Some years ago, when I was complaining about a biased article I read in the newspaper, my wife asked what exactly I meant by “biased.”  If the reporter is simply citing facts, where does the bias come in?

So I got out of couple of markers and asked her to highlight the paragraphs that either quoted conservatives or re-stated the conservative point of view in yellow.  She did.  Then I had her take a blue marker and highlight the sections that quoted or re-stated the liberal point of view.  When she was done, she got the picture:  there were twice as many column inches devoted to the liberal point of view.  It happens all the time.

That’s just part of how bias creeps into the news.  I don’t think it’s done consciously — that is, I don’t believe reporters and editors sit down and plan out how to bias a story — but there are consistent patterns.  Here are a few of them, with samples from yet another biased article I read in our newspaper earlier this week.  That article was about congress threatening to strip the Federal Reserve of its authority to regulate banks — something the reporter clearly doesn’t favor.

1) Sneak your point of view into the headline and callouts.

Callouts, if you’re not familiar with the term, are miniature headlines or large-font quotes interspersed throughout an article to give it more “white space.”  The headline for this story in our newspaper was EXPERTS WARN:  DON’T STRIP FED OF POWERS.  The two callouts were CONSENSUS IS LACKING and A CONVENIENT TARGET.

Hmmm, think there’s any attempt to steer the reader’s opinions there?  The headline could’ve just as easily read: CONGRESS CITES FED’S FAILURES or FED ACTED WITHOUT AUTHORITY.  Both would be true.

2) Make sure the beginning and end of the story quote or re-state your point of view.

Ask any journalism teacher which are the two most important paragraphs in a story.  The answer is, the first and last.  Those are the most likely to be remembered.  Here is the first paragraph as it appeared in our paper:

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd’s sweeping new financial overhaul legislation, which proposes to strip the Federal Reserve of its authority to regulate banks, threatens the central bank’s time-honored independence and its premier international standing, experts warn.

Here’s the last paragraph in our paper:

“The major original purpose of central banks was to be lenders of last resort. You have to know to whom you are lending, how good is their collateral, how solid the institution is as a whole,” Gramley said, arguing that the Fed must retain its regulatory authority over banks. “It just seems to me that having the expertise that the Fed has . . . is absolutely indispensable.”

Okay, dear readers, there’s the real story:  Experts warn that stripping the Fed’s powers in a bad idea, and the Fed’s expertise is indispensable.  Bias aside, those opinions are laughable.  The Fed was a major cause of the mortgage meltdown.  More on that later.  The point is, the hearings the reporter attended included many speakers citing the Fed’s failures.  Their opinions could’ve made up the first and last paragraphs.  But that’s not the takeaway message the reporter wanted to convey.

3) Write as though all the experts agree with your preferred opinion.

Look at the opening paragraph again.  The attempt to strip the Fed’s powers “threatens the central bank’s time-honored independence and its premier international standing, experts warn.”  The accurate statement would be some experts warn.  Many other experts clearly believe the Fed is too powerful.  The article mentioned — fairly deep in — that Ron Paul wants the Fed’s power stripped.  Ron Paul wrote an entire book on the Fed.  In other words, he’s an expert.  And time-honored is a bit of a loaded description, isn’t it?  Why, we mustn’t mess with such a time-honored tradition!

I see this kind of nonsense all the time in articles about global warming.  Reporters simply write something like, “Scientists say climate change is real and the effects will be dire.”  Once again, the accurate statement is that some scientists make those claims.  Many others dispute them.  A document disputing the man-made global warming theory has been signed by 31,000 scientists, including 9,000 with PhDs in climate-related disciplines.  You’d never know that by reading the news.

4) Toss in a few opinions as if they’re facts.  (Maybe nobody will notice.)

If I bang my head on the kitchen table while reading the newspaper, it’s usually because of this particular method of biasing a story.  Here’s an example from the Fed story:

The Fed’s a convenient political target because many ordinary Americans are thirsty for revenge for the damage that Wall Street wrought on Main Street.

