligence - same for Liberals.

But, the Blogging Tories are truly pathetic.

It's quite a project you've attempted - well done.

Another good site the US has -

It takes a statement made, checks the true facts and gives you the real facts.

Example: dingbat Del Mastro is going around say that Dion said he'd never use carbon tax 6 months ago - Fact: Dion said it in Dec/06. Dion also admitted saying it on Mike Duffy live - but that the situation has changed because they've found a way that it won't hurt Canadians. So, Dion didn't shy away from saying it and explained his reason for changing his mind.

ottlib said...


Regarding polling, the polling companies are paid by the media outlets that sponsor their polls and the media outlets are interested in a narrative. The polling companies have all sorts of statistically valid ways of manipulating polling methodology to support that narrative.

I will give you an example of a polling company that did that during the 2006 election. It shall remain nameless. (Damned libel chill).

Anyway this company had the Conservatives leading with the Liberals hot on their heels. That is, within the margin of error.

At the time they were asking the "party support" question at the beginning of their interviews and asking other questions, such as which party was more credible on government accountability, later in the interview.

Then this polling company published a poll where the Conservatives lept into a substantial lead, almost into majority territory.

Immediately suspicious I hunted for the methodology and what I found was they had changed their questionnaire. They had placed about four questions regarding which party would be most credible on government accountability at the beginning of their questionnaire and then asked the "party support" question immediately after those questions. Can you see how that might have skewed the results?

Was this a deliberate attempt to manipulate the polling results? I cannot say for certain. And I should point out that there is nothing wrong with what they did from a survey design perspective.

However, I can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that the change in support indicated in the estimates from this poll, compared to those estimates from the previous polls, was largely the result of a change in methodology as opposed to a big change in public opinion.

Of course, if you have never worked for a public research firm like I have you would probably never have thought to look at the polling methodology and you would have taken the results of this poll as the true picture of public opinion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, ottlib! Now I know who to ask when I see results that strike me as strange ; ).

Seriously, though, I do think it helps. And I do think in some ways even the general public are beginning to get polling overload - it gets worse every year. And the fact that people now eye polls with suspicion more openly gives me some hope.

I still in elections there are some legitimate ethical issues, but I don't think it will ever change.

At any rate, thanks for the insight.