Media Malpractice: Reporting on Post-Election Hate

stopthehate

There’s not just fake news out there. There’s also a lot of reporting that’s just plain unreliable and biased, but is accepted uncritically by people because it fits their preconceived expectations and those of their like-minded circle.

Tales of hate incidents, threats and intimidation of minorities abound, with many commentators suggesting there’s a linkage between the incidents and Donald Trump’s election.

Much of the recent debate has relied on data gathered by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

On Nov. 29, the SPLC released reports “documenting (emphasis mine) how President-elect Donald Trump’s own words have sparked hate incidents across the country and had a profoundly negative effect on the nation’s schools”. The reports said that in the ten days after the election the SPLC counted 867 incidents of harassment and intimidation.

Most of the incidents cited by the SPLC involved anti-immigrant incidents (136), followed by anti-black (89) and anti-LGBT (43). A “Trump” category (41) referred to incidents where there was no clear defined target, like the vandalism of a “unity” sign in Connecticut, which the SPLC categorized as “pro-Trump vandalism”.

The New York Times jumped on the report, observing that, “Hate Crimes have surged across the country,” linking that assertion to the SPLC ‘s “hate crimes” reports and denouncing Trump for not being more aggressive in “condemning the hate talk and violence being done in his name.”

The New Yorker, citing the SPLC reports, said, “Since Donald Trump won the Presidential election, there has been a dramatic uptick in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment across the country.”

“Hate, harassment incidents spike since Trump election”, CBS News reported, basing its report largely on SPLC’s data.

Willamette Week picked up the SPLC’s report, running a story headlined, “Report on Post-Election Hate Incidents Shows Oregon at Top of List; New Southern Poverty Law Center info paints alarming picture of Pacific Northwest.”

NPR’s All Things Considered also had a segment on the topic.

“Since Tuesday (Nov. 8), the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has counted some 250 incidents…. ,” said NPR’s Eyder Peralta. “While they have not verified all of them, they include anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-Muslim messages and, in the case of a Michigan middle school, a lunchroom anti-immigrant taunt – build the wall.”

“I think that the emotions that were unleashed by the Trump campaign’s use of bigotry as a tool to get elected has reached every part of our society, “ said Heidi Beirich, an employee of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) described as an expert on various forms of extremism. “I think that the emotions that were unleashed by the Trump campaign’s use of bigotry as a tool to get elected has reached every part of our society.”

Because the SPLC is widely recognized as a reputable source, or because many media outlets have taken the easy way out and simply parroted the SPLC’s reports, the media have been awash in reports citing the SPLC data.

There’s one big problem. Media don’t note that the SPLC has not verified the incidents it cites so breathlessly as evidence of a spike in hate crimes..

On its website, the SPLC admits the hate incidents it cites came from news reports, social media, and direct submissions via SPLC’s #ReportHate page. “These incidents, aside from news reports, are largely anecdotal” and “…it was not possible to confirm the veracity of all reports” the SPLC says.

And there’s no way for the public to even read the details of all the reported incidents because the SPLC’s website doesn’t provide access to them.

There may, indeed, have been a recent rise in hate incidents, and the SPLC’s reports make for bone-chilling reading. But the reports don’t “document” hate incidents if the word is taken to mean providing hard evidence.

Hanna Goldfield addressed the critical need for writing to be accurate, even if an alternative version is more “beautiful” or makes a story stronger, in a piece she wrote for the New Yorker. “The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of “Truth” or a true “idea”—is preposterous,” she said. “A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack.”

Reporters should also recognize that data sources are rarely neutral observers. the SPLC, for example, has a position to plead, a message to deliver in order to generate contributions, a desire to be quoted so its influence will be enhanced.

Paul Sperry, a former Washington bureau chief for Investor’s Business Daily, also points out that although the SPLC claims to be a nonpartisan civil rights law firm, it receives funding from leftist groups, including ones controlled by billionaire George Soros. And a review of Federal Election Commission records reveals that its board members contributed more than $13,400 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.

