An interesting conversation arose in the comments to my earlier post about the conspiracy theory of a “media narrative” in operation in the Trayvon Martin story.
The term “media narrative” is a derogatory term designed to imply, in this case, that there is an intention effort to tell the story in a false light or portray one character or the other as good or bad through the careful selection of file photos of the two men involved in the story.
The term “media narrative” is also a good indication that its user has already decided beyond any doubt, that there is an intentional effort underway to manipulate the facts. Otherwise, it’d just be called “the story” or “the report.”
It was suggested by one of my readers, John, that because I work in the media, I may not be able to see the forest for the trees, and that therefore, I can’t be fully objective in judging whether bias may be underway.
This is certainly not the first time someone has made that suggestion. In fact, anytime someone in the media addresses accusations of bias and makes even the slightest attempt to offer a counterargument, that’s the first thing said in response.
With all respect to John, I would suggest that those who have already decided that there is bias, are in the very same boat: because they’ve seen some stories that seem (to them) to have a credibility issue, any future story that might otherwise have struck them as possibly biased now becomes automatically branded as “one more piece of evidence in a ‘growing mountain’ of bias.”
One does not work in the media for 20 years without noticing that there are patterns among media consumers, just as the consumers argue there are patterns in the media itself.
It is a sword that definitely cuts both ways. John provided two examples and asked for my analysis. First, the examples, then some points I think should be considered.
Example 1: The Political Rally
John offered two very interesting pieces of video. The first is a clip of MSNBC coverage of a Tea Party rally. The second appears to be amateur video that appears to be of the same people at the same place on the same day. Something revealed in the former definitely calls the credibility of the former into question.
First, have a look at MSNBC’s coverage of accusations of racism and guns at the rally:
You probably noticed the close-up shot of an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle, on the side of a man in a white shirt. We don’t see the man’s face or even his hands. The next shot is of a man with a microphone who was seen in front of the man with the rifle, but it is now taken from the other side and the man with the mic is talking to a white man in a different shirt. But we assume, since the story is talking about racism at the Tea Party rally, that the man with the rifle must be white. That’s not an unreasonable assumption — at least, as assumptions go — since the majority of Tea Partiers tend to be white.
Now have a look at this clip, in which it appears that the same man is revealed to be black rather than white:
John suggests that this is definitive proof — to use his words, “of a blatant example of bias and false narrative.”
Have I mentioned how much I despise the term media narrative? No, really, I do. Because it assumes the absolute worst of people who are doing what is largely a thankless job.
It’s the equivalent of assuming that a pharmacist who gives you the wrong pill was intentionally trying to murder you when it’s just as possible that it was an honest mistake.
Let me be clear: that doesn’t, in any way, make the mistake excusable. But it also means that the worst possible intent wasn’t what was in play.
I trust everyone can see the difference.
What’s my analysis of the video? It’s a major ethical lapse. There’s no question at all that it sets up a discussion by falsely portraying what was going on at a public event. And the fact that the discussion relies on the assumption that the person carrying the gun is white when he isn’t is a glaring error.
Example 2: The 911 Call Edit
During a report on Today, NBC News aired a snippet of the 911 call that George Zimmerman made to police when he reported the teen he would later shoot in what he calls self-defense. The transcript of the clip NBC aired is this:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
The actual call was longer than this, and the full portion of this section of the call reads as follows:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.
NBC News announced it started an internal investigation about the editing of the tape, after it received complaints that the edited version made it appear that Zimmerman was engaging in racial profiling by volunteering upfront that the teen “looked black,” when in reality, he was answering a question posed by the dispatcher who was trying to get as detailed a description as possible for police on their way to investigate.
The Line Between Reality and Perception
In the case of the first example, it’s hard for someone outside the media to even comprehend how such a mistake could be made. Because of this, it’s easy to believe quite automatically that it couldn’t have been a mistake. Thus, it’s a “media narrative” at work.
On the surface, it’s like the pharmacist analogy. But when you get into a broadcast setting, that analogy has to be adjusted a bit to be more comparable. You’d have to scratch the pharmacist and insert a pharmacy tech, a lower-paid, sometimes far-more-overworked employee who also fills prescriptions but may perform a long list of other duties at times under a lot higher level of pressure. Then you’re getting much closer to your typical video editor in a news operation. Also, the person who edits the video is often not the person who shot the video. So they’re already behind the eight-ball when it comes to knowing exactly which images they had to work with while at the same time the clock is ticking away toward their deadline.
Often the producer tells the editor that they need thirty seconds of this or that. In this case, the producer may well have instructed an editor to pull video of guns at a Tea Party rally, and the editor just grabbed the video he could find. He may not even have known that the story was specifically about racism or that the gun-toting protestors needed to be white for the story to make sense.
I am not grasping at straws here. It happens all the time. Not out of intent, but miscommunication.
The second case is a bit more obscure by comparison. There is certainly validity in the notion that the way the 911 call was edited, it might have made Zimmerman sound like he was engaging in racial profiling. But I’m honestly not sure that the average person would automatically see the difference if presented the two transcripts without the additional commentary and accusation from self-appointed media watchdog groups who look for anything they can possibly label bias.
There’s no question that the audio was edited for time’s sake: that’s typically why every soundbite is edited down. Look at the video on this page: notice the soundbite from the man in the hoodie starting at :47. That white flash conceals what is clearly an edit. Is this a “media narrative,” too? That possibility isn’t even mentioned, but then, it’s part of a piece criticizing the media, so it must be on the level, right? (And no, I’m not being facetious here: if you’re going to question the outlets that report the story, shouldn’t you come full circle and question the outlets when they try to imply that they stand on the moral high ground?)
Even when I do promos, I have to piece together clips of a longer soundbite to fit the message into a thirty or fifteen-second promo. Every news story you see that’s pre-edited has soundbites that are trimmed down to tell the story as concisely as possible.
About 99% of the time, the edit does not change the speaker’s intent. But even when the intent isn’t changed, editing can change implications a listener can read into the situation. That isn’t automatically intentional, but it does occasionally happen. That NBC would launch an investigation at all indicates that it is taking the complaints seriously. Those of us in the media need to keep that lesson in mind.
I am not suggesting that it is out of the question that there was something intentional happening here. I am suggesting that it’s more likely that it was a screw-up; as closely as the media is being scrutinized these days, hindsight makes it more than clear that such blatant attempts would have been so outrageous that they would never have gotten away without being called on them.
I wish that media consumers would at least be open to the possibility that such instances do not automatically mean an intentional misrepresentation of the facts. It could — just as easily — be simple negligence. Or incompetence. Or even just plain old stupidity.
Media critics are quick to point out that journalists aren’t gods. That’s true. And that means we’re mortals, fully capable of making a variety of errors, despite our best efforts to avoid them.