Tag Archives: Race

Media Bias, Trump Voters, and Apples vs. Oranges

When I was in graduate school, I think the most difficult concept for any scholar to measure was media bias. How do we know one story is biased while another one is not? Bias is a great and easy to use concept if we are talking about me shooting a bow and arrow as part of summer camp as a kid. There’s an objective target out there. If my shot keeps missing two inches to the left of where I aim, I can try to correct the physical errors in my shot by aiming two inches to the right of the bull’s-eye.

Objective journalists strive for the bull’s-eye every time too. However, there is no stable, fixed target for journalists to shoot at. Writing news stories involves a lot of judgment calls. Is this source credible? How do I portray them? Reasonable people can disagree about where the target should be. This means bias is an inherently relative concept when we are talking about the media. It’s based on our frame of reference. As I wrote years ago, audiences may want something different than news organizations.

Measuring media bias is awfully difficult because the target isn’t fixed. We have to choose a reasonable target – some standard of objective journalism – before we could measure how far off actual news content is. Choosing the target is almost inevitably a value-laden judgment. Even “objective” targets lead to value-laden interpretations of the results. For example, let’s say we want to compare news organizations to members of Congress. It takes a lot of work to going through the Congressional Record to build the target. All the work may not be worth it. Congress isn’t a truly “objective” target because it has a majority party. A centrist newspaper would be to the left of Congress today, even if it is closer to the average ideology of Americans.

Since looking for “objective” targets to measure media bias can be a lot of work for little reward, that’s not how most scholars have tried to study journalistic bias. It’s much easier to look at two different media organizations and measure their content relative to each other. Another favorite strategy is to choose two similar news events, then study how the apple received different news coverage than the orange. These strategies are easy to do. They don’t require special math skills for the audience to follow the argument.

Unfortunately, the “compare apples and oranges” style of study distorts our view of the world. Imagine comparing how Vox Media and Breitbart covered the recent scandals facing the Trump administration. One media organization is on the left and the other is on the right, so obviously they will cover the scandal differently. That doesn’t mean either organization makes for a good bull’s-eye. Both media organizations built their brand on ideological takes; neither is trying to be in the center!

Scholars are human, so we will probably have more sympathy towards either the apple or the orange in an “apples and oranges” study of media bias. If you read one of these studies, you will notice that they look for cases where the differences are relatively large. If the apple and the orange receive similar news coverage, no one cares. Apples and oranges studies are good at describing differences in coverage in relative detail. However, these studies lack an anchor. The only way to say that the apple is biased while the orange isn’t is if we really, really like oranges. (I like trolling with the apples and oranges metaphor because I prefer kiwi!)

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Whenever I read a pundit or an academic study comparing the attitudes of Trump voters to the attitudes of Clinton voters, I can’t help but see the same problem. Of course there will be some differences between Trump and Clinton voters. For example, a lot of people have focused on the large difference between Trump and Clinton voters on race. Trump announced his candidacy by disparaging Mexican immigrants as rapists and undesirables. It’s easy to see Trump, see a gap in racial attitudes between voters, and assume this is a story of increasingly racist Republican voters. On the other hand, Trump’s explicit racism and the Black Lives Matter movement may have combined to make White Democrats more progressive on race than they were four years ago.

When we separate everyone in to two categories, all we can do is see the difference between those categories. We can see race polarized voters. However, it’s hard to know just how much racism pushed voters in to Trump’s camp, as opposed to anti-racism pushing other voters to Clinton, just by making a comparison.

The easiest way to write about statistical models actually makes this problem harder. To try and explain this, let’s create a quick and dirty regression model from the American National Election Study. I used age, race (white/nonwhite), gender and having a college degree as control variables. (The publicly available version of the ANES doesn’t have income yet, so take all the results here with a grain of salt. I’m not looking for an optimal model, just a teaching tool.)

Social scientists mainly look at racism via a scale of “symbolic racism.” These are four questions that social scientists started using in the 1990s after it seemed clear that people would not truthfully answer more direct questions about whether Blacks should be discriminated against. The symbolic racism scale comes from a time when social scientists almost exclusively focused on Black-White differences. I will get to Trump’s explicit racism against Mexican-Americans in a separate post. Let’s start with the well-established symbolic racism scale. All these questions are on a 5 point agree to disagree scale:

  • Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
  • Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
  • Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
  • It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough, if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

We put these items in a scale, since the average response to four related questions is probably more reliable than a single question. The scale still ranges 1-5. I re-ordered responses so low values are respondents who feel additional steps are necessary to end the systematic disadvantages that African Americans face. High values represent racial resentment. To try and illustrate the strength of symbolic racism, I added a respondent’s political ideology on a 1-7 scale (1=strong liberal, 7=strong conservative). I am using a logistic regression model, where positive coefficients represent groups who voted Trump and negative coefficients represent voting for someone else (not necessarily Clinton). Non-voters are dropped from the sample.

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If we were interpreting this model quickly, we’d look and see that the coefficient for symbolic racism is relatively large and statistically significant at the .001 level. As a voter’s symbolic racism goes up, the likelihood they voted for Trump goes up by a fairly considerable margin. Since the symbolic racism scale goes from 1 to 5, the difference isn’t as big as the difference between strong liberals and strong conservatives. Nonwhites were considerably less likely to vote Trump, and we could talk about other control variables.

At this point it’s very easy to point a finger at Trump voters and accuse them of being racists. The average Trump voter scored 3.92 on the 1-5 scale for symbolic racism. It’s an open and shut case, right? More racism causes more voting for Trump.

When I ran my regression model this quick and dirty way, I set a very unusual bull’s-eye for comparison. Strong liberals are the baseline for political ideology, because they have the lowest numerical value. However, only 3.6 percent of the respondents identified as strong liberals. Because symbolic racism is coded 1 to 5, the minimum value on the symbolic racism scale is the bull’s-eye for this regression model. It looks like symbolic racism causes an increase in voting for Trump because the value can only go up. Let’s see what happens if we reverse the symbolic racism scale to create an anti-racism index, then use it in the regression:

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All the values in this regression are identical, but the coefficient for the anti-racism index is negative. In other words, as people disagree with the statements in the symbolic racism scale, they are less likely to vote for Trump. The constant changed considerably too. You may have noticed the very low constant in the first regression model. Since logit is a multiplicative model, that low constant actually matters a great deal. However, it’s still very easy to overlook if we are skimming results. I often do!

The bull’s-eye in this model is weird. I’m comparing everyone to a hypothetical strong liberal with the maximum score on the symbolic racism index. That combination probably doesn’t exist in the real world, but that’s not the point. This model exists to show that we could just as easily make a regression model showing opposition to racist assumptions made someone less likely to vote for Trump.

Regression coefficients tell us that there’s a large difference in vote preference between people who scored high and people who scored low on the symbolic racism index. However, regression coefficients can’t tell us which end of the scale is more meaningful. When we compare groups of people, regression models don’t tell us what the bull’s eye should be. We build assumption in to the model, and these assumptions shade how we initially interpret results.