In summary, there’s a lesson here for current and aspiring reporters. Reporters shouldn’t just accept and promote information that affirms their biases or makes for a story that attracts a lot of clicks.  That’s sloppy reporting that undermines trust in the media, and rightfully so.

 

 

 

 

Media Transparency: Who said that?

mediatransparency

Untrustworthy information isn’t just about fake news, the media’s topic du jour. There’s another equally insidious trend in today’s media.

It was highlighted in a recent New York Times  opinion piece contending that Facebook shouldn’t be expected to fact-check news posts.

“What those demanding that Facebook accept “responsibility” for becoming the dominant news aggregator of our time seem to be overlooking is that there’s a big difference between the editorial power that individual news organizations wield and that which Facebook could,” wrote a woman named Jessica Lessin, identified as the founder and chief executive of The Information, a technology news site. “Such editorial power in Facebook’s hands would be unprecedented and dangerous.”

Lessin noted in her piece that her husband worked at Facebook “for a brief period.” That’s it.

But the New York Times’ Public Editor, Liz Spayd, disclosed on Nov. 30 that, in fact, Lessin and her husband, Sam, have pretty damn close ties to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive officer.

Not only have Sam Lessin and Zuckerberg been friends since they both attended Harvard, Spayd reported, but Sam introduced Zuckerberg to investors when he was starting Facebook. In addition, in 2010, Facebook acquired a file-sharing site, Drop.io, that Sam had founded and made Sam a Facebook vice president overseeing product. Zuckerberg was even a guest at the Lessing’s wedding.

Spayd ripped the Times for not disclosing to readers the Lessins’ ties to Facebook, particularly because Jessica Lessin had vigorously defended the company.

The problem is this is not the only case of the media’s failure to disclose relevant information on somebody expressing an opinion.

On Oct. 28, 2016, CBS News Tonight featured a comment by a Matthew Miller condemning FBI Director James Comey for reopening the Clinton email investigation. CBS noted only that Miller had been a spokesman for the Department of Justice.

That same day, Politico reported that Miller had gone on a 14-post spree on Twitter blasting Comey and said Comey’s letter to Congress announcing the review of more evidence in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server constituted “…an inappropriate disclosure.”

Politico also identified Miller only as “a former director of the Justice Department’s office of public affairs.”

Salon jumped on the bandwagon, too, citing a Miller tweet, “FBI is undoubtedly investigating links between the Russian hack, Manafort, & the Trump campaign”. Salon also identified Miller as “Former Department of Justice spokesman…”.

The next day, the Washington Post ran a lengthy opinion piece by Miller titled “James Comey fails to follow Justice Department rules yet again.” Miller blasted Comey, saying his action “…was yet another troubling violation of long-standing Justice Department rules or precedent, conduct that raises serious questions about his judgment and ability to serve as the nation’s chief investigative official.”

In this case, the opinion piece identified Miller only as director of the Justice Department’s public affairs office from 2009 to 2011.

In both cases, there was a glaring omission. For full transparency, CBS and the Washington Post should have pointed out that Miller was hardly an unbiased observer.

Not only has Miller served as communications director for the House Democratic Caucus, but he held the same position at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee under Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was elected Senate minority leader on Nov. 16, 2016, making him the highest ranking Democrat in the U.S.

Before working for Schumer, Miller was communications director for the successful 2006 Senate campaign of Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Don’t you think it would be instructive to know all this before reading Matthew Miller’s opinions?

In other words, untrustworthy news isn’t just about fake news, the media’s topic du jour.

Readers shouldn’t have to research a writer’s background on their own, as I had to do to evaluate Matthew’s credibility, because of the media’s lack of candor. But too often, media cast aside their responsibility to be forthcoming, sometimes I think deliberately, to obscure their biases.

In the end, this is all about the critical importance of the media telling what radio broadcaster Paul Harvey called ‘the rest of the story’ ”.