Notice the reporter’s opinion simply stated as a fact … The meltdown was Wall Street’s fault, not the Fed’s.  I’m not denying Wall Street played a role — they bought and sold all those mortgage-backed securities that tanked — but the meltdown couldn’t have happened without the Fed.  Here’s why:

Let’s assume we’ve got banking system where no one is playing with the money supply.  For me to borrow money, someone else has to save money.  You make a deposit; I take out a loan.  The bank lends me your money.  If everyone wants to borrow and few people are saving, two things will happen:  1) Interest rates will go up because the demand for a limited resource is rising, and 2) the banks will be picky about who they approve for loans, since they can only make a limited number of them.

If interest rates go up, the borrowing frenzy ceases.  If the bank is being picky, people with lousy credit won’t receive mortgages.  Either one automatically puts the brakes on the kind of mortgage mania that led to the meltdown.

Now… enter the geniuses at the Fed.  They decided the economy needed to keep rolling.  So they did what only the time-honored, independent Fed can do:  they created more money out of thin air to keep the money supply growing and the interest rates down. 

How do they create more money?  Simple … they print Federal Reserve checks and deposit them in banks.  The banks only have to keep 10% of their deposits on reserve, so by the time a billion-dollar deposit from the Fed works its way through the banking system, it can create nine billion dollars in new loans.  No new wealth was created — wealth is good and services, not pieces of paper — but more money was created … again, out of thin air. 

This magic money is what enabled the banks to keep writing mortgages, long after the pool of qualified buyers had been exhausted.  Those mortgages became securities.  Those securities tanked.  Take away the Fed’s monkeying with the money supply, and it wouldn’t have mattered how greedy bankers and Wall Street executives were.  The money to feed the greed wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) have existed.  When people can borrow wealth that doesn’t actually exist, a crash is inevitable.

But enough about that … back to how to bias a story.

5) Toss in a few statements that simply aren’t true.

The story on the Fed contains this little gem:

Critics counter, however, that the Fed pumped trillions of dollars into the economy to combat the recent financial crisis with virtually no direct authority to do so, and no effective oversight from publicly accountable branches of government. They argue that the Fed should be subjected to democratic checks and balances, just as other powerful arms of government are.

The Fed is not an arm of the government.  It’s a consortium of private banks that sets rules for other banks.  The government’s only real role is in appointing the chairman and one of the regional governors.  If the reporter doesn’t know that, he’s on the wrong beat.  If he does know that, he’s playing a bit loose with the facts.

The legislation that created the Fed was concocted during a secret meeting of private bankers that took place in 1910.  Before the Fed was created, any bank could issue certificates of deposit against their gold reserves.  People traded those certificates as paper money.  The bankers who created the Fed realized if they could obtain a monopoly on issuing currency, they could control the banking system and make themselves extremely rich by charging interest on magic money.  The senate approved the creation of the Fed on a voice vote in December of 1913, after most members had gone home for the holidays.  It is not, and never has been, a branch of the government … but the federal government loves the Fed because it can legally create money out of nothing — which the government can then spend. 

6) When quoting people, make sure the side you don’t like argues and contends. But make sure your side explains, warns and cautions.

In journalism school, I was taught that the only neutral words for quotes are said and says.  Everything else imparts a meaning.  In the story my wife highlighted some years ago, the conservatives — who were clearly identified as belonging to a conservative think-tank — were always quoted as arguing or contending.  Meanwhile, their opponents at a liberal think-tank — who were simply identified as researchers, without the liberal label — were quoted as explaining.  Once I pointed it out, she couldn’t believe her eyes. 

But again, it happens all the time.  Take a look at these quotes from the story on the Fed (pardon the repeats … some sentences are multi-biased):

Critics counter, however, that the Fed pumped trillions of dollars into the economy to combat the recent financial crisis with virtually no direct authority to do so, and no effective oversight from publicly accountable branches of government. They argue that the Fed should be subjected to democratic checks and balances, just as other powerful arms of government are.

“I am with Dodd on this one,” said Alice Rivlin , a former vice chairman of the Fed from 1996 to 1999. “The Fed has not distinguished itself as a regulator.”

On the other side, Rivlin’s former colleague Laurence Meyer , a Fed governor from 1996 to 2002, called the Dodd legislation “political posturing” by a “hate the Fed crowd.” He warned that taking the most experienced regulators off the supervisory beat “increases the risk of crisis going forward.”