Thankfully, the American National Election Study has asked these symbolic racism questions on a fairly regular basis since 1992. We don’t need to make an assumption about whether symbolic racism surged upwards among Republicans in 2016. We can just check the data. In the interests of space, I will present changes in the index instead of going through each of the four questions. Note that this graph measures party identification not who someone voted for. It includes non-voters. “Independents” who lean towards a party tend to act like partisans, so they are included as partisans here.

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Every group reported somewhat lower symbolic racism in 2016 as opposed to 2012’s high water mark. This doesn’t really seem to fit with Trump, his base, or the regression results from earlier. One possibility is that racists are learning “politically correct” ways to answer these questions. This happened with more explicit questions about racism. However, there is little evidence that Trump’s base has tried to hide or give safer socially desirable answers in public opinion polls.

The biggest change in symbolic racism scores for 2016 is White Democrats’ large decrease, moving to nearly the same level as non-white Democrats. The symbolic racism score for White Democrats was relatively unchanged from 1992 to 2012. Trump’s campaign may have polarized voters more than it pulled them towards racism. Explicit racists got more of a mainstream voice in the Republican nominee. At the same time, whites who did not want to endorse racial resentment may have moved to more explicit anti-racist positions.

We see such a large difference in symbolic racism scores between Republicans and Democrats in 2016 largely because White Democrats scores’ dropped so dramatically. The regression model that says an increase in symbolic racism made it more likely someone would vote for Trump is technically correct. But that’s not the best way to interpret the data, since the average Republican actually had a slight decrease in their symbolic racism score too. People with the most racial resentment were probably voting for any Republican. The real story in the ANES appears to be a group of white voters moving away from racial resentment, and then voting against Trump because of his explicit racism.

The “secret sauce” to quantitative research is being able to make good arguments and inferences from the data we have. It’s not that hard to build a quick and dirty stats model just by relying on our assumptions of how variables “should” work. Imagine that model fits our assumptions perfectly, like the symbolic racism-Trump voter model. It’s awfully tempting not to dig deeper. Apples to oranges comparisons play in to some of our worst cognitive biases, because it’s so easy to treat one group as the default and the other as the weird thing that must be explained. The tribalism and hyper-partisanship of today’s politics only makes this bias worse.

I spent so much time thinking about apples to oranges comparisons of media content when people were searching for evidence of “bias” that I’ve always been a little more skeptical of the logic behind these comparisons. It’s not a skill that I developed specifically to look at partisan politics. It’s not a skill that I developed from years of stats classes either. The ability not to rubber stamp apples to oranges comparisons that fit our preconceptions is something different. In some ways its harder. It takes courage to acknowledge our preconceptions may be wrong.

In other ways, the ability to question our biases is easier to learn. We don’t need special classes in stats to develop this skill. Every year I taught stats there were several students who walked in to the class having mastered it. When I was a teaching assistant, I think the class that actually focused the most on this skill was a freshman level introduction to linguistic anthropology course. We were going over differences between how men and women communicate. We didn’t just cover differences and debate nature vs. nurture. We spent more time going over whether there are certain stereotypical differences that we expect to see, so those are the only differences we remember. Naive assumptions can become self-fulfilling prophecies unless we consciously try to check them. The good news is we can all learn to check them.


Stepping Away From the Rage

You might be surprised that I went dark for a few weeks after the election, but now I am writing a flurry of posts. I’ve actually had some of these posts written in draft form for weeks. I wanted to wait out the circular firing squad that I’m seeing on left-leaning social media. Unfortunately, it’s December and the circular firing squad isn’t going away. The absurdity is getting a bit much, so I’ve got to say my peace and move on.

As someone who spent years studying how different news organizations gravitated towards different topics in the 2008 election, I expected the same in 2016. Candidates have different things they care about, different priorities for the country. They also gravitate towards issues that poll well for them. We saw this kind of asymmetry in the primaries. Bernie Sanders was all about income inequality and then added political reform to reflect his struggles under DNC rules and new followers’ anger towards the DNC. Hillary Clinton emphasized race and gender to try and capture Obama’s base along with her foreign policy experience. For Republicans, Ted Cruz emphasized local government and Christian values. John Kasich emphasized pragmatic experience. Donald Trump emphasized immigration, trade and being an outsider who could make better deals to clean up DC.

In the general election, both sides converged on the campaign agenda. Trump made his campaign about his own personality, and Clinton agreed to make the campaign about Trump. People talked about race and gender largely via reference to Trump’s behavior and critiques of Trump. That’s why it feels like he has a mandate and why many on the left feel so devastated. I think a lot of progressive put all their eggs in the “make this election a referendum on Trump” basket and it didn’t quite work out. The symmetry of Campaign 2016 is part of why it got so nasty.

I’ll get back to this idea of symmetry and how it is haunting Democrats’ attempts to process the election in a bit. First it is important to recognize just how narrow Trump’s victory was. As a sports fan, I know narrow championship defeats feel much worse than getting blown out. A whole bunch of things had to break in Donald Trump’s favor or against Hillary Clinton. This list is adapted from a longer list David Roberts offered at Vox of possible reasons for Clinton’s loss. I’m not always a fan of Roberts’ work, but he did a good job in the beginning of his essay laying out all the explanations that other progressives have offered:

  • An unpopular candidate in Clinton
  • Poor Clinton strategy on which states to focus on
  • Lack of Clinton outreach to white working class / rural voters
  • Too much emphasis on Trump’s character vs. Clinton’s economic plan
  • The FBI, Russian hackers, Wikileaks all worked against Clinton
  • The media emphasized Clinton’s e-mails over any other story
  • Voter restrictions in states like North Carolina
  • The electoral college made Trump votes more valuable
  • Voters may have disproportionately chose third party candidates over Clinton
  • Racial and gender politics driving at least some voters to Trump as opposed to disqualifying him in voters’ minds.

After giving his long list, Roberts offers one of the more insightful things I have seen any Democrat say after the election:

Like everyone, I buy some of these more than others. But there are bits and pieces of evidence for all of them. Some of them don’t hold up on their own — voter suppression probably didn’t swing the election, nor did third-party candidates — but all of them plausibly played a role or have some grain of truth.

Even before giving the list of what went wrong, Roberts explains what went right. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. By the time all the votes are counted, Clinton should have the second highest vote total of anyone who has run for President of the United States. Trump earned 2.4 million fewer votes and squeaked through the Electoral College. Since Trump had such a narrow victory, it’s easy to say that Clinton would have won if just one thing broke differently.

I think this is why there has been so much unproductive finger pointing on the left. Clinton came so close to winning that everyone can convince themselves “I held up my end! It’s that other part of the Democratic coalition that let us down!” For starters, here’s Bernie Sanders:

You may recall that Sanders’ biggest problem in the beginning of his campaign was emphasizing economics almost exclusively. He said racial inequality was secondary to class. Black Lives Matter activists targeted his rallies for protests, charging the stage a few times. Sanders moved towards the left on race for the primary. But now that the Democrats lost the general election, Sanders is saying he was right all along. He hasn’t exactly been received warmly by other progressives.

