Last week, we hosted our first-ever News Hunt for Bad Journalism, to identify news reports and opinions with serious flaws -- stories that we found inaccurate, biased, irresponsible or superficial.
With the help of professor Sally Lehrman and her journalism students from Santa Clara University, we reviewed a wide range of news reports, blog posts, columns, cable news and radio talk shows from across the political spectrum. (See SCU's own news release about this project)
For an overview of this News Hunt, check our original blog post (which was updated throughout the week with new stories for review). Together, we posted 32 stories which we considered to be bad journalism, 21 of which received a NewsTrust rating. For a full listing of stories reviewed in this News Hunt, check all our rated stories, as well as our least trusted stories posted in the past 90 days.
Here are the results of this News Hunt for Bad Journalism.
Least Trusted Stories
For this News Hunt, NewsTrust editors hand-picked stories for review, focusing mostly on political topics covered by mainstream sources, with the goal of highlighting flawed or questionable stories from some of the news outlets that people read and watch most (e.g. cable news and talk radio). We also took great care to feature stories representing political viewpoints from the left, right and center. What we wound up with is not a "worst of the worst" list, but a roundup of stories from a variety of media that our staff and community found to be examples of bad journalism.
Here are some of our least trusted stories for this News Hunt:
News Report (U.S.)
Tricky o's 'doctored' photo by Charles Hurt - New York Post
News Report (U.K.)
Racial tension simmers on Martha's Vineyard as Barack Obama arrives - Daily Telegraph
Opinion from the Right
Excuses wearing thin for Obama, media pals by Steve Huntly - Chicago Sun Times
Opinion from the Left
Republicans hit new low by Randi Rhodes (blog)
Cable News Pundit from the Right
What's Obama gonna give me? by Glenn Beck - Fox News (video)
Cable News Pundit from the Left
Conservative infighting dismantles GOP by Keith Olbermann - MSNBC (video)
Media Watchdog from the Right
MSNBC Goes Into Astroturf Mode by Jeff Poor - Newsbusters
Media Watchdog from the Left
Attack on White House criticism of Fox follows years of GOP assaults on media - Media Matters
We compared different types of stories throughout this News Hunt: news reports on Monday, opinions on Tuesday, pundits from the right on Wednesday, pundits from the left on Thursday, media watchdogs on Friday, and fact-checkers on Saturday. Here are our findings for each category.
Biased News Reports
Of the three news reports we featured, reviewers noted sourcing and fairness as major problems. They were most aggressive with "Tricky o's 'doctored' photo" from the New York Post, which decried a group of physicians President Obama invited to the White House to show their support for health care reform. The story quoted two Republican opponents of reform, but didn't seek comments from the doctors themselves -- nor the reported "thousands" in the medical community who oppose reform. "The author makes many claims that are not backed up with evidence," Danielle S. Scharf wrote. "This article is very opinionated and one-sided."
An article on the Obama Administration's criticism of Fox News -- written by Fox News -- quoted the network's staff and commentators, including Karl Rove, but did not seek response from White House officials or third-party sources. And an article in the Telegraph on Obama's summer visit to Martha's Vineyard contained no interviews, only quotes from the comments section of a local newspaper.
The opinions we reviewed were harder to pin down. Our reviews tended to involve questions of responsibility and context, rather than the more straightforward principles of fairness and sourcing (which are not required for opinions, unlike news reports). An op-ed from the Chicago Sun-Times overwhelmingly earned our community's disapproval: presumptive and short on factual evidence, Steve Huntly's "Excuses wearing thin for Obama, media pals" was condemned by almost all of the NewsTrust members who reviewed it -- Huntly "makes assertion upon assertion but fails to provide documentation," Peter Henry said in his review.
Our community was split on the other two opinions we featured in this comparison: "Lack of universal health care is a mass killer" from the Progressive received a mediocre 3.0, while "Why Fox News is un-American" from Newsweek received a 3.5 overall -- but widely divergent ratings from different members (compare reviews from SCU student Christine Ahlstrom and Jim Lang). Join the discussion and add your reviews to these stories.
Worst Pundits from the Right and Left
On Wednesday and Thursday we examined stories from some of the most contentious and notoriously partisan names in broadcast journalism. Our community readily called out cable and radio pundits for their political bias, lack of fairness and cherry-picking of facts, and our overall ratings don't reflect a favoritism for either side.
From the right, we reviewed clips from Fox News's Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and a comment from Rush Limbaugh's radio show. We followed a similar pattern for those on the left, reviewing clips from MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachael Maddow, and a blog post from liberal radio personality Randi Rhodes.
Partisan Media Watchdogs
Media critics and watchdogs can be a valuable resource to identify bad journalism. But we found that some media watchdogs have their own political agendas, leading them to spread more bias and misinformation as a result. A NewsBusters analysis called Keith Olbermann hypocritical for "cheerleading" the Obama Administration's fight with Fox News after having defended MSNBC against similar charges from the Bush Administration; several of our members criticized it for being shallow, unfair and poorly contextualized. An almost mirror-image story from Media Matters slammed Republican leaders for a history of attacks on media outlets, including CNN and the New York Times. Our reviewers pointed out that neither piece commented on whether either administration's media strategy was effective or justified.
We closed out our News Hunt for Bad Journalism on a positive note, by featuring some of our most trusted fact-checkers. The final two stories we reviewed in this News Hunt received overwhelmingly positive reviews. PolitiFact compiled a list of "recent distortions" and "a few truthful statements" about health care reform and offered brief explanations of why each was false or accurate. And FactCheck looked at the ambiguity of polls attempting to measure public attitudes toward a government-run health insurance program. Both of these stories were carefully non-partisan, supported by ample factual evidence and consulted multiple independent sources in their analysis.
Thanks to our partners
We'd like to thank Santa Clara University professor Sally Lehrman and her journalism students for participating in our first News Hunt for Bad Journalism last week. Kudos to the following, who added their reviews to some of the news and opinion we posted: Danielle S. Scharf, Christine Ahlstrom, Megan Wirth, Kathryn Klein, Taylor Bernal, Krista Kelley, Xenia Pineda, Morgan Doherty, and Ada Onuegbe.
We'd also like to thank our advisors Howard Rheingold (Stanford University) and Michael Bugeja (Iowa State University), who wrote the NewsTrust News Literacy Guides that we use as reference in our searches for good -- and bad -- journalism. Howard recently published "Crap Detection 101" and Michael penned "Think Like a Journalist."
If you come across other examples of bad journalism in coming months, please post them on our site (be sure to tag them "Bad Journalism" under "Topics," so the stories will be listed in our Bad Journalism pages).
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-- by Derek Hawkins and Fabrice Florin, with Kaizar Campwala