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The Azar Newsletter How to Create Public Bias and Prejudice (10-4-09)

October 4, 2009

by Joe Azar

Far too often I see articles that

attempt to slant opinion with what appears to be fact. The data may be true, but the context not, and it disturbs me, greatly, as it is obvious what the writer is attempting. Unfortunately, it often is written so cleverly or mildly, or even apparently authoritatively, that it often passes our questioning minds, appearing so true. And I just saw one in the paper this morning.

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Now, no matter your opinion on Mark Sanford, you must read The State article on him with an open mind as an academic, or learning exercise concerning the journalism of it (yes, you can still maintain your biases of him while reading http://www.thestate.com/local/story/970359.html). The article on Sanford makes mention of how many days he has been on vacation or out of state.: “What has Sanford done over the last 100 days? – He has been on out-of-state trips or vacations a fifth of the time”. Then it adds in a sidebar that those days include family retreats. Of course, the headline to the article, Sanford leaves constituents cold, already has me thinking what idiotic thing has Sanford done now? So I am already prejudiced and prepared for some bone head action on his part, and even trying to speculate what it is before I read the first line.

But the article has no new bone head blunder, just a rehash of his past 100 days with negative interview comments from citizens and “experts”. Oddly enough, though most of the paper’s articles and writers always try to find another citizen or “expert” comment contrary to the general comment to add “balance”, this one does not, which leaves me puzzled. Did I miss something? So I reread with a more analytical eye as reading an article 5 minutes after I awake is not the best time for me to try to digest information, or even absorb it, properly.
No, no contrary comment do I see. That’s odd, I think. Wait a minute, let’s reanalyze this article. Sanford , out of state or on vacation 1/5 of the past 100 days? That seems pretty stupid considering him being gone for those infamous 5 days and catching criticism for not being in the state like he should. Mark should have more sense than that. What an idiot.

Hmmm, 100 days and out 1/5? Let’s see, how many weeks is that? 7 goes into 100 14 times plus 2 days left. That is 14 weeks with 28 weekend days (Saturday and Sunday). Is a governor required to work every weekend all weekend, or is he entitled to weekends off, just as legislators have, plus also a half year off? Is visiting the family in Charleston, Florida , or wherever they are considered vacation? What were those vacation days? Were they work days he should be here? Were they accrued vacation time? What were the out of state trips? Were they business, such as recruiting Boeing and others? Were they official and necessary, or were they unnecessary and personal? Did he violate any laws and also the trust of the public again?
I analyzed the By The Numbers sidebar (which was in the paper but I did not see online) to try to better understand what those 20 days may have been. There were 4 days of visits to job training and creation, 2 economic announcements, and 5 visits to state manufacturing plants or businesses. Did any of these involve out of state trips? Have there been any quiet visits to Boeing? (Our state has said that unlike Washington , which is telling the public everything it is doing to try to keep Boeing, our state is keeping its actions and strategy quiet so Washington and others cannot take counter action against our efforts.) Unfortunately, there is no way to connect any of these items.

So I am left wondering, has Sanford left us in the cold? Has he done something idiotic? Or is he entitled to weekends off and vacation time for himself and family? Are any of the out of state trips (the article does not specify how many out of state trips, only lumps them with family retreats and days of vacation) about business?

Whether Sanford should be impeached or not? That is a completely separate issue. The problem here, and don’t let your Sanford bias cloud your vision, is whether this article is fairly written or not. Does it serve the public well, or does it serve itself and the powers at the paper well? It is obvious the position of the paper and they will not, rightly or wrongly, let this issue ever disappear until he is gone, but put the opinion on the editorial page, as the object of good reporting is to present the facts on all sides and all the information fairly. The object of editorial writing is to present opinion and create that same opinion in readers’ minds. Far too often I find editorial writing in news articles, and it is unfortunate as it does not encourage, nor does it want to encourage, analytical thinking on the part of the public. Using biased headlines, slanting the “facts”, leaving out facts, and other tricks of the trade is irresponsible. This behavior should be left for editorial and political campaign writing, where we all expect it.

When you read articles, read them with an open eye. Question the “facts”: are there enough, do they correlate, are there more of one side than another, do they come from reputable sources? Question the use of “experts” and their comments: who made them experts, what are their credentials, whose side are they on, what is their background?

Part of the problem in America today is slanted, prejudicial reporting, and lack of issue reporting. I have watched it closely, and been a target of it as well. Even now, during this campaign for mayor, in the early stages, I have already had prejudicial comment directed my way in the media. I have also had non-reporting of issues and news conferences I have held, which is another prejudicial way of reporting, or not. I have watched another candidate in this race face the same thing, to the point that I had to report his candidacy and even introduce him to a service club in town. His treatment was not fair, his ideas good, and even though he may be an opponent, I find the public best served by hearing him as it keeps this mayoral campaign focused on what is best for our community, not what is best for Finlay, Benjamin or me.

There is no justifiable place for biased or prejudicial journalism in our community or country. It has caused great distress, division and dissension, more so than any political party can create. Do not take all reporting at face value. Question it. Read between the lines. Get to know those reporting by watching their style over long term, understanding their biases and prejudices.

As citizens, we need fair and accurate reporting. If we allow prejudicial reporting, it will come back to bite us and those we support, as well as those we oppose. Objectivity in reporting is essential if we are to make good choices, fair choices, and not have good people besmirched, even if we cheer the besmirching of those we oppose. Help keep our reporters unbiased by your comments to them and to your neighbors. Soon enough, they will get the word, especially when their own reputations are being questioned.

So, did Sanford do something wrong in these past 100 days? What were those 20 days Sanford had, and how did they breakdown? How can we tell from this article?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. khawkins98 permalink
    October 5, 2009 7:44 PM

    Interesting piece.

    I’ll say one of the major problems here is the failure of “MSM” to embrace the hyperlink.

    The writer(s) probably left out all the details you ask about to keep the article moving — a fair stance. But The State has likely answered all your questions in past articles, simply hyperlinking to the relevant past stories, the information would have been instantly available to those who question it.

    And it also ensures that present reporting is in line with past facts.

    If newspaper want to use H.T.M.L then they should spend more time understanding the first letter in its acronym.

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