Roberts posted these tweets in his Vox piece and then piled on:

There isn’t a ton of evidence that an economically populist message — divorced of appeals to xenophobia or white resentment — moves the WWC. In fact, as Andrew Prokop notes, “In two of those crucial Midwestern states that flipped to Trump, Democratic Senate candidates [Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland] campaigned on economically populist platforms — but they did notably worse than Hillary Clinton.”

Why is that?

Perhaps because politicians know, though won’t say, that appeals to xenophobia and white resentment work. If I may coin a phrase: It’s the white resentment, stupid.

I’m not sure I would want to build any kind of broad, sweeping theory over two data points. Feingold and Strickland were both politicians who tried to restart their careers after being voted out of statewide office. They both lost to incumbent Republicans. Defeating an incumbent is difficult! It’s hard to ignore incumbency and these Democrats’ previous losses unless you are so convinced race is the only answer that you ignore every other possibility. I have to admit, this is where I found Roberts very hard to follow. It feels like he’s ready to concede Ohio, Wisconsin, and every other state with a significant rural white population. Can that be right? Sorry, but I’m not one to throw in the towel.

Maybe there’s a weakness in the progressive coalition. Once someone is convinced that there is one best explanation, there’s a tendency to point fingers at every progressive who offers a different top priority.

Most of us have a wide range of priorities. If a pollster asked “what is the single biggest problem facing America today?” I could give a clear answer. Give me a minute and I can give issue #2 and #3. We prioritize how much we care about politics too. We can prioritize what kinds of things are dealbreakers on a first date and what we want most out of a career. Setting priorities is one of the basic things we do as people. It’s a basic thing for successful organizations as well. But when progressives say they care about one issue more than another, other members of the progressive coalition attack them for “selling out” part of the group.

The Republicans have their nasty fights too. How often has Ted Cruz accused someone of “selling out” conservative principles? However, the large Christian conservative faction embraced Donald Trump, a man who repeatedly worked with Playboy (should have checked his IMDB page). At the end of the day, most Republicans prioritized winning the White House over anything else, so they voted for Trump. After the election, Democrats are currently fighting a nasty battle about whether to prioritize broadening the party to win elections or ideological purity over race and racism. Anyone who wants to do any kind of political advocacy is going to face questions of how much to focus on ideological purity versus attracting a broad audience. These aren’t easy questions, and the answer probably depends on what you want to accomplish.

Progressives are currently fighting over one of the toughest issues they have ever confronted: how to argue against racism. There is no research that suggests calling someone a racist will cause them to say “aww, shucks, you were right!” Professors who study political persuasion tend to agree that immediately dismissing someone as racist, sexist or homophobic may be one of the least persuasive arguments out there. As I was writing this, this very premise of making political arguments that could persuade other people came under attack in certain academic circles:

Taking these tweetstorms at face value doesn’t add up. My hunch is that there is just enough of an unspoken difference in priorities for people to get angry with each other. Goff wants to focus on more active racists and define a set of behaviors or attitudes as unacceptable. Singal’s priority is thinking of how to best communicate with people who don’t explicitly endorse racism but voted for Trump anyway. Reading these back and forth tweets as an outsider, I think everyone is working with a different definition of what “persuasion” means.

When I taught students about political persuasion, I tried to move them away from the idea of flipping someone’s opinion on an issue. I knew the students who would care most about my lecture were people who felt very strongly on one side of an issue or issues, and they hated people on the other side. So I started the lesson by explaining that if someone is strongly committed, they are going to be incredibly difficult to budge. However, most people aren’t that strongly committed on most issues. The less committed can be nudged and prodded to care about the issues we care about. Instead of trying to convert the worst of the worst, I would try to prod the less committed to say “oh, ok, I’ll do it your way if I get a little something in return.”

There’s an interesting parallel to protests here. You might think protesters are all ideologues jumping up and down. It turns out that successful protests are focused on particular issues and tolerant of ideological differences. Setting priorities is critical. Positive priorities – explaining to people what you want to do – are far more successful than protesting just to critique someone. Effective protesters get friends and family in the door via social networks and worry about ideology later. Ziad Munson, who studied the pro-life movement, argued the right is far more successful at this. Think about all the sniping coming from different corners of the left. It’s a minefield! How many people do you think would look at the circular firing squad and say sign me up?

Other successful organizations tend to focus on their strengths and mitigate weaknesses. Let’s think of the Trump campaign. Trump excels at putting on a show, conveying emotion, and provoking people. He is weak at policy. He made his campaign about conveying emotions and provoking opponents to near constant distraction. To borrow from sports, Donald Trump set the tempo for this campaign. Hillary Clinton and other progressives were happy to play at this tempo, waging their own emotional campaign. I feel like I have to re-state this for emphasis. Donald Trump waged a highly asymmetrical campaign, but Clinton and other progressives decided to engage on Trump’s terms. It sort of worked too. Clinton was relatively weak at conveying emotion. She would have fared better if people focused on policy. And she still got more votes!

But Hillary Clinton is moving on. It’s time to think of Democrats’ strengths. This is more than a bit nerve wracking. Democrats’ main strength in this election was getting more aggregate votes for the presidency and the Senate, but Trump won the Electoral College and Republicans control the Senate. Republicans control the House and dominate at the local level. Yes, the electoral map favors the Republicans. But the only way to change the system is to get large majorities within the current system.

With all the anger surrounding the election and post-election squabbling, I started dreaming of a very different kind of government. Imagine a city where there were concerts outside city hall every week during the summer. It’s not a partisan rally. It’s not even a political thing. City Hall just happens to have a nice courtyard that makes for a great, low cost outdoor venue. Some people wander by for a few minutes before going to one of the local bars or movie theaters. Other people bring their lawn furniture. This is a regular summertime event next to one of my favorite coffee shops. When I dropped by to check out one of the larger concerts, I kind of got the feeling some people go every week. The band is great. Everyone feels welcome, like they belong in the community.

In 2016, the Democrats are the only major political party with the potential to imagine a society where everyone has the potential to make a valuable contribution, and everyone feels like they have the right to belong. Who wouldn’t want to live in a positive place where we all work hard to support each other and lift each other up?

Trump held a lot of rallies, but there was always suspicion and demonization of interlopers. He campaigned on the idea that no matter how much our neighbors have sacrificed to make America great, only a certain group of loyalists count as “true Americans.”

Our country was founded on an idea that people were created equal, with certain unalienable rights. We founded a democracy under the idea that giving people the right to choose their leaders was the best way to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That doesn’t mean everyone was granted full citizenship right away. Every generation had its doubts about whether certain “undesirables” deserved the right to vote. Over time, we let more and more people vote and become full members of the community. There was fear. There was anger. But each time America emerged full of vibrant life, with liberty and happiness for more of our community.

I understand why people feel angry and outraged. I understand why people think resisting Donald Trump’s massive disregard for the Constitution requires picking fights at every turn. Remember, picking fights at every turn is Trump’s strategy. Are there progressives out there who think the best plan is to try and beat Donald Trump at his own game? If you oppose Trump’s attempts to deny Americans equality and unalienable rights, you can’t campaign on a message that many Americans are too stupid or biased to possibly be redeemed. Those emotions are too discordant. Democrats are the only political party that could imagine a future full of life, liberty and happiness for everyone currently living in the United States. That vision only works if everyone thinks they could be welcomed in to our community.

