Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How do you know?

Earlier this year I posted a series of three articles about challenges facing print media, and all media, and why we should be worried about this. They are linked at the bottom of this post.

In short, the problem is this: what you eat turns into you, right? You're careful what you put into your mouth, and will reject stinky food unless you're desperately hungry. You need complete nutrients, and enough calories to power you from day to day.

The same is the case with information -- as informed choice-makers we need a lot of information, on a daily basis, and with appropriate trace elements of international, science, philosophical and other news with fewer empty calories than the sports and entertainment pages, but crucial to complete understanding. If we consume empty or false information, our choices will necessarily be poisoned.

Which leads us to this interesting article on Vox [hat tip to Mark Thoma]:
Propaganda, human rights and the US media
Nancy Qian, 15 December 2008

Respect for human rights is gaining in importance in international agreements, but who is to judge human rights performance? This column discusses new evidence that suggests national governments are not good judges. It draws on evidence from the US, which has long tied trade preferences to human rights performance, which shows the US government systematically under-reported human rights violations by Cold War allies.


A recent study by Qian and Yanagizawa (2008a) finds that the US State Department systematically favoured its allies during the Cold War by under-reporting human rights violations. Hence, they infer a change in the otherwise unobservable strategic value of a country to the US by comparing reports of human rights violations from the US relative to reports from Amnesty International for US allies and non-allies before and after the Cold War ended. A well known example of this is Zaire (renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997). Its president, Mobutu Sese Seko (in office 1965-1997) was a strong supporter of the US during the Cold War. During a state visit to the US in 1983, US president Ronald Reagan praised Mobutu and said in response to the international criticism of Mobutu's human rights abuses that he was a "voice of good sense and good will". Immediately after the Cold War ended, the State Department began to criticize Zaire's human rights violations. And in 1993, Mobutu was denied a visa for visiting the US. He remarked at that time "I am the latest victim of the Cold War, no longer needed by the US. The lesson is that my support for American policy [now] counts for nothing" (Gbadolite, 2001).


On the one hand, there should be a significant effect. US policy is determined by democratically elected representatives whose choices should broadly reflect their constituents’ preferences. Empirical evidence suggests that Americans value good human rights situations in their trading partners and allies... this distortion in human rights reports by the US State Department could have serious political and economic consequences if it is conveyed to voters...

On the other hand, whether any supplier of primary information is able to distort a competitive media market such as the US is an open question. The ability of the free press to diminish distortions from primary sources is implicitly assumed by standard political theory and journalists in the US ... a news organization's ability to obtain the truth depends on its access to independent information.

...the relative meagre resources of media firms relative to the government, who has embassies and stable intelligence personnel in almost every country, means that the government will probably always be an important primary source of information for international news.

Foreign bureaus with permanent foreign correspondents that are knowledgeable in local customs, languages, and have good local connections are financially costly. Constable (2007) reports that a bureau costs approximately $250,000 per year on average, and can be as expensive as $1 million per year. For small metropolitan newspapers, the cost is prohibitive. Larger newspapers may be able to afford foreign bureaus but still need to consider the relative benefits of spending resources on foreign correspondents relative to other news coverage (e.g. sports, entertainment, domestic news) which are both presumably much less expensive to cover and more popular for readers (with the exception of large foreign events)...

It is not surprising to find out that most American news organizations have drastically reduced the number of foreign correspondents in the recent two decades so that only four newspapers have stable foreign offices today... even after 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq War, when Americans' demand for information about relatively unknown foreign countries were presumably at a peak, the number of foreign correspondents working for newspapers continued to decrease from 188 in 2002 to 141 in 2007 ... The number of television networks with foreign offices has also decreased, from fifteen during the 1980s to six in 2007.

As a substitute, news organizations have increasingly resorted to picking up stories from newswires, pack journalism, where all media firms rely on a single source, and parachute journalism, where reporters without much pre-existing knowledge or connections of a region are dropped in to report breaking news...


Adding to this concern is the possibility that even if the media were informed of the distortions in the government’s reports, it would knowingly allow its own coverage to be distorted. Qian and Yanagizawa (2008b) study the effect US State Department bias in human rights reports on coverage in the New York Times. They find that under-reporting from the State Department significantly reduces coverage of abuses.. Furthermore, the effect is equally large for countries where media has free access as for countries where media access is restricted. This latter result suggests that the distortion in media coverage is not driven by the New York Times’ inability to obtain the truth. Rather, as a profit making firm, it is probably just minimizing its costs and it is less costly to obtain information from the State Department than from other sources.

There seems to be much reason to doubt the ability of the Fourth Estate to mitigate government bias and provide the American public with accurate news. The problem resides both in the government’s manipulation of information and in the incentives of news organizations that knowingly allow their coverage to be distorted. Regarding the latter, Walter Cronkite described the concerns of many Americans when he said in a speech at Columbia University in January, 2007: "The need for high-quality reporting is greater than ever. It's not just the journalist's job at risk here. It's American democracy."
And I must add, all democracy. Not that democracy will cease if the fountain of truth is compromised -- the problem of correct and complete information is eternal, a battle to be fought continuously.

Still, in the reduction of independent and professional sources the battle is definitely in retreat at the moment.

The presence of news sources on the net is currently adjusting for some of this impoverishment, but the point remains -- experienced reporters and professional news agencies need to be paid, need equipment, need resources, and need a long span of time to assemble and codify their understanding of their specialty field.

Canada and the UK made a choice early in the last century to support nationally owned and funded media, the CBC and the BBC. These are NOT state-owned media in the traditional sense, but are supported by taxes and provide in return a buffet of news and cultural content, energy dense and full of trace nutrients and unusual flavours and spices.

Critics of the CBC complain that it "only" draws a Canadian audience of about 10% of the population. Critiquing the critics is a topic for another post, but briefly the impact of CBC coverage goes far beyond the actual ears and eyes of viewers, and the content, often maligned as "elitist", is necessarily so. It's job, conveying concentrated news and commentary to the people, is opposite to the job of commercial media. Commercial media exist to attract eyes and ears to advertising, and as the costs rise and ad income drops, it's hardly surprising that the bait used to draw those eyes becomes increasingly lower in quality and higher in artificial colours and flavours.

In the USA, self-styled home of democracy, the public resources are much more scanty and hard to access. Increasingly, their big networks are piggybacking their coverage on the publicly funded sources of foreign nations. But of course, which stories are selected even for this purpose is also related to the profit margin of the broadcaster in question.

So, how do we know things? We need awareness of the provenance of the facts we absorb, and intelligence to determine the difference between big stories that mean nothing, versus the column-inch on page D34 that signals a fundamental new fact or crucial shift of political power.

We do not, of course, need federally generated talking points that teach voters falsehoods about their own system of government. When anyone, whether political party or Shopping Channel advertiser, starts feeding us tainted information, we need to know they are not our friends anymore.


Part I, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part I : You Can Hear Your News Arteries Narrowing, is here. http://thegallopingbeaver.blogspot.com/2008/08/get-out-pipecleaners-part-i-you-can.html
Part II, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part II : Robbie the Robot Can't Do News , is here. http://thegallopingbeaver.blogspot.com/2008/08/get-out-pipecleaners-part-ii-robbie.html#links
Part III, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part III : Your Ears Aren't Big Enough, is here: http://thegallopingbeaver.blogspot.com/2008/08/get-out-pipecleaners-part-iii-your-ears.html

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