Dangerous Dan Thoughts and musings on the world


Lies, Damn Lies, and You Know the Rest

Filed under: General,Media,World — Dangerous Dan @ 9:07 am

“Poll: Majority of Americans want withdrawal plan for Iraq” says the USA Today headline.
If you go to the poll results, though, you find the following:

17% said withdraw immediately. 33% said withdraw in 12 months. That makes 50%, which is not a majority; it’s half. 41% said withdraw, but keep troops in Iraq as long as needed and 8% said send more troops (1% had no opinion). So that means a full 49% don’t want the troops out within a strict 12 months, which, again, is about half. Given the 5% margin of error, it could easily be the case that a majority of Americans want troops out in 12 months or want them to stay as long as necessary. Also notable is that the percentage of 12 month folks as gone down from 54% in March.

I suppose it could be said a clear majority wants withdrawal since three of the five options say withdraw (at differing times) for a total of 91%, but that’s like saying a majority wants clean air or low crime. Of course people want our troops withdrawn; nobody wants them there permanently. It’s the details that matter.

The article later says, “The poll finds support for the ideas behind Democratic proposals that were soundly defeated in the Senate last week.”

This is apparently pure speculation based on 57% saying Congress should outline a withdrawal plan. I guess the author wants to think that because Democrats have been pushing for such a plan, that it explains that number. It’s completely contradicted, however, by the 25% who think the Dems have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq compared to the 68% who think they don’t, which is even worse than Bush’s 31% and 67% respectively. I don’t think that qualifies as “support for Democratic proposals.”


  1. I think the lede paragraph clarifies any confusion of the headline. The first sentence clearly indicates that the majority being referred to is the 57% who prefer a congressional resolution outlining a plan (as opposed to leaving it up the prez). The second sentence explicitly makes your point – half want troops withdrawn in at most twelve months.

    In short, where’s the beef?

    Comment by Sean — 6/27/2006 @ 10:46 am

  2. I noticed that earlier, but the misleading headline remains and, frankly, most people won’t read that paragraph closely enough to catch the nuance… if they bother reading past the headline at all.

    Comment by Dangerous Dan — 6/27/2006 @ 12:16 pm

  3. I would call the headline vague, not misleading. My first interpretation wasn’t “most people want troops outta there lickity-split.” The “plan” mention led me to think it meant something like “most want an exit strategy.” But I can’t criticize a headline for being vague when the first two sentences of the article clarify its meaning. Headlines are short, after all, and not fit for nuance.

    Your second criticism is more on point, though. There’s a conflation going on between the Democratic senators’ broad proposal to develop a withdrawal plan of some sort and the specifics of the Democrats’ withdrawal plan. It can be inferred from the poll that most Americans support the former, but nothing can be inferred about support for the latter. I’d likely blame sloppiness, not bias, but such sloppiness can be avoided with clearer writing.

    Comment by Sean — 6/28/2006 @ 12:20 pm

  4. Heh… Sean, this is what you get when a person mixes backgrounds in journalism and philosophy… somebody who does hard-nosed analysis and values clarity of speech, but has sympathy for media folks who do neither. 🙂

    I think I’d call it sloppiness with light bias (which contributes to the sloppiness). It’s certainly nothing like the bias exhibited here.

    Comment by Dangerous Dan — 6/28/2006 @ 3:44 pm

  5. You got me: my default position is sympathy for the devil they call ‘media.’ But I’m not defending the article here so much as I am locating the proper crime it commits.

    You might think this is still a defense — aren’t I pleading down the deadly sin of BIAS for the venial sin of SLOPPINESS? Theoretically, BIAS is the bigger boo-boo, but I think in practice SLOPPINESS is far worse, because it is so pervasive. In fact, I think much of what is labeled media bias is just sloppiness. Journalists are a sloppy lot, careless with details and lacking the concept of subtlety as they rush to finish on deadline. As our acquaintance Mike Riordan would say, “That’s the real crime.”