 


Why Shoot the Objective Messenger?

Donald Trump continues to frustrate progressives. His latest offense is tweeting out a meme over the weekend calling Hillary Clinton the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Trump’s graphic appears to have been copied from a white supremacist message board. Mic.com has consistently pursued the links between Donald Trump and white supremacist groups since November, when Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistics Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most whites and most blacks are killed by blacks. A wide range of news organizations criticized Trump’s November tweet, pointing out that there is no “Crime Statistics Bureau” and that most homicides with a white victim also have a white killer. Many pundits on the left expect a more vigorous media response to Trump’s latest tweets:

Carlos Meza is a research fellow at Media Matters for America, the largest think tank specializing in progressive media criticism. This type of argument dates back to the Vietnam War. Anti-war protesters wanted to get in the news in the first place (initial coverage excluded them). Then they wanted the media to avoid “taking both sides” and take an explicit anti-war stance. For 50 years there have been progressives who want media organizations to take an explicit moral stand with the left. I read a lot of these critiques in graduate school, dating back to Todd Gitlin’s relatively sympathetic take on Students for a Democratic Society. The argument hasn’t really changed over the years. Progressive critics always say news organizations care too much about money when they should be using their platforms to take moral stands.

Critics like Meza don’t spend as much time thinking about what would happen if mainstream media organizations all embraced progressive moral stances when reporting the news. What would happen if the media emphasized “combatting open bigotry” instead of “impartiality and balance”? How much could media organizations actually do here? Meza argued any media organization that takes both sides instead of taking a moral stance against Trump is “aiding and abetting evil.” Ironically, I was already working on a post explaining why it doesn’t make sense for most mainstream media organizations to take these stances before this weekend. The short answer is people don’t know why media organizations make particular choices, so they apply their political bias to interpret any news report. A media organization’s claiming that “TRUMP IS A BIGOT” won’t convince people who don’t already believe Trump is a bigot. It will only label the media organization as left-wing and make the accusation of bigotry more ideological. The full answer is much longer and explains why Trump can get so much media attention in the first place.

Connecting the Dots

Before getting in to the weeds of how media organizations work, it helps to review the research of former UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel. He wanted to see how people made sense and maintained order in everyday life. He intentionally provoked unsuspecting people in order to see how people made sense of things and what they took for granted. He would erase your circle and draw an X through it in tic-tac-toe. He had students try to barter for the price of their groceries and interrogate bus drivers about how we could be absolutely sure the bus was going where the driver said it was going. Tic-tac-toe makes for a funny game in the classroom, but most of these experiments outraged people. (I’m obligated to warn you not to try this at home…unless you want to mess with a telemarketer.)

My favorite of Garfinkel’s “breaching” experiments actually took place in a laboratory. Participants were allowed to ask 10 yes or no questions and get replies from a social psychology professor (presumably Garfinkel) in the next room. All the participant had to do is write down what they thought about each response before asking the next question. One after another, people asked deeply personal questions and explained how the answers made sense. However, the “expert” in the next room was just someone flipping a coin and then saying “yes” or “no” in to the microphone. The answer was completely random, but the research subjects accepted the validity of the answers. More importantly, they wrote elaborate stories to justify the response.

Sports fans know that people tend to tell bad stories when they start with an end result and then work back to discuss process, despite all the data available in sports. Let’s imagine every time Derek Jeter bats is like rolling a 20 sided die, and he gets a hit on 1-6. Random coincidence could lead him to keep rolling low numbers in big at bats – and a 30 percent chance of success isn’t that rare. However, luck and coincidence make for terribly unsatisfying stories. Sports fans are like the people in Garfinkel’s experiment. Did this team win? It’s a yes or no question. Most fans start with the final answer, then have to come up with a story of why this happened. That’s how some athletes get labeled as “clutch” and others as “chokers.” The label is usually based on winning and losing, not direct knowledge of the athlete’s decision-making and whether he made good decisions.

Why Can’t We See How Journalists Make Decisions?

I started with sports because we can objectively measure athletes’ performance, look at how many championships they won, and still tell awful stories connecting the process to the result. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t see every play that went in to the progress of the playoffs or the regular season. That’s what it is usually like when we try to explain news coverage. Most social scientists don’t even try to compare the starting point of news events to the final story (or lack of a story). You can get published in the top sociology journal just by looking at a collection of final news stories and then proposing a story about why those news stories would have one set of themes instead of another. Why is it so hard to study the process of writing news more directly and systematically? Once we understand this, it will be much easier to understand why news organizations may not want to take explicitly moral stances against Trump or anyone else.

1) What counts as “news”?

When I taught undergraduates about the newsgathering process, I always started by asking them what counts as news. You may not be a journalist, but you can easily play along. What kinds of things would you post on social media? What do you want to read? Even when I taught a small class of under 20 people this fall, we quickly realized that no one would have identical rankings of potential news stories. Every newsroom I have worked at could get in to the same arguments. When Gaye Tuchman wrote one of the classic ethnographic studies of newsrooms in the 1970s, she found newsworthiness was the hardest thing for journalists to define. Even professionals use a “know it when I see it” philosophy to assess newsworthiness.

2) Content producers need heuristics

Let’s imagine you were working at a newspaper. Maybe it would be more appropriate to imagine you are writing your own blog like I am right now. You want to make sure you keep producing the best stories for your audience, so you keep searching for new stories and eliminating possibilities. How much do you write? The answer is nothing! The rate of new things happening in the world is faster than the rate at which we can eliminate possibilities. Even if we are writing our own blogs and don’t have to argue with anyone, deliberation takes time. The only way to get anything written is to limit your search and say “I’m going to write about the most interesting thing I can find by a certain time.”

Journalists use a wide number of heuristics to manage the influx of potential stories – and most partisan sites seem to use similar heuristics. One of the main heuristics is to sit down and write a list of who is most likely to provide news stories, then assign reporters to check in with these sources on a regular basis. Planning events in advance lets journalists know “if I show up at a particular place and time, I can produce a story.” Reporters may not be able to verify if a source is telling the truth, so they default to trusting officials because they should have legitimate knowledge to information (Fishman 1980 holds up surprisingly well).

3) Everyone has incentives to hide the process

When we read a final news story, we don’t know if the reporter spoke to any press flacks to arrange an interview. We don’t know if anything was said off the record to explain the goals of the story, limit the scope of questions, or ensure a story is published at a particular time. When reporters selectively quote from interviews, we don’t know what was left on the cutting room floor. If reporters summarize what someone said and what they meant, we don’t know if the reporter understood correctly. (Most complaints about misquoting are really complaints about misunderstanding the intent of a statement.)

It’s probably easiest to understand why journalists don’t want to show the full process. They appear to have a lot of freedom. When reporters really have a lot of options, they don’t want to be second-guessed. Remember that Meza works full time at Media Matters, a think tank founded to second-guess journalists. When reporters have limited ability to search for stories before deadline or can’t get access to desirable stories, they want to hide their failure. When in doubt, reporters rely on official sources, but they want to hide an overly cozy relationship. The news organization that opens itself up to second-guessing may lose its audience to a tight-lipped competitor.

