04 February 2009

An Experiment In Journalism

Read the following portions of an AP article about the federal response to a natural disaster.

More than 300,000 residents remained without power Monday and some areas had yet to see aid workers nearly a week after the storm, a fact not lost on some local authorities.

"We haven't seen FEMA. They haven't been here," said Jaime Green, a spokeswoman for the emergency operations center in Lyon County.

Federal authorities insisted they responded as soon as the state asked for help and promised to keep providing whatever aid was necessary.

The governor raised the state's death toll to 24 on Monday, meaning the storm has been blamed in at least 55 deaths nationwide. It also knocked out power to more than a million customers.

The governor asked the president for a disaster declaration to free up federal assistance Thursday, two days after the storm hit, and the president issued it hours later. Trucks loaded with supplies began arriving at a staging area on Friday morning, said Mary Hudak, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

By Monday, FEMA officials were checking in on supply distribution points in some rural areas. FEMA official Don Daniel stopped by to ask emergency management officials in Grayson County, who had criticized FEMA's absence late last week, what they needed.

More generators, they told him, to keep essential services such as hospitals and water supplies running.

Brocton Oglesby, director of emergency management in Hopkins County, said he has seen virtually no contribution from FEMA in the county, where more than half of the 27,000 homes remained without electricity.

"They need to be here -- at least a presence, a liaison to work with us, to start feeding information and gearing up for the next stage," Oglesby said. "That's where they're going to be needed the most."

Oglesby's seen FEMA show up after other disasters to assess the damages and write checks. The governor asked for FEMA to have a role on the front end this time, though, and Oglesby said that hasn't happened.

Oglesby said he would like FEMA to bring in outside electricians to help go door to door to make sure the electricity is operational in each house once it comes back on.

"Right now, mom and pop are going to have to fend for themselves and find an electrician," Oglesby said. "This is where we're needing FEMA's presence."
My guess is that the above excerpts would make many people think of the coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The MSM provided nearly every piece of the negative information about the federal government response to that disaster, and FEMA and the administration were widely criticized.

This is not from reporting on Hurricane Katrina in 2005, however; this is from an AP article about the Kentucky ice storms of 2009. The title of the article is, "300,000 Still Without Power, But Some Praise Obama’s FEMA for Ice Storm Response." The remainder of the article is interspersed with statements such as, "In the first real test of the Obama administration's ability to respond to a disaster, Kentucky officials are giving the federal government good marks for its response to a deadly ice storm," and "[Governor] Beshear has consistently praised Obama, a fellow Democrat, for the attention he's devoted to what Beshear calls the biggest natural disaster to hit his state," and "Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, based in Lexington, Ky., said that from what she's heard, FEMA's response has been very good so far."

It is interesting that the content of the reporting seems to have changed now that we have a different president. The AP could have easily focused on everything that I presented above (over a quarter-million people without power, complaints about the federal response from at least three counties, and nothing but negative news), but they chose to also include some of the praise that the current administration is receiving for its response. In other words, they balanced the negative statements in the piece with some positive statements to give a more well-rounded presentation of the situation.

This AP piece just jumped out at me when I read it, so I decided to use it as an example of the media bias that I believe is prevalent in much of our news today.

The coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was not so much inaccurate as it was incomplete. Failures on the state and local level were glossed over, while federal errors were highlighted. Successes by local individuals and those with scarce resources were presented as some of the few steps forward in responding to the disaster, while successes by the many federal agencies (such as the Coast Guard) who responded immediately were widely ignored. Criticisms of the administration made the headlines, yet no one countered accusations of incompetence with a full presentation of the facts. When FEMA Director Brown was accused of not being qualified and lacking experience to the lead the post he was appointed to, no news agencies stepped forward to remind the public that it was Brown who was in charge of FEMA a year earlier when the agency very successfully managed four major hurricanes that hit Florida.

News organizations are often quick to defend themselves against charges of bias by noting that what they present is an accounting of the facts of the issues being discussed, disregarding that only presenting half of the facts in a slick package that provides a skewed (and often wholly incorrect) perception of the entire truth of the matter is nothing more than a repackaging of classic yellow journalism. Biased presentation does not necessarily mean that the content of the presentation is untruthful; one can use a sampling of facts to frame a completely disingenuous presentation of an issue. Further, news organizations can display a bias by choosing to discuss some issues, while completely ignoring other relevant issues.

To make matters worse, the 24-hour news channels tend to blur the line between a presentation of the facts, and the opinions of those who are discussing the issues. The facts of the news of the day are presented (usually at the top and the bottom of the hour), but they are heavily surrounded by the opinions and spin of pundits who are invited by the news channels' hosts and commentators. Further, commentators are occasionally put into a position of hosting news events (e.g. speeches, conventions, debates), and if they can't or don't take off their commentator hats, then they are very likely going to color the presentation of the event with their own opinion and bias. When such coverage is presented to a national audience that may not know the commentator and his/her political leanings (e.g. Olbermann on NBC or Barnes on FOX), many Americans can be exposed to half-truths and innuendo that is packaged as straight-forward-just-the-facts reporting.

It will be interesting to see how this administration is covered by the MSM going forward, and the Kentucky ice storms could be a good initial indicator. I've already seen some commentators on CNN questioning Obama's "ethics waiver" for Deputy Defense Secretary Nominee William Lynn. Rah-rah coverage gets boring, not only in newsrooms, but also in living rooms, so this administration will be criticized; the question will be whether or not the criticism is on the same level as the criticism of the previous administration.


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