    Comment by Sean — 6/29/2006 @ 2:32 pm

  6. I think the two are interrelated. The chances for sloppiness to appear and not be corrected are increased due to the bias of the author. You are less likely to be critical of that which supports your views than of that which opposes your views. Let’s say a reporter is writing an article on gun control and this reporter is in favor of greater controls. She will likely be more critical of information presented by the NRA than by a gun control group, even if in this case the gun control’s info is weaker. This is merely because the NRA’s info seems “less true” to her and so is in greater need of scrutiny than the info which seems “more true.”

    While much may be attributed to sloppiness, I see far more that’s sloppy to the favor of liberals and liberal positions than to the respective converses. That’s because the bias of reporters makes them less likely to realize the liberal bias they have injected and more likely to spot conservative bias and stamp it out before it gets to print.

    I’m not contending that all media bias is done on purpose. Some is (primarily big stories), but most, especially the mundane daily reporting, like this article, is not. Rather, the bias sneaks in in how the news is reported and what is reported.

    In the first instance, a reporter may make assertions, e.g. the above claim about support for Democratic positions on withdrawing from Iraq, that is unsupported by the evidence. Because of the bias, though, this seems right and so slips through. That is, debatable things will be said, but according to the author’s outlook, they are not debatable, they are fact (or at least highly reasonable assumptions) and so are presented as fact.

    In the second instance, media types, if they are liberally skewed, are more likely to find news items interesting when they are damaging to conservatives (or stereotyped conservative values) than to liberals. Thus, certain stories get played up over others. To them, those stories are just more “newsworthy.” Again, this isn’t necessarily overt, purposeful bias (but could be), it’s just bias naturally affecting what gets coverage.

    I consider much of it to just be natural human tendencies affecting the profession. That is, the biases of the individual and of the group affect what is said and how it’s said. What bugs me is that journalists largely refuse to own up to the problem and cling to this absurd vision of themselves and unbiased agents merely passing on facts of events and issues and not recognizing the role they play as the filter through which the information passes and how that affects the final product. If they do at all, they usually consider themselves to be acting for the good. This may be worse in that they recognize their bias but allow themselves to think “correctly” biased. There are far too many journalists out there who got into journalism ‘to make a difference.’ If you want to make a difference, go into advocacy.

    Comment by Dangerous Dan — 6/29/2006 @ 3:31 pm

  7. Hey, this is fun — a great way to kill time at work. A couple responses:

    I see far more that’s sloppy to the favor of liberals and liberal positions than to the respective converses.

    I’d caution you to look out for your own confirmation bias. Aren’t conservative readers more likely to notice alleged instances of liberal bias, and less likely to notice alleged instances of conservative bias? Can you in good faith claim to be an accurate judge on this matter? Claiming so makes you either guilty of the minor crime of imspecialism (“most can’t, but I can”) or the major crime of inconsistency (“many can, except those journalists, idunno why”).

    Let me clarify what I think’s going on in the example that started this. I think the reporter intended to report that the poll shows support for the Democratic senators’ broad proposal to develop a withdrawal plan of some sort. I think the sentence was written poorly, though, and could be interpreted either way (that includes the correct, non-biased way). Why did it slip through? My hunch is deadline pressure, not bias.

    Why think this? It’s an inference to the best explanation. Sloppiness appears everywhere, tainting nearly every article on every subject, political or apolitical. Read articles about stuff you’re even a mild expert on, be it your profession, a friend who got on a game show, or an interview you did last friggin night. Chances are, it will be rife with sloppiness, half-truths, and humorous errors. In apolitical articles, it seems pretty clear that this is not the result of a deep-seated bias against, say, puzzle movies (http://qaqaq.livejournal.com/29964.html). It’s simply hit-and-run journalism gone bad. Why impart sinister motives to explain what appear to be similar errors in political articles? Off with the excess, Occham.

    What bugs me is that journalists largely refuse to own up to the problem and cling to this absurd vision of themselves and unbiased agents merely passing on facts of events and issues and not recognizing the role they play as the filter through which the information passes and how that affects the final product.

