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Transparency and Trust in News Media

When I teach critical thinking, I often suggest that students pay a good deal of attention to the news. When news stories develop, what details do journalists choose to focus on? What details are they ignoring? Why choose to focus on certain details and not others? When new details are added or the story is updated, how does this change the narrative? As someone who regularly monitors the news for ethical analysis, this is a phenomenon I see all the time. A news item gets updated, and suddenly the focus of the piece dramatically changes. This is something that one can’t do in print media, but online media can revise and change the narrative of news after it is published.

Given the rapidly declining public trust in media, is it time for journalists and news groups to be more transparent and accountable about the narratives they choose to focus on (some may even say create) when they present a new story?

One morning last week I began to read an opinion article which is part of a series of articles written by former national NDP leader (and Prime Ministerial candidate) Tom Mulcair for CTV News. The article is about the on-going national Conservative leadership convention taking place, and mostly focuses on one candidate, Pierre Poilievre, and his attempts to appeal to voters in contrast with some of his rivals. I didn’t finish the article that morning, but when I returned to it later that afternoon, I noticed it had a new title.

What was entitled “Tom Mulcair: The Conservative leadership debates will be crucial” that morning was now titled “Tom Mulcair: The Trump side to Poilievre.” This change was surprising, but if one looks carefully, they will note that the article was “updated” an hour after being first published.

Luckily, I had the original article in my browser, and I was able to make comparisons between the updated version and the original. Does the update contain some new information that would prompt the change in title? No. The two articles are nearly identical, except for a minor typo correction. This means that with no meaningful difference, the article’s title was changed from a more neutral one to a far more politically charged title. It is no secret that Donald Trump is not popular in Canada, and so connecting one politician’s rhetoric to Trump’s is going to send a far different message and tone than “leadership debates will be crucial.” The important question, then, is why this change was made?

Is this a case of a news organization attempting to create and sell a political narrative for political purposes? To be fair, the original article always contained a final section entitled “The Trump Side to Poilievre,” but most of the article doesn’t focus on this topic. The more prominent section in the article focuses on issues of housing affordability, so why wasn’t the article changed to “Tom Mulcair: Conservatives address affordability as a theme?”

Is this a case of merely using clickbait-y headlines in the hopes of driving more attention? The point is that we don’t know, and most people would never even be aware of this change, let alone why it was made.

A recent survey of Canadians found that 49% of Canadians believe that journalists are purposely trying to mislead people by saying false or exaggerated claims, 52% believe that news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology than informing the public, and 52% believe that the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan. Similar sentiments can be found about American media as well. Amusingly, the very article that reports on this Canadian poll seeks to answer who is to blame for this. Apparently, it’s because of the end of the fairness doctrine in the U.S. (something that would have no effect on Canada), the growth of punditry (who gives them airtime?), polarization, and Donald Trump. Missing, of course, is the media pointing the blame at themselves; the sloppy collection of facts, the lazy analyses, the narrow focus on sensational topics. Surely, the loss of confidence in the media has nothing to do with their own lack of accountability and transparency.

News organizations always present a perspective when they report. We do not care about literally everything that happens, so the choice to cover a story and what parts of the story to cover are always going to be a reflection of values.

This is true in news, just as it is true in science. As philosopher of science Philip Kitcher notes, “The aim of science is not to discover any old truth but to discover significant truths.” Indeed, many philosophers of science argue that the notion of objectivity in science as a case of “value freedom” is nonsense. They argue that science will always be infused with values in some form or another in order to derive what it takes to be significant truths, so the intention should be to be as transparent about these matters as possible.

Recently, in response to concerns about bias in AI, there have been calls within the field of machine learning to use data sheets for data sets that would document the motivation, collection process, and recommended uses of a data set. Again, the aim is not necessarily to eliminate all bias and values, but to be more transparent about them to increase accountability. Should the news media consider something similar? Imagine if CTV communicated, not only that there had been an update to their story, but what was included in that update and why, not unlike Wikipedia. This would increase the transparency of the media and make them more accountable for how they choose to package and communicate news.

A 2019 report by the Knight Foundation reports that transparency is a key factor in trust in media. They note that this should not only include things like notifications of conflicts of interest, but also “additional reporting material made available to readers,” that could take the form of editorial disclosure, or a story-behind-the-story, that would explain why an editor thought a story was newsworthy. Organizational scholars Andrew Schnackenberg and Edward Tomlinson suggest that greater transparency can help with public trust in news by improving their perception of competence, integrity, and benevolence.