Everyone else involved in the news process also has incentives to hide the process and just focus on the final result. Audience members don’t want to sift through the reject pile every day – we have other things to do with our lives! If a source spoke off the record to attract news coverage or coordinate an interview, they would want to hide the friendly relationship. It looks better if the politician’s event is really the most important news of the day instead of merely being the easiest story to find. (Donald Trump’s media deluge is going to be much easier to understand by the time we’re done.) Sources who don’t know how to catch journalists’ attention or who say really embarrassing things in their interview may not want to explain how they were stupid.

News Stories Aren’t Enough

We know that news stories do not emerge from some alternative dimension. When we only see the final story in the newspaper, on television or online, it may not be completely satisfying. We want to be able to tell our own story of how reporters did their job. Trump coverage is a great example. If a news organization doesn’t call Trump a bigot, many progressives will be outraged. Meza and the thousands who liked or retweeted him need a story of why the media covered Trump neutrally.

Since reporters don’t want to tell us how they make decisions, we need to construct a myth from somewhere. We know people have likes and dislikes. We know news coverage emphasizes certain things more than others. Therefore, it is very simple to infer that reporters emphasize the things they like and ignore the things they dislike. Meza engaged in a very simple form of this, asserting that journalists inherently like objectivity and neutrality. Tuchman argued objectivity is more strategic. It’s a way to minimize the number of people who are outraged like Meza is.

When I studied press conferences I found the president got three out of every four quoted words in the New York Times the next day. Shorter stories about press conferences only had one source: the president. When journalists told longer stories they added more sources to give reactions. You probably didn’t realize that. I didn’t realize it until I did the study. A certain kind of news story can be mathematically unbalanced for decades and people won’t notice. When I presented these findings most audiences were stunned. Then they got angry. It helped me realize that people aren’t used to thinking about balance or imbalance in the news as some formal mathematical property. My audience mainly thought about how news gets produced when they see a story they don’t like! This is when people need to create some sort of myth to explain why the media isn’t giving what they want.

Let’s Trust the…Politicians?

The only people with a real incentive to talk about how reporters search for and write up news stories are the people who feel screwed over by the process. Let’s say someone was left out of the news. They could complain about censorship and say the press was playing favorites. Reporters don’t want to share “here are the sources who are in my top tier, second tier, etc.” Now let’s say someone is getting negative coverage. Pick any presidential candidate from 2016. They have all made mistakes and gotten negative coverage as a result. Why is the press focusing on this one negative story instead of other positive stories? Candidates have complained about an overly negative press for 50 years. It’s a claim that news organizations have never really been able to deflect. We know reporters choose a few stories from a wider set of potential stories. Reporters want to hide the process and their own political preferences. Now that I am no longer a news reporter I can say there was little correlation between whether someone was a good source and whether I personally agreed with their politics.

There’s something very unusual in how we think about political bias in the news. Politicians sell a myth that the media is biased and there are always better stories (about them) for reporters to focus on. We believe the politicians! After all, what possible reason could someone have to lie when asking for our vote? It’s absurd to think about how many people buy in to politicians’ myth of how news gets created by biased reporters. This shows how unsatisfying reporters’ claims of expert news judgment are. We want to tell some myth or origin story of how those news stories are created and why they favor some people or topics instead of others. Politicians may be extraordinarily self-serving, but they are the main group offering an explanation. Activists like Meza – who want to fundamentally change media organizations – are the other group offering explanations.

How Does This Help Us Explain the Trump Show?

Donald Trump announced he was running for president a year ago. He has dominated the airwaves since. We probably haven’t seen such a dramatic imbalance in how much coverage one candidate got relative to others in his party’s primary. A few months before Trump announced, I predicted someone who ran a campaign based on social identity would get considerable media attention. However, Trump’s media strategy has gone beyond what I predicted. He emphasizes getting a large volume of coverage like no candidate before him. He speaks almost entirely in feelings, often subverting the entire premise of a “fact check.” I think Trump’s strategy takes full advantage of an audience that needs to manufacture coherent stories to explain patterns in news coverage and a press that refuses to tell this story themselves.

Conventional Wisdom: Avoid Gaffes

Before going in to Trump’s strategy in more detail, it is important to know how over the last 35 years political communication has gotten more professional and strategic. One of the main lessons for these strategists is to minimize gaffes. Politicians hold a lot of choreographed media events and photo ops. They may try to answer the question they wish they were asked instead of the question they were actually asked. Strategists probably don’t think they can completely bowl reporters over with these strategies. Any veteran reporter will recognize the manipulation at work. But they can’t stop it. The goal of these strategies isn’t to make a big impression. It is to limit the number of things a reporter has to choose from.

A good metaphor is a college football team that schedules Directional State University and Small School Tech to try and inflate its won-loss record. Large college football teams can essentially buy wins. Some teams also play in much more challenging leagues than others. A good team with a weak schedule may only have 2 or 3 games out of 12 that they have any real risk of losing. When most fans saw 13-0 Florida State in the first year of the college football playoff, they saw a great champion instead of a team that barely beat a number of teams in on a weak schedule. Florida State lost badly once they faced high quality competition in the playoff. Last year people were fooled again, this time by Big 10 champion Michigan State and runner up Iowa in the Rose Bowl. People saw college football teams that won a lot of games and told themselves a story that these teams were among the best in the country. They didn’t bother to check how these teams won and whether the process was solid.

Most politicians try to win our confidence with the same principle. They want to accumulate positive story after positive story mainly by limiting the pool of information that reporters have to pick from so there are only positive stories left. They try to avoid unscripted events that may give genuine moments that could inspire the audience, because these events could go badly. College football fans look the other way when a team from their conference benefits from an easy schedule. Partisan audiences do the same thing in politics. We want to see the other candidates go through the ringer and get beat up, but we assume our favorite candidate went through a much tougher schedule than they actually did. Clinton and Sanders were actually fairly nice to each other, compared to Obama v. Clinton in 2008.

Trump’s Casino Approach

Donald Trump doesn’t exactly come across as someone following the “avoid gaffes” conventional wisdom. He’s using a different strategy: try to be the lead story every day and accept some negative headlines rather than go a news cycle without being the top story. Flooding the airwaves is also a kind of gaffe deflection strategy. Most candidates try to avoid gaffes because they think one critical mistake could fester and sink a campaign. Trump tries to keep one gaffe from defining him by creating a new headline. Changing the story is an old public relations strategy. Most politicians try to use it to prevent negative stories, while businesses tend to use it after a scandal has happened. Trump is more than willing to give a new story about his campaign to distract from a gaffe, even if the new story is also negative.

If news organizations give media coverage based on whether a politicians has said something that will help the readers decide whether or not to vote for that candidate, then Trump has certainly earned the media attention he is getting. We expect certain things out of a generic Republican or generic Democrat. If a Republican says “Obama did a bad job” is that news? Republicans have been saying that non-stop for eight years. Regulation bad, free markets good is another very generic Republican position. Trump attracted attention by saying things that were well outside the Republican mainstream. He was more strident in disparaging Mexican immigrants. Trump also attacked mainstream Republicans, claiming they were too dependent on the Koch brothers and other big money Republican donors. Any member of a political party who criticizes their own party gets considerably more media attention (Groeling 2010). Sanders also got attention for attacking the Democratic National Committee. What makes Trump unique is his near exclusive reliance on a large number of news media appearances and social media messages instead of a balanced strategy including on-the-ground campaign staff or advertising.