    I agree. Among sins committed by American journalists, LACK OF CANDOR ranks only behind SLOPPINESS in my book. I’m with you in the push for more of the reporting that is found in the National Reviews and New Republics, along with most of the European press. (Although I’m wary of the Nations and Weekly Standards for their less serious crimes of PREDICTABILITY and CHOIR-PREACHING.) The no-voting Jim Lehrer style of impartial reporting is a myth that ought to be given up.

    Given what we got, though, I think the ‘objective press’ does OK (not great) bias-wise. I think those journalists recognize the ideal they’re shooting for, and avoiding bias really is often the primary thought on their minds. This is more prevalent than I’m guessing you think. Journalist do fail at this, of course, but far less, I think, than they fail at basic reporting and copy editing skills.

    Comment by Sean — 7/6/2006 @ 12:45 pm

  8. Sure, I have a confirmation bias. I like to think it’s not as bad as some (I’m contrarian, analytic, and more libertarian than conservative anymore), but I know it’s there. All the same, point out the many instances of bias that go the other way.

    My point is that bias that sneaks in through sloppiness will naturally tend towards the particular biases of the author. As you say, deadline pressures and the rest will cause quick, unanalyzed writing. This means biases are less likely to be filtered. Additionally, the author is less likely to notice bias favoring his/her positions upon quick review. Considering that polls have shown the vast majority of those in journalism are liberal, this means that bias via sloppiness is more likely to be liberal. Sloppy bias isn’t positing sinister motives, it’s merely positing that people will manifest their biases in writing generally, but especially so when the writing must be done quickly and with little review.

    To be sure, I think there is occassionally purposeful bias in reporting (what is reported and how), but, as you suggest, given the nature of the fast-paced news business and the sheer amount of stuff it produces, it would be silly to think this is always the case. Indeed, so much time would be devoted to plotting, little news at all would get reported. But that (that all or most bias is from sinister motives) is not the claim I’m making here, so stop beating the poor straw man. You’re making him sad.

    If you get involved in the journalism game, though, I’d be interested in talking to you more about this since you’ll have a different perspective on it as somebody on the inside.

    Comment by Dangerous Dan — 7/14/2006 @ 11:22 pm

  9. Two quick retorts and a more general response:

    I like to think [my confirmation bias is] not as bad as some (I’m contrarian, analytic, and more libertarian than conservative anymore)

    That\’s why imspecialism is only a minor crime; after all, it may be justified. (Though I wouldn\’t try to navigate the circular logic required to justify it to oneself.)

    All the same, point out the many instances of bias that go the other way.

    It\’s not required by my position to produce this kind of evidence. If I ever need it, I\’ll let the Mark Crispin Millers point out perceived biases that go the other way. (Of course, I disagree with his analysis, too.)

    More generally, I didn\’t make my case properly. I think my misuse of \’sinister motives\’ threw off my argument. I\’m not beating a straw man here. I\’m claiming that most perceived instances of subconscious bias are due to sloppiness and sloppiness alone. I found it appropriate to argue this here because I believe your criticism of the article is based on one of these misdiagnosed errors.

    You think subconscious bias let a pro-Democrat sentence slip through: the writer read the poll results, then in her mind conflated support for some proposal with support for the Democrats\’ proposal. I think sloppiness let a vague sentence slip through: neither the writer nor copy editor noticed that the sentence could be interpreted in the groundless pro-Democrat way, but would have fixed it if they had. Now, both our explanations are plausible. However, I think sloppiness causing vagueness is more plausible than subconscious bias causing conflation, and therefore a better explanation.

    I condensed my previous post (hoping to fix it) before sending it to you. The excised bits contain several concessions. I agree that subconscious bias exists and causes errors, often via sloppiness. We disagree, however, over how often bias is the culprit. I think bias causes only a small percentage of the errors published in political articles. Sloppiness has cornered the mistake market.

    Comment by Sean — 7/19/2006 @ 8:48 pm

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