Last week, we hosted a 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 Howard Rheingold and his journalism students from Stanford University, we reviewed a wide range of news reports, blog posts, columns, cable news and radio talk shows from across the political spectrum.
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 57 news and opinion stories which we considered to be bad journalism, 45 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 published between February 18 and March 2, 2010.
UPDATE: The Columbia Journalism Review published a thoughtful article by Craig Silverman about this News Hunt and the work of professor Howard Rheingold (who is also a NewsTrust board member and advisor).
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:
- Obama tops Bush at ducking reporters - Washington Times
- Ohio convert: Family reconciliation not possible - Associated Press
- The Internet Will Make You Smarter, Claims Study - Reuters
- The EPA's climate con - New York Post
- Glenn Beck Dodges Incoming Plane at CPAC - The Nation
- Muslims Won’t Play Together - New York Times
Pundits from the Right
- Not Beck's Cup of Tea - Fox News (Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck}
- Obama Unveils Health Care Plan: A Defiant "Screw You" to Nation - Rush Limbaugh Show (Rush Limbaugh)
Pundits from the Left
- Throwback in South Carolina - MSNBC (Chris Matthews)
- Uh-Oh...The Teabaggers Are Upset - Randi Rhodes Show (Randi Rhodes)
Media Watchdogs from the Right
- ABC Pushes Obama's Insurance Demonization; Couric Asserts Summit 'Much-Anticipated' - Media Research Center
- WaPo Page One: 'Professor Obama' Schools 'Undisciplined Pupils' of GOP - NewsBusters
Media Watchdogs from the Left
- Newsweek's Mac Margolis Misleads on Who the World's Arms Merchant Is - FAIR
- Breitbart Lied About ACORN 'Pimp' Videos - Brad Blog
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 and Lazy News Reports
Of the 28 bad news reports unearthed by NewsTrust reviewers during this News Hunt, a handful stood out for being biased, poorly researched, or lacking appropriate sourcing. The Washington Times story "Obama tops Bush at ducking reporters" fell short on all these counts, as noted by Stanford student Erin Beresini in her succinct review: "Didn't get multiple sources, presented a strong pov = bad journalism."
A Reuter's story on the effect of the Internet on people's intelligence didn't suffer from the political bias of the Washington Times piece, but was a great example of lazy, sensational "science" journalism. In her review of the story, Stanford student Natalie Jabber articulates what's missing in the story:
"Where's the study? Where's the actual data? All I see here is sweeping generalizations. I want to hear more from the "scientists, business leaders, consultants, writers and technology developers" that apparently took this survey."
When rating opinions and editorials, NewsTrust reviewers are encouraged to focus on issues of context and responsibility (rather than fairness and sourcing, which are not required for opinions -- unlike news reports). The worst offenders in this print opinion category last week were articles on highly politicized issues (Climate Change, Terrorism, Middle East), looking to score political points rather than bring insights to news consumers. News Hunt co-host Jon Mitchell came to the same conclusion in his review of a New York Post editorial on climate change, noting that "this article, like so many others in the Bad Journalism News Hunt, relies on recycled rhetoric for emotional weight, rather than soberly presenting the facts."
The left side of the political spectrum was no less susceptible to bad opinion writing, as shown by the low ratings Leslie Savan got for her piece in The Nation attacking the conservative reaction to the IRS suicide bomber. Former NewsTrust assistant editor Derek Hawkins astutely observed that "The Nation sounds little different than their the pundits they're accusing on the right. Savan is so intent on making conservatives look bad she sounds like a lunatic herself. Pretty unsophisticated."
Political Pundits from the Right and Left
Political pundits often get a bad rap. President Obama himself took a swipe at them in his recent State of the Union Address. But do they deserve accusations that they often twist the truth?