This also suggests why the news media’s attempt to improve their image have had limited success. Much of the debate about news media, particularly when framed by the news media themselves, focuses on the obligation to “fact check.” The CBC, for example, brags that its efforts to “rebuild trust in journalism” have focused on confirming the authenticity of videos against deep fakes, a corrections and clarifications page (which contains very vague accounts of such corrections), or their efforts to fight disinformation. They say that pundits can opine on the news but not the reporters.

But what they conveniently leave out is that the degradation in trust in news is not just about getting the facts right, it’s about how facts are being organized, packaged, and delivered.

Why include these pundits? Why cover this story? Why cover it in this way? If the media truly wants to improve the public trust, they will need to begin honestly taking responsibility for their own failure to be transparent about editorial decisions, they need to take steps to be held accountable, and they need to focus on how they can be more transparent in their coverage.

The “Wall of Moms” and Manipulating Implicit Bias

photograph of "Wall of Moms" protesting in Portland

Since Officer Chauvin murdered George Floyd, cities across the US and the world have protested the ongoing murder of Black men and women in public and without consequence by the police, and even by neighbors. Protesters have been met with more violence and escalation, by responding police officers, followed by national reserve units, and most recently the deployment of unmarked federal agents to multiple cities.

In the media, the characterization of these protests has been shifting since their onset. Reports of rioting, property damage, and looting contrasted with messages of the priority of the significance of human lives taken by white supremacist violence and the damage to the Black community over time. While some news stories highlighted the rowdiness of protests after dark, in response to police driving vehicles into crowds, tear-gassing groups, and shooting rubber bullets, others focused on the peaceful gatherings with speeches, songs, and non-escalating marches.

On social media, advice regarding how to stay safe in the midst of these large gatherings during COVID and in the face of military escalation proliferated. From wearing masks, to how to contact a lawyer, to what to do if teargassed, messages about how to stand up for Black Lives Matter were readily available. A common thread among these topics of advice was what to do if you are white and out supporting BLM.

The advice for white protesters frequently included the importance of reminding oneself that the protests center on experiences that are not endemic to the white population, but rather the non-white. This means that while numbers speak to support and are important, it is in the supportive rather than directive role that white protesters may be most strong. Further, as a member of the protest that is less susceptible to violence and physical threat, individuals can help others that are more at risk. Videos began to show white protesters putting their bodies between Black speakers, demonstrators, or groups of protesters and police officers in riot gear.

The white ally had a clear space in the media: protector of protesters.

On July 21st, a group of white women joined arms and formed a wall between police in riot gear and protesters in Portland on a late Tuesday night. Calling themselves a “Wall of Moms,” they shouted at the most recent show of militarized force by the police using phrases such as, “You wouldn’t shoot your mother!” They were teargassed and absolutely shocked at such treatment by “their” police.

The white individuals between militarized police and Black protesters, including the Wall of Moms, are using the biases of the police in order to lessen the likelihood that violence will break out, counting on their disinclination to harm white bodies compared to Black bodies. The effectiveness of this strategy relies on the notion that the police behave differently when faced with white members of society than non-white members, and this has been shown over and over again, both in protests and in the data on police brutality.

When faced with armed and yelling white people outside state capitals fighting public health policies, police are quite capable of de-escalation. However, people marching, unarmed, to bring awareness to, and protesting, such pernicious racial injustice that have led to systemic murder prompts such escalation as to draw extreme concern from the UN Human Rights Council. In fact, in many cases BLM protesters had to de-escalate police, rather than the other way around.

The Wall of Moms incorporates a variety of police and societal biases, which they explicitly invoked in their explanations of their strategies. As with all cases of the sort of white support mentioned above, using the privilege of one’s skin to attempt to change police’s behavior is manipulating the perceived biases of the police. The Wall of Moms evokes race, class, and gender in order to be effective.

The middle class white women who conform to the role of “mother” are attempting to draw a contrast between themselves and the protesters behind them. Many used rhetoric involving “protecting the children,” labeling the protesters in Portland as youths in need of mothering. Further, the call to “bring out the moms” itself reflects racial bias, including a de-feminization of Black women and reduction of Black individuals who inhabit the same roles as white people. It  neglects the fact that many Black mothers have played active roles in past BLM movements and been a part of the 2020 protests from the beginning.

The Wall of Moms went a step further than the other white bodies placed between protesters doing the protesting and the violent police. They created their own message, and, in the end, their own 501c3. They co-opted the idea that moms were a new and necessary part of the protests. They reinforced gender norms and the role of “Mother.” A “Wall of Dads” joined them armed with leaf blowers. The sense of white middle-class “normalcy” to play with the police’s preconceptions of people not to harm went beyond working with the underlying biases that make up the potential issues with de-escalation and underscored the roles of race and gender as real divides in our society.