Casinos tilt the odds so after enough games the house always wins. Trump has stacked the deck too. Whether it is intuition or calculation, Trump has a tremendous sense of what people will consider newsworthy. This doesn’t mean people agree with what Trump has to say. All it means is Trump can monopolize media attention. If people like Trump’s message, all the free media brings voters. If people don’t like Trump’s message, they may act like Meza and blame the media for giving Trump so much attention. People who don’t want to be subjected to the Trump show need some explanation for why so many media organizations pursue it. Maybe the media is politically biased. Maybe they emphasize Trump because Trump brings ratings and pageviews. The more voters question news organizations’ judgment, the more it helps Trump. Either way, Trump can get an advantage from dominating the headlines every day.

The other unusual thing about Trump’s campaign is his willingness to invent or ignore facts. Most politicians are afraid of saying something factually untrue. Reporters could run a “fact check” and embarrass the politician. Trump makes so many things up that the Associated Press used 10 fact checkers to review a speech on June 22. I don’t think Trump cares about fact checks because he is not trying to combine rational facts with emotional appeals. Trump’s campaign is entirely emotional. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, truth simply doesn’t appear to be a part of Trump’s message; Trump’s message is all about truthiness.

Truthiness Meets Hidden Journalistic Practices

Because journalists do not share every step of how they choose one news story and one angle over another, they have always required the audience to fill in gaps about who is credible. Everything a reporter shares about how they establish priorities is a gap people could use to undermine a reporter’s credibility. That’s why reporters use facts as supporting evidence as much as possible. When they don’t have facts, they use quotes and put someone’s claims in quotation marks. Most politicians and interest groups give some evidence to back their claims. We take it for granted that people will use some evidence. Trump doesn’t use facts as supporting evidence. There’s nothing to “fact check.” Audiences have to decide for themselves if Trump’s claims about America and policy proscriptions feel true, racist or fascist. Meza is the latest in a long line of progressive activists who do not trust the audience to reach the “right” conclusion without a massive shove from the media. Bigotry must be actively combatted. Journalists cannot be neutral. In his view, presenting both sides helps a bigot so much that it is “aiding and abetting evil.” (Has Meza linked to supporting evidence himself since I wrote this?)

Veteran reporters know it doesn’t matter how much you try to shove the audience to a particular position, they are still going to create myths to explain why a journalist took a particular stance or covered a particular story. When reporters actually offer an explanation it is often fuel for these hostile myths. That’s why reporters don’t accuse someone of lying without documented evidence. The accusation doesn’t make someone any less credible without proof. Let’s say CNN’s Jake Tapper stood up and screamed “You are a racist!” when interviewing Trump a few weeks ago about the judge in the Trump University case. (In case you forgot, Trump cited the judge’s “Mexican heritage” as the reason for not dismissing the lawsuit.) I assume this would make a critic like Meza happy. I think this is what he wants Tapper and other journalists to do. But Meza already agrees with the assertion that Trump is a racist.

If people weren’t convinced Trump is a racist after that interview, there’s nothing that Tapper can say to change this. People tell myths about reporters’ ideologies and biases even when they have nothing to go on besides the final news story. These myths are mainly ways to discount news stories that don’t fit our political preferences. If Tapper took an explicit anti-Trump stance, he would just make it much easier for people to discount him as an ideologue. Just think about partisan media organizations for a moment. How much are they trying to actively persuade neutrals or the other side? Most of the content is giving true believers hot takes that make them feel good. If you really want to persuade people, you have to give them enough rope so then they can decide for themselves that they want to change their mind.

Ironically, the fear that media organizations are “legitimizing” Trump appear to be unfounded. Every public opinion poll has found many more Americans disapprove of Trump than approve of him. Trump’s favorability hit a record low of 29 percent in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll and has hovered in the low 30s in other polls. More than half of those polled in both the ABC/WaPo poll and a separate Bloomberg poll have a strongly unfavorable view of Trump. People can decide for themselves how they feel about Donald Trump without objective media organizations explicitly calling Trump a bigot or a fascist or something else. A wise progressive may conclude it’s better to present Trump in his own words and let the audience conclude he is a bigot than to add explicit condemnation, which could make it seem like a biased media is out to get Trump.

If you ask people “is the news media doing a good job?” most of them will say no. They read news stories, but most news stories just don’t give readers what they want to feel. Objective media is defined by stoic attempts to distance reporters’ feelings from their narratives. Partisan media is defined by outrage. If you want something else from the media, you are probably out of luck. We need some narrative to explain why the media doesn’t give us what we want. These narratives always ascribe motivations and preferences to the media while leaving out sources. People blame the news organizations for covering Trump so much. It doesn’t matter that objective, “both sides” media coverage is leading a majority of Americans to have a strongly negative view of Trump.

What Is News?

I went to grad school to research what counts as news. How do people make these decisions? I never set out to do a breaching experiment. But when I proposed that sources may have power over journalists – and this could be quantified – I broke several of sociology’s norms. I didn’t automatically buy in to any of the common myths that ascribed motivations or bias to journalists. I wanted to empirically test these theories, to the degree that these theories were testable and a regression analysis can test any theory.

After my fourth year of graduate school I was mocked for being the only person at the media sociology panel who wanted panelists to say something about their methods instead of skipping to the data. Each panelist described a different role for sources in their study. I asked them to speak more directly about the role of sources during the Q&A. I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone – I only ask questions at talks that I think the speaker can reasonable answer. Three of the panelists froze and the fourth tried to hide under the table! I made the mistake of emphasizing sources and strategy at a time when my peers turned to critics like Meza to fuel their echo chamber.

Like I said earlier, veteran reporters know at a certain point they have to trust their audience because there is nothing more they can say to sway their audience. I think I’ve reached that point with my blog. Unfortunately, offering factual information to support claims of how journalists make decisions is harder than finding factual information on nearly any other topic. One of the things I taught my students when teaching research methods is that people can always find a way to discount research if they want to – and some people are highly motivated to discount research about news.

I’m not going to delete this blog. I could always bring it back at some point. But after a decade of banging my head against the wall I need a break.


#NAACPBombing is A Better Story for Twitter

Two days ago, a homemade explosive blew up outside the NAACP office in Colorado Springs. Fortunately, no one was reported injured and the building only suffered minor damage. Unfortunately, the story has received relatively little attention in traditional media outlets. Within a day, many online activists noticed the discrepancy between mainstream media coverage and their own Twitter feeds:

At a time when many activists rally around the slogan #BlackLivesMatter, it is easy to see the lack of mainstream media attention as another large, establishment institution that does not care about black lives or black institutions quite as much as other potential victims of violence and oppression. I would expect race to play a subtle role in how the bombing is portrayed in news coverage, since profound biases in the portrayal of minority criminal suspects may carry over. For example, The Daily Dot argued the following:

“The FBI’s primary suspect is a balding white male who looks about 40 years old. Curiously, major outlets like CNN neglect to mention the suspect’s race despite police providing that information.” (Editor’s note: CNN has subsequently undated their story and now provides more of a description than The Daily Dot.)