We reviewed video clips, transcripts, and written commentary from pundits on both sides of the spectrum. Fox News' evening lineup provided ample fodder for our reviewers, who panned Glenn Beck's haphazard dismissal of the New York Times' deeply researched story on the Tea Party movement, and Rush Limbaugh's monologue on Obama's health care plan. However, NewsTrust editor Walter Cox offered a thoughtful response to reviewers' critiques of Limbaugh:
"I think we critics should acknowledge that Limbaugh (along with O’Reilly, Hannity, Savage, Levin and others) does not depend solely on “lies.” He often expresses truths that more mainstream commentators shy away from, and a rather cohesive world view unites Rush and his listeners."
On Thursday we focused on Pundits from the Left, and found examples of cheap shots and ad hominem attacks from the likes of Chris Matthews on MSNBC, as well as radio host and blogger Randi Rhodes. NewsTrust editor and News Hunt co-host Kristin Gorski observed that Rhodes' blog post about the Tea Party movement consisted "primarily of insulting people. It doesn't inform or clarify any current issues, instead only providing a left-leaning, shock-radio-style mirror to the likes of Beck, Limbaugh and Coulter on the right."
Partisan Media Watchdogs
Media critics and watchdogs can be a valuable resource to identify bad journalism. But media critics need to be extra thorough and even-handed when calling out others for shoddy journalism. This News Hunt confirmed that some media watchdogs have their own political agendas, leading them to spread more bias and misinformation as a result.
Liberal blogger Brad Friedman tries to take conservative Andrew Breitbart to task for lying, but presents his case with such emotion and bias that our reviewers had a tough time elevating his blog post to anything more than a rant. The conservative Media Research Group falls into a similar trap when going after ABC News. Gorski noted that "instead of exposing bias, as it purports to do, it falls into conservative talking points about the 'liberal spin machine.' Its semi-sarcastic tone detracts from any objectivity behind its original intentions."
We closed out our News Hunt for Bad Journalism on a positive note, by featuring our most trusted fact-checkers. Once again FactCheck and Politifact stood out for their exemplary work, this time for fact-checking Obama's health care summit. Both stories are supported by ample factual evidence and rely on multiple independent sources in their analysis.
Thanks to Howard Rheingold and Stanford Students
We'd like to thank Stanford University professor Howard Rheingold and his journalism students for participating in our Hunt for Bad Journalism last week. [Disclosure: Howard is a NewsTrust board member and advisor] Our search was guided by Howard's primer on "Crap Detection" - the critical skills and tools that help us tell apart credible information from hogwash. Here's how Howard describes this important practice:
"One of the fundamental skills that journalists must cultivate is what Ernest Hemingway called "crap detection" -- the ability to analyze news stories for potential errors, biases, and omissions.
I've found that one of the best ways to teach this skill in practice is through the use of News Trust, which helps students compare and rate real stories."
About 22 students in Howard's digital journalism class were invited to participate in this week-long investigation. Their assignment was to review two stories each from our 'Bad Journalism' page, then post/review three related stories on a topic of their choice (e.g.: Michelle Obama). NewsTrust Executive Director Fabrice Florin kicked off this News Hunt with a presentation to the class on Tuesday, February 23, during which students all reviewed the same story together (see photos). At the end of the week, they were asked to blog about their experience and identify the stories they considered to provide the best and worst news coverage on their chosen topic. By this morning, students had published 66 reviews, which can be viewed in their shared network page.
The students' blog posts provided some thoughtful observations on how they went about 'detecting crap' -- and what they thought of the NewsTrust tools (see excerpts below).
Student Feedback on NewsTrust
As part of their assignment for this project, we asked Stanford students to blog about their experience with NewsTrust, as a tool for distinguishing good and bad journalism. Here are some highlights from their comments.
Susana Montes-Delgado on News Literacy:
"Newstrust, apart from helping readers discern between good and crappy information, is a great tool to test your journalism literacy. By using a review form, you evaluate stories based on how factual, balanced and contextual they are. But most importantly, the system allows you to be more critical about the information you consume on the Web."
TJ Novak on using the site:
"The NewsTrust site is extremely well organized and easy to use. One can sign in with his or her Facebook account or they can sign up for a new account with an e-mail address. Once logged in a user is directed to an easy to navigate homepage that has tabs for different genres of news, i.e. World, U.S., Politics, Sci/Tech, and Business. On this same toolbar a user is able to "Post a Story" by simply supplying the URL of the article."