In the case of the Wall of Moms, the privileges that put them in the position to potentially de-escalate the police’s racist violence also manifests the privileges regarding media coverage. The way that the Wall of Moms embraces the traditional picture of what it means to be a “normal” woman in our society plays on gendered biases involved in the hierarchies of privilege, and this in part is what leads to the ease with which they can take over the narrative of the protests in the media. White women occupy roles that call out for the need to be protected, and yet they were harmed here. This narrative takes over the story and eclipses the 125 cases of police violence against protesters before the Wall of Moms ever appeared on the scene.

The next day and into the week, media coverage of their courage, and outrage at their treatment, took over. In a piece by The Washington Post, the courage of the Wall of Moms was lauded in heroic terms:

“In front of the federal courthouse, federal agents in tactical gear used batons to push back the moms in bike helmets. Dozens were tear-gassed. Some were hit with less-lethal bullets fired into the crowd.

Still, they stayed.”

CNN reported the reaction of one participant, in disbelief that the Wall of Moms received the treatment that had been reported for weeks, this time framed in a decidedly positive light:

“The Feds came out of the building, they walked slowly, assembled themselves and started shooting [teargas] I couldn’t believe it was happening. Traumatic doesn’t even begin to describe it… Getting shot and gassed and vomiting all over myself and not being able to see, something clicked in my brain and I was like how could we collectively as mothers let our kids do this? I got home and showered and I told my husband we were going out the next night.”

A “Today” article reporting on events opened with, “The group, which includes hundreds of mothers, has said the protests are peaceful, but the police have been violent.” Such reports highlight the testimony of a group of white women after weeks of similar reporting by Black protesters that had not been compelling enough to quell dismissal or criticism of the protests.

The move from supportive role to main-story is not a novel one for white allies, especially for white women.

If we understand these behaviors in terms of implicit biases, they are relatively difficult to fit into our theoretical frameworks of moral evaluation. The biases include:

  • The police’s racist biases,
  • the “white ally” or savior’s explicit manipulation of the racist biases,
  • the Wall of Moms bringing in the implicit biases of motherhood and traditional gender roles that intersect with the racist stereotypes that don’t fit these roles, and
  • the media/audience biases that allow the story to be one not of the strategic manipulation of biases but rather reifying the roles the Wall of Moms invoke

These implicit biases pose issues for moral responsibility. When individuals endorse their behaviors and the attitudes that result in their behaviors, it is easier to hold them fully accountable for their behaviors and attitudes.

In the case where I think “Rich people are smart” and agree with the view that our society is set up in the structure of a meritocracy, it may be a simple matter to hold me responsible for the behavior that results from this perspective. The associations in our society that cast the behaviors of wealthier people in a more positive light may very well be influencing my belief, but my explicit endorsement plays a role in how we assess my behavior. If, for instance, I negatively judge and avoid individuals that have features I associate with less affluent groups, the fact that I have a belief system I stand behind that informs this behavior suggests that I am knowingly complicit. The harm I may cause to individuals is attributable to me and my beliefs, and therefore morally evaluating my behavior is relatively straightforward.

In contrast, say that while I have internalized the notion that we live in a meritocracy, and therefore rich people have in some way deserved their place in our economic and social system, I don’t actively or consciously endorse the idea that they are, in fact, smarter than those in other economic strata. These notions may come out in my behaviors – judging and avoiding personality characteristics or features associated with the less affluent, voting for policies that punish the poor or support the rich, etc. In this case, I may cause harm, but due to beliefs and attitudes that I do not explicitly endorse. They are attributable to me in a less clear or direct way: they are part of my motivational set, but wouldn’t show up in my explicit deliberation, narrative, or defenses for my behavior. This makes the behavior (and harm) resulting from the implicit biases more difficult to evaluate, and more difficult to alter in the long run.

In ethics, harm-based views have an easier time dealing with the distinction between implicit and explicit attitudes, because the important part of our behavior is the result: if you cause harm, that is the focus, and what we should hold you accountable for. Views that focus on intent, or the quality of the will behind the actions, have a more difficult time distinguishing what moral evaluation we should assign behaviors that result from implicit attitudes.

In the case of the police’s racist biases, this leads to systemic murder and brutalization of non-white, especially Black members of our communities. It leads to dramatic differences in responses to groups of people protesting, and a culture of terror inflicted in non-white spaces.

For the “white ally” these biases can be manipulated to produce positive results — avoiding harm and supporting movements by making space for messages and impact to continue forward without the force of the police’s biases to run free. However, the performance can also erode these effects and do harm by perpetuating the “white savior” narrative.