However, it is unlikely that race would lead to a decrease in news coverage of this event. Race and race relations are highly salient as national issues. Would you expect the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado to get more attention now, or in January 2014? I’d expect more attention now, after months of protesting around the country and the continued salience of #BlackLivesMatter. What are some other explanations for why this story would spread more quickly through activists’ networks on Twitter than mainstream media organizations?

1) No injuries, no deaths. There’s a long standing mantra for news organizations that “it bleeds, it leads.” Of course, this is an over-simplification. When I worked in local television news, the only story explicitly pushed to the beginning of the newscast for ratings potential was a major storm. The general principle still applies here. Injury and death is even more of a shock than a bombing with no injuries. Shock draws attention. For some people, the bombing of an NAACP office will be very shocking, even without injuries. Twitter may be a better place for people to share these emotions than traditional media organizations.

2) Official sources did not immediately or loudly declare the bombing an attempt to blow up the NAACP office. As far as I can tell, neither the NAACP chapter or the FBI held a press conference to get every national reporter who may want to cover the story on the same page. Newsweek reported that NAACP chapter president Henry Allen Jr. was initially “hesitant” to call the bombing a hate crime. Meanwhile, CNN published the quote that Allen Jr. gave to local CBS station CNDC:

“We don’t give up the struggle. Apparently, we’re doing something correct. Apparently, we have gotten someone’s attention that we are working toward civil rights for all. That is making some people uncomfortable.”

While he is still waiting for the FBI to confirm that his office was the intended target of the blast, the Denver office of the NAACP wasted no time in calling the attack a hate crime. They issued the following statement: “This is proof that racism is still alive and reared its ugly head in the form of this cowardly act. Regardless of the actions of others, we will continue to fight for the equality of all people.”

There are two separate issues here. First, notice how people at the scene were more restrained about saying what happened. They did not immediately declare the attack a hate crime. Second, every news organization has a slightly different account of what happened. If you want every news organization to start telling the same story, get everyone in a room or on a conference call. Tell every reporter the same story at the same time. Make it easy for national reporters to write about what happened, instead of having to rely on interviews with local TV stations.

3) Traditional news organizations may not have as much to say right away. If you wanted to describe the basic facts of what happened to someone who didn’t know what happened you could tweet, “Bombing outside NAACP office in Colorado” That is as long as a basic tweet of what happened should be. It’s only 42 characters. Even with Twitter’s constraint of 140 characters, anyone could add additional facts, feelings and reactions to their tweet. People would have even more space once basic awareness of the bombing and a hashtag #NAACPBombing emerges. Let’s look at what traditional news organizations could add in updates:

  • Was the NAACP the intended target? Maybe. Probably. But if a traditional reporter publishes this as fact before the FBI confirms it, the reporter has broken professional ethics and could be in trouble.
  • Motive of the bomber? Well, no one has identified the bomber. Even if the reporter is thinking “duh, this is a racist hate crime” he or she can’t put that in print without a specific statement or written manifesto to use as evidence.
  • Victimization? Reporters can quote people in the NAACP chapter, but the chapter president was relatively restrained.
  • Witnesses? Yes, if you can find them. This will be more challenging than it seems, since Colorado Springs is somewhat remote geographically.
  • Outrage? Not for a “mainstream” news organization. Even if the reporter is personally outraged by the bombing, mainstream news organizations operate under a strong principle of distancing themselves from any opinion presented in their stories.
  • Shock? Sympathy? Sadness? See what I just said about outrage.

There’s deceptively little for mainstream journalists to add to the story while working in the format of mainstream journalism. News organizations probably do not want to cover the story unless they could add something to the 42 characters I wrote earlier. With nothing new to add, it is better to rely on republishing the Associated Press wire than to show limited journalism.

4) The constraints on traditional reporters are not applicable to other Twitter users

As I just said, traditional reporters are penalized if they don’t have anything to add to the 42 characters explaining the bombing of the NAACP office. Twitter rewards users for repeating the same phrase, particularly when it gets shortened to a single hashtag #NAACPBombing. Now let’s look at the things Twitter users could add:

  • Was the NAACP the intended target? Twitter users can more easily rely on common sense to conclude yes. The standard of proof is much lower, since Twitter users suffer few if any consequences if it turns out they were wrong. This makes it easier for people to tweet about #NAACPBombing, but it also enables much of the abusive behavior we see on Twitter.
  • Motive of the bomber? Again, Twitter users can use common sense and their life experiences to draw inferences and publish them, without waiting on official sources.
  • Victimization? Twitter users can directly sympathize with an attack against an office of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, in their own words.
  • Witnesses? A few tweeted themselves.
  • Outrage? YES! Hashtags are ideal for uniting people in solidarity and collective outrage.
  • Shock? Sympathy? Sadness? See what I just said about outrage.

In situations like this, activists are quick to argue that the media has dropped the ball. To a certain degree this is true. At the same time, it is important for all of us as media consumers to think about what kinds of content we want to read and produce after events like the #NAACPBombing. How much do we want someone to provide us with the facts and only the facts? How much do we want additional emotions of shock, solidarity and shared outrage?

I imagine different people reading this post will want different things. Some people will want heavily fact-based reporting, so they can form their own reactions. Some people will want more of an emotional first-person narrative to help put their reactions in to words. One advantage of the massive increase in online publications is that audiences can increasingly pick and choose how much emotion they want in the description of current events. Some stories will spread more quickly through restrained professional journalists, while others are better suited to spread via the emotional valence that readers identify with.


Covering the Ambiguity of Police Violence

A police officer gives some sort of instruction to someone who was not a criminal suspect. Maybe he was telling someone to move out of the way or get on the ground. Accounts differ about what happens next. However, everyone acknowledges that the encounter ended when a police officer used physical force. The other person in the incident is either seriously wounded or killed by police.

The shooting of Michael Brown shows how difficult these incidents are for journalists to cover. Witnesses say that Brown had raised his hands over his head to show he was not holding a weapon before he was shot and killed by a police officer in in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. A day later, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said that Brown “physically assaulted the police officer.” Since journalists weren’t there, they have to try and assess the credibility of each source. Even if an objective journalist is going to cover both sides, she has to decide which position will be presented first, knowing that this will favor one side or the other. Most journalists started with the one aspect of the incident that is not under debate: Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot to death by a police officer.

Numerous studies have shown that crime coverage is biased against blacks at nearly every stage of a criminal case, so it may seem unusual that Brown would get sympathetic headlines. (See link at the end for teaching tools on racial bias.) However, communication scholar Regina Lawrence argues that the use of force often disrupts the normally cozy relationships between metro news reporters and their police informants. Most news events are planned in advance, which helps the event planner control the story. Breaking crime news is not planned in advance, but police departments keep careful control over what information is shared with the news media. Maintaining control is easy, because criminal suspects do not want to tell journalists their side of the story before availing themselves of the legal system.