At 82, Lyle Gramley brings the long view to the debate. He was a Fed governor from 1980 to 1985, a turbulent period of deep recession, and understands why the Fed is so unpopular today … Taking bank supervision away from the Fed, however, could come back to haunt lawmakers, he cautioned.

Economic historian John Murray , a professor at Ohio’s University of Toledo , sees an old-fashioned political power grab at play with the Dodd legislation.

“I think Congress doesn’t want to let a crisis go to waste,” Murray said, warning that any legislation that weakens central bank independence invites politicization of monetary policy. “I think in the long run, that’s probably not a very good idea.”

Wow … lots of warning and cautioning from the experts who don’t want the Fed to lose any power — although the reporter managed to let one expert who supports the Fed argue one point.

By the way, if Professor Murray thinks monetary policy isn’t already politicized, he’s going senile.  Where does he think all that bailout and “stimulus” money is coming from?  That’s right … it’s being created out of thin air by the Fed.  That’s why conservatives and libertarians want to reel in the Fed and reduce its power.

There are other ways to bias a story, of course.  You can select only the facts you like, or interview only the experts who support your case.  Bernard Goldberg finally got peeved enough to write his book Bias when his then-employer, CBS News, chose to interview just three economists who were on record against the flat tax (which was supported by many other economists, including a Nobel Prize winner), then end their story with, “All the economists we spoke to think the flat tax is a terrible idea.” 

CBS also failed to mention, in a story that blamed California’s budget crisis on Proposition 13, that state revenues had actually increased by 25% in the previous four years while spending had increased 40% … not worth bringing up, apparently.  I blurted out some choice words when that report aired.

Do yourself a favor and try this at home.  Open your paper and check the headlines and callouts, especially in political stories.  See which side of the story is told in the first and last paragraphs.  Notice who’s arguing and contending, and who’s explaining and cautioning.  Look for opinions passed off as facts.

Out of curiosity, I added up the words in the quotes and statements for or against stripping the Fed of its powers in the article I just examined.  For stripping the Fed:  238 words.  Against stripping the Fed:  340 words.

Hey, it least it wasn’t two to one.

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4 Responses to “How To Bias A News Story”
  1. Neverfox says:

    For me to borrow money, someone else has to save money. You make a deposit; I take out a loan. The bank lends me your money…

    How do they create more money? Simple … they print Federal Reserve checks and deposit them in banks. The banks only have to keep 10% of their deposits on reserve, so by the time a billion-dollar deposit from the Fed works its way through the banking system, it can create nine billion dollars in new loans.

    You might reconsider this textbook view after reading this.

  2. Matt R. says:

    I suppose the author of the article also thinks the meltdown was caused by a “free market?”

    I majored in economics in college, but, sad to say, didn’t discover the Austrian School until recently. Had Keynes not been such a shameless self-promoter, perhaps Mises and Hayek could’ve prevailed and I would’ve learned something useful in school.

    I had to learn about real economics on my own as well. I’ve been disgusted with government ever since.

  3. ethyl d says:

    The last presidential election was a disgusting example of media bias. I lost any last illusion I had that journalism’s intent is to inform and not influence its audience.

    Yup. They’ve leaned left for as long as I can remember, but 2008 was the worst case of actively cheerleading for one candidate that I’ve ever seen.

  4. Neverfox says:

    Matt,

    Knowing Steve Keen, he might; but what does that have to do with the specific part of his analysis related to banking loans and deposits and the mechanics of a credit-based economy? There is nothing particularly anti-free-market about that; it’s just an attempt to describe.

    I was specifically addressing the idea of “deposits create loans” and not “the cause of the meltdown” and the fact that the money supply data shows no signs of this theoretical 10% reserve ratio playing out. I’d love to hear the Austrian analysis of that data if you have it. Normally they are busy talking about printing presses but there isn’t much evidence, it appears, that such a thing – while I can appreciate why it’s a bad thing – is actually the main culprit in this case.

    It would seem that there is plenty of room for an Austrian analysis built around 100% reserve banking here because in a 100% system, there wouldn’t be the ability for banks to loan prior to deposits either. So why you seem to think it’s necessarily antagonistic to Austrian thinking (except perhaps that the Fed might be a smaller drop in the pond that they’d like for the sake of their theory) is escaping me.

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