The Wall of Moms echoes this duality. While they might play a supportive role – making space for safe and impactful movements – they might also reinforce the stereotypes and biases they are attempting to play on.

The media, unfortunately, is a reflection and amplification of the societal biases and stereotypes that make it less likely for white people to be subject to violence and extreme violence. Protests for racial justice are more likely to be subject to suspicion and violence than protests in support of white interests. The media picks up on the interests of its average viewer – as the Wall of Moms members put it, “normal,” in both age, class, skin tone, and gender.

A harm-based view can account for both these drawbacks and advantages of the behaviors of white participants in the BLM protests. It can recognize that these behaviors are the topic of so many discussions and come up in such problematic ways. It can direct us in how to refocus and what to refocus on.

When the interaction of so many implicit biases is necessary to make sense of these tactics, evaluating the behavior morally at individual levels defies our models of moral evaluation. The individuals and groups involved in these behaviors would likely deny or fail to endorse the underlying attitudes and bases for their behaviors. The police would deny their behaviors are rooted in a contrasting value of white and non-white lives, and the Wall of Moms likely would deny their reification of the interaction between race and gender roles, and fail to acknowledge their role in taking over the message with their privilege.

In important ways, the biases of both the police and the white allies are reflecting the biases of societal privilege back to each other and to the society. The behavior of the Wall of Moms and the other white actors discussed here wouldn’t make sense as tactics without the racism inherent in our society – either implicitly or explicitly present in police officers or systems of policing put in place by our communities. This makes bias and the systems of privilege that cultivate it the responsibility of the community, and especially those with the privilege, to dismantle.

Pediatricians back away from screen use guidelines

This piece originally appeared in the Providence Journal on December 9, 2015.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long advised parents to keep children under age 2 away from video screens, and to limit older children to two hours of screen time per day. The thinking has been that children deluged with video are less likely to get the proper cognitive, social and emotional development that comes from non-video play and interaction with real human beings.

Volumes of research support the need to keep kids from becoming video sponges, regardless of whether that video comes from a television, video game or computer screen. Children who spend the most time in front of screens are generally less socially capable, less physically fit and less successful in school than their low-media peers.

That’s why it is so puzzling to see the AAP indicate it is backing away from those long-held guidelines regarding screen time and kids. An essay published in a recent AAP newsletter promises new guidelines to be released in 2016. The essay, written by three AAP doctors, points out that current AAP advice was published before the proliferation of iPads and explosion of apps aimed at young children. It goes on to argue, “In a world where screen time is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” Another casual observation is that “media is just another environment.”

The AAP article further explains its planned updates, writing, “The public needs to know that the Academy’s advice is science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle.” That all sounds quite lofty. But ample, rigorous research already demonstrates that heavy screen exposure for kids links with a variety of social and cognitive difficulties. Precautionary advice is even more imperative in today’s media-saturated environment.

Beyond what can be learned from science-driven research, just check in with any second grade teacher and ask that teacher which students have the most difficult time focusing in class. Odds are those struggling students get too much screen time at home. Ask high school guidance counselors which students are most depressed and anxious, and you will find those teens are more likely to be heavy users of social media and/or video games.

It is true that children are more saturated in media than ever, and parents have a near impossible task to control and referee media absorption by their kids. As the AAP reports, almost 30 percent of children “first play with a mobile device when they are still in diapers.” Teenagers, of course, are constantly absorbed in electronic devices.

It is also true, as the AAP points out, that the screen-time guidelines have been in place for many years. So, too, have been recommendations against teens smoking cigarettes, but nobody is suggesting teen smoking is now acceptable. Commonsense guidelines should not be considered “outdated,” no matter how old they are.

The AAP is a highly respected professional organization that surely wants what is best for children. The recent AAP essay correctly points out the importance of parents monitoring kids’ media consumption, keeping technology away from mealtime and out of bedrooms, along with other solid advice. But it is not helpful to suggest that the world is now so media driven that parents must concede defeat to the media tidal wave on kids. Instead, the AAP can give parents the backbone and rationale needed to limit screen time and, indeed, just turn the devices off. To say screen time is just “time” is a surrender to an “anything goes” mentality in which tough judgments are avoided.

Media use is, of course, only one of many factors that influence a child’s overall environment. It is clear, however, that media-created worlds don’t effectively replace healthy human interaction. Every minute a child is in front of a screen reduces time for more productive activities, such as playing with others, outdoor recreation, exercise or creative play. Thus, even when kids are consuming educational video content, they are missing out on more useful, human endeavors.

When the AAP issues its formal recommendations next year, here’s hoping the Academy doesn’t take a “What’s the use?” approach, and instead, gives parents the stern warnings needed to help raise well-adjusted kids who use media sensibly.