Officer-involved violence is different, because police departments trying to portray the use of force as “justified” may have to compete with a wide range of community leaders and activists challenging the police’s use of force as “brutality.” Inner city residents, particularly black and Hispanic residents, may have to live in fear of police violence on a daily basis. After cases of police violence, journalists may become more interested in the experiences of the disenfranchised as a way to represent “both sides” of the issue. Protests like the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter can get widespread attention as a specific protest to the Ferguson shooting, even if they would otherwise be ignored. (More abstractly, journalists deciding an event is newsworthy may create opportunities for additional sources to get in the news, as I found in the case of presidential press conferences.)

It may be natural to look at the proliferation of specialized online media sites and social media and conclude that the balance of power has shifted even more toward activists protesting against police brutality since Lawrence published her book in 2000. However, it is important to remember that the Internet is just a tool. It is up to people to use the Internet to publicize incidents, just as people need to actively solicit attention from traditional media organizations. If we look back to the Trayvon Martin case, it took over a week for that case to get any national media attention. Martin’s family hired civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump to help publicize the case – and explain the civil rights issues to a national audience – as he pursued a civil case against George Zimmerman. (Crump was retained by the Brown family on Sunday night.)

The biggest difference in media between the Michael Brown shooting, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the various cases Lawrence describes is the presence of several witnesses who argued the shooting was not justified a day before any police agency offered an official justification. Witnesses immediately defined the incident as the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Unlike most incidents, the police had to respond to a dominant narrative told by members of the community. In the last 24 hours, the police response appears to have created enough doubt that CNN posted a story with the headline “What we know about Michael Brown’s shooting” that began with a focus on what reporters do not know:

It’s a case of he said, he said. The accounts of why a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, this weekend couldn’t be more disparate.

One side says the teenager was surrendering, his hands in the air to show he was unarmed, when the officer opened fire. Authorities counter that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to take his gun.

The trajectory of media coverage regarding this police shooting may be the opposite of other police shootings, where the official statements from police come first and then get called in to question. In this case, it appears to be the accounts of local witnesses and other residents of Ferguson who started the narrative and are now being called in to question. Coverage of community protests has focused on violence, disruption and looting (by people who may not be connected to the protests) instead of the message of the protesters. This is fairly typical of protest coverage.

It will be interesting to see whether this case stays at the forefront of the public consciousness, given the wide range of international crises and yesterday’s shocking death of Robin Williams attracting a large share of audience attention. Activists will need to push nationally, not just locally, to keep this civil rights case in the public eye. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown may be a powerful way to make the case for civil rights and equal treatment, because it also holds journalists accountable for pervasive biases in the images they choose to represent racial minorities who get caught up in the American criminal justice system.

* In my teaching, I found students got a lot out of Travis Dixon’s book chapter “Teaching you to love fear: Television news and racial stereotypes in a punishing democracy. In S. J. Hartnett (Ed.), Challenging the prison Industrial complex: Activism, arts & educational alternatives (pp. 106-123). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.” Dixon summarizes many studies on racial bias in reporting on the news, similar to a review article, but targeted more directly for an undergraduate audience.


Writing Your Own Bad Headlines

On Martin Luther King Day, students at the University of Michigan held a rally to demand various changes at the university, to promote racial diversity and inclusion on campus. First, the demands of the Black Student Union, which organized Monday’s rally:

BSU-demands-screenshot

I initially heard about this story from a few friends with ties to the University of Michigan, but I don’t know enough about student life there to speak about students’ experiences. What struck me, even more than the demands, was the way that this rally and the BSU’s demands were represented in news coverage. Here is the beginning of MLive.com’s coverage (MLive is one of the larger news organizations in Michigan).

mlive-bsuhead

The threat of “physical action” is emphasized in both the headline and lead paragraph, while activists’ demands are put later in the story. This type of coverage is entirely predictable. I don’t mean to single out MLive here, since I believe most news organizations would make a similar decision if they decided to cover the BSU rally. For comparison, here is Al Jazeera America’s coverage:

Some members of the University of Michigan’s Black Student Union issued a list of seven demands to college administrators Monday calling for improved racial diversity and inclusion on campus. The participants gave the university seven days to meet their requests before they consider a ‘physical’ form of activism to spur reforms.

In each case, the word “physical” is in quotes. None of the news coverage specifies what “physical action” may entail. Neither does the BSU Twitter feed. Given the way that news organizations tend to cover protests, a vague threat of physical activism may be the worst way to attract attention. Journalists are more likely to cover “disruptive” protests that include some physical destruction of property (Oliver and Maney 2000), but they cover the violence more than the underlying issues being protested. At Michigan, physical action is placed in the lead paragraph, before any activist is quoted to elaborate on their views.

Most of the social movement organization leaders I have met, either as a reporter or in my time as a graduate student, are keenly aware of how protests may be covered. They take great pains to avoid ambiguity and discipline members about what types of “physical action” are counter productive. Monday’s rally at the University of Michigan helps show why. There was no violence. There was no disruption. And yet the threat of disruption is emphasized.

A recurring theme of this blog, so far, has been that word choices matter a great deal in news coverage. The BSU can say what they want at their rally. They can choose to engage with a wide variety of audiences across the world, drawing more attention to the problems on their campus. It’s a tremendous opportunity to control the story. But seizing this opportunity requires thinking critically about the core message and how it will be perceived by others. How do you perceive a student group threatening “physical action” if their demands aren’t met?

It’s an ambiguous phrase, so each of us probably fill in the gaps based on our own experience. I think of UCLA student protesters’ tendency to physically occupy buildings as a symbolic protest. Other student activists may think “by any means necessary.” Journalists usually think disruption is the story, more than the activists’ ideas. A few people may react very negatively to any vague threat of “physical action” on a college campus this week if they are still thinking about the shooting yesterday on Purdue’s campus. Obviously this last connection may be a stretch – and it also falls in to racial stereotypes – but people don’t always form these connections in a rational way.

To change people’s perceptions, you need to first consider how they think about the world and how they will respond to different kinds of ideas. How will people outside the movement will perceive the movement’s rhetoric and actions? I know that some of my friends who read this will see it as “selling out.” Maybe members of the BCU would agree with this sentiment, maybe they wouldn’t. Like I said earlier, activists holding a rally have an opportunity to craft their own message, and they are free to do so as they see fit. It is important to think strategically about who to target, then say what will best reach out to them, since rallying core supporters often requires different media strategies than building widespread public support or putting pressure on established elites.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the BSU would have been more successful specifying exactly what they will do if their demands aren’t met. Regular protests in a major campus gathering area? Camping out day and night? Student activists have been “occupying space” on campus long before the Occupy Wall Street movement popularized the protest tactic. Clearly specifying the next step would change the headline. Instead of being vaguely scary, a headline promising more protests at a specific time and place could be a useful rallying cry to attract additional followers. It’s also a great beacon for reporters, who can plan a week in advance. @THEBSU did a great job tweeting out their message on Monday, making it easy for reporters to insert their demands. I’m shocked that they haven’t gone back on Twitter to correct their one major strategic mistake.