Stacie Chan on rating bad journalism:
"I enjoyed my NewsTrust experience because it allowed me, as a journalist, to read examples of what I don’t want my stories to sound like. I saw the obvious holes in stories and how few sources reporters used. This was further motivation to produce quality journalism that was as fair as fair could be."
Kathryn Roethel on NewsTrust's innovation:
"NewsTrust is an innovative way to use social networking technology to accomplish something that, previously, might only have been done in magazine articles or books. NewsTrust is constantly a work in progress, and can change everyday and include feedback from a limitless number of readers all over the world."
Natalie Jabar on NewsTrust's overall mission:
"I think Newstrust is a valiant and important endeavor. God knows we can all think a little bit harder about what we're reading, especially now that there's so much out there ... it was a good learning experience and made me think more about where I get my news and why I trust the sources I do ... Thanks for exposing us to this site! I'm glad I got a chance to use it and see that people are still holding journalists accountable."
Along with this constructive feedback, the students also offered some valuable criticism of NewsTrust. For example, they pointed out that the login process, overall navigation and search results on the site could be improved and offered great suggestions on what they would expect. They also questioned whether seeing a story rating before reviewing the story biases the review. One student, David Carini, ended his post about NewsTrust with a question that sits at the heart of this project: "What authority does an amateur have to rate better or worse journalism?" We think David poses a good question, but we beg to differ with his conclusion that media criticism should be left to professionals. We believe that every citizen has an obligation to think critically about the news they consume, and challenge the information they're being fed by the news media. After all, does the journalistic credo of "speaking truth to power" only apply to journalists?
We're very grateful to all Stanford students for joining forces with NewsTrust for this investigation! Our deepest gratitude goes to Howard Rheingold, a longtime friend and supporter of NewsTrust, who joined our board of directors last December to help guide the development of new educational programs such as this one. Howard deserves special recognition for going ahead with this experiment -- despite his struggle with cancer. His positive attitude and tenacity in the face of adversity are an inspiration to us all. We wish him a prompt recovery in coming months.
Thanks to our hosts
Finally, we would like to thank News Hunt co-hosts Kristin Gorski and Jon Mitchell, for their tireless work in finding and reviewing the "best" bad journalism out there. You both rock!
Our fearless leaders get the closing remarks for this report - starting with this quote from Jon Mitchell:
"Hunting for bad journalism was a peculiar experience, and it's a relief to get my information from credible sources again. I benefited greatly from the specific focuses on each day of the hunt, because I learned to identify the subtle signals of many kinds of biases, including my own".
And this final observation comes from co-host Kristin Gorski:
"Amongst all the news noise, loud personalities on left and right continue to dominate meaningful news which would empower people to make better decisions in their lives. The quest for ratings -- and subsequently advertising revenue -- is driving an important measure of reality. It's becoming a vicious cycle: if everything becomes "infotainment" and news quality continues to suffer, then could ad revenue slip further as people stop tuning in? As a society, what do we do without quality, reliable news?"
What do you think?
We would love to hear your own thoughts about this News Hunt -- or NewsTrust in general. To share your views, please leave a comment below, or email us.
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).
This is our second News Hunt for Bad Journalism. For more info about this project, check the final results of our first News Hunt last fall, in collaboration with Santa Clara University.
Support our work
This project was made possible in part by a generous grant from Omidyar Network, which is funding a six-month investigation of new ways to help people separate fact from fiction online. But this grant only covers some of our operating costs for NewsTrust.
If you think NewsTrust provides a valuable service, please consider making a donation to our cause. Your contribution will help promote good journalism -- and pay for educational programs like this News Hunt, as well as better news feeds, new tools and site improvements. We're nonprofit and funded through grants and donations from members like you.
Can you show your support today with a one-time, tax-deductible donation?
-- by Kaizar Campwala and Fabrice Florin