....LMB: "Sloppy Headlines"....

December 11, 2002

Newspaper reporters are taught that news stories should follow an "inverted pyramid" structure: the most important aspect of the article should appear first, and then facts should be reported in order of declining importance. This is done because many people will read the headlines, fewer will read the beginning of the article, and even fewer will read the story all the way to the end. Therefore a sloppily written headline and opening can mislead many, even if the rest of the article is technically correct.

The latest article of this type: Report Cites Al Qaeda Deal For Iraqi Gas: U.S. Suspects Nerve Agent VX Was Smuggled Through Turkey

To the casual reader, this headline and subheading will probably leave three impressions: Iraq and Al Qaeda are working together; Al Qaeda now has chemical weapons; somehow, Turkey is working together with Al Qaeda and Iraq.

But, if we deconstruct the story, we find that it's really a flimsy tale. Perhaps the allegations of Al Qaeda and Iraqi chemical gas are true, but the evidence sure isn't in this story.

When you take a closer look, nearly every piece of "evidence" for this story is based on the statements of two unnamed "officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source." These two anonymous sources claim that they received information from another source. They don't disclose this other guy's identity either, but they say that they are confident that the other anonymous guy's information is accurate.

And that guy's "information" is that "Islamic extremists affiliated with al Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq" in October or November. There is not much hard evidence to support this claim. But running with the allegation, some military analysts have speculated that the chemical weapon could be VX nerve gas, and that the weapon could have been smuggled through Turkey, but there is no evidence to support those claims either.

It's not really "news" when two guys tell a reporter something that somebody told them. It's called "rumor."

The headline should have read something like "Anonymous Sources Believe Al Qaeda Affiliate Has Obtained Chemical Weapons". Or more accurately, "Anonymous Sources, Possibly with Their Own Goals and Agendas, Tell Washington Post Reporter That Some Guy That They Say Is Trustworthy Told Them That An Al Qaeda Affiliate Has Obtained Chemical Weapons: Analysts Admit They Have Few Facts, but Make Speculations Anway".

[update]

CNN.com has printed what is almost the counter-article to the one above, "Officials: No hard evidence in nerve agent report". But again, the article is based solely upon the alleged statements of anonymous government officials, so there's not really much more reason to believe this article over the first one. Since I am a skeptic (a person who needs substantial evidence to believe anything), and the second article quotes "officials" who counsel against premature conclusions and speculation, I find it more credible. But, it could just as easily be a government cover-up of an alarming story. We have no way of knowing.

Note to news reporters: until you actually have a news story based on facts and evidence, shut the hell up.

[/update]

Posted by Jake at 11:21 PM
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Media News

November 16, 2004

Tales of Media Woe

Senate May Ram Copyright Bill- one of the most depressing stories of the day that didn't involve death or bombs. It's the music and movie industries' wet dream. It criminalizes peer-to-peer software makers, allows the government to file civil lawsuits on behalf of these media industries, and eliminates fair use. Fair use is the idea that I can use a snippet of a copyrighted work for educational, political, or satirical purposes, without getting permission from the copyright-holder first.

And most tellingly, the bill legalizes technology that would automatically skip over "obejctionable content" (i.e. sex and violence) in a DVD, but bans devices that would automatically skip over commericals. This is a blatant, blatant, blatant gift to the movie industry. Fuck the movie industry, fuck the music industry, fuck the Senate.

Music industry aims to send in radio cops- the recording industry says that you're not allowed to record songs off the radio, be it real radio or internet radio. And now they're working on preventing you from recording songs off internet radio through a mixture of law and technological repression (although I imagine their techno-fixes will get hacked pretty quickly).

The shocking truth about the FCC: Censorship by the tyranny of the few- blogger Jeff Jarvis discovers that the recent $1.2 million FCC fine against a sex scene in Fox's "Married By America" TV show was not levied because hundreds of people wrote the FCC and complained. It was not because 159 people wrote in and complained (which is the FCC's current rationale). No, thanks to Jarvis' FOIA request, we find that only 23 people (of the show's several million viewers) wrote in and complained. On top of that, he finds that 21 of those letters were just copy-and-paste email jobs that some people attached their names to. Jarvis then spins this a bit by saying that "only 3" people actually wrote letters to the FCC, which is misleading but technically true. So somewhere between 3 and 23 angry people can determine what you can't see on television. Good to know.

Reuters Union Considers Striking Over Layoffs- will a strike by such a major newswire service impact the rest of the world's media?

Pentagon Starts Work On War Internet- the US military is talking about the creation of a global, wireless, satellite-aided computer network for use in battle. I think I saw a movie about this once...

Conservative host returns to the air after week suspension for using racial slur- Houston radio talk show host (and somtime Rush Limbaugh substitute) Mark Belling referred to Mexican-Americans as "wetbacks" on his show. He was suspended for a couple of weeks, and then submitted a written apology for the racial slur to a local newspaper. But he seems to be using the slur and its surrounding controversy to boost his conservative cred with his listeners.

Stay Tuned for Nudes- Cleveland TV news anchor Sharon Reed aired a story about artist Spencer Tunick, who uses large numbers of naked volunteers in his installations and photographs. The news report will be unique in that it will not blur or black-out the usual naughty bits. The story will air late at night, when it's allegedly okay with the FCC if you broadcast "indecent" material. The author of this article doesn't seem to notice that Reed first claims that this report is a publicity stunt, but then claims it's a protest against FCC repression. I'd like to think it's the latter, but I'm not that much of a sucker.

Posted by Jake at 04:02 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
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