A case study for bias in headlines (Teenager shot as an intruder while accidentally sneaking into the wrong home)

camboy_72 on the Urban Planning subreddit posted a link to a Fox News article about a death in Virginia. What appears to have actually happened is:  a High School junior went out with his friends and got drunk, so he had to sneak back home, and came in through a back window.  But he accidentally snuck into the wrong house.  The homeowner, hearing the burglar alarm, got his gun, warned the teen, fired a warning shot, then, when the teen was walked past him, up the stairs, shot and killed him. On the Urban Planning subreddit, camboy_72 titled the link: Yet another (tragic) reason to despise cookie-cutter subdivisions.  To that point, Allison Klein and Michael Allison Chandler at the Washington Post write,

A day later, Caleb’s friends and family were trying to figure out how this promising, well-liked athlete, who stayed out of trouble and generally listened to his parents, could have died in such a way.

“They have the exact same staircase as us, the exact same carpet. Caleb clearly thought he was in his own house,” said his father, Shawn Gordley, who provided the account of his son’s night. “He probably stumbled around and was just trying to go to his room.”

(emphasis mine)

That one pretty obviously shows extreme bias, but it also came from an explicitly and openly biased source:  a subreddit about urban planning.  I agree with that point, by the way -- it's seriously screwed up to live in an environment where you can't tell your own home from the other ones on the street.  And while we're on the point, this is also a really good case study for why people shouldn't have guns in their homes.  Intruder ≠ violent attacker.

But I'm more interested in the way Fox headlined the story.  For a baseline, this is how the Washington Post titled the Associated Press story:

Sheriff says homeowner fired warning shot at teen intruder who mistakenly entered wrong home

And here's how Fox headlined the same story:

Homeowner fired warning before fatally shooting teen intruder, sheriff says

The story after that is the same, but I've said before and I cannot stress this enough, most people, most of the time, mostly just read headlines.  Especially if those headlines confirm our prejudices about the world, we tend not to feel like it's necessary to read past that.  The Washington Post headline contains enough relevant details that the point is clear to someone just scanning headlines on the main page: "Teenager made a mistake, got himself shot."  Whatever your views on gun control, that's a sufficiently complex idea to encourage reasonable thought.  The Fox headline, on the other hand, offers "Homeowner kills hooligan invading his house."

This failure, the failure of headlines, is not a trivial thing.  It's a major way that news sources either contribute to, or undermine, the prejudices of their audience.  Fox's headline defends the worldview in which the status quo is "Guns in the home save lives and property."  Whether or not that's a legitimate view, the particular story in question absolutely does not support it.  The view that this story supports is "Guns in the home kill innocent people."

The truth, obviously, is a complex combination of the two points, and a well-informed public would form opinions based on the facts of the degree to which the former or the latter is more true, as well as their own views about which is more important.  Fox, rather than encouraging that dialogue, is pursuing the anti-informational quality that  encourages their readers to deny even the existence of cases in which their status quo is, if not contradicted, even ever made complex.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

I'm about to click on the first half of Atlas Shrugged in Netflix.  I don't know how long I'm going to make it into this movie, from what I've seen in commercials it looks like it's going to be unforgivably preachy.  But I'm also curious. It starts following a train in 2016, so, there's an optimistic view of the future of government oppression -- more public transportation.  We're out of gas and oil, so the trains are apparently a last resort.  But I'm betting the message of this movie isn't going to be "Trains are awesome."  In fact, one ends up derailing, apparently, right at the beginning because the tracks aren't maintained.

I was under the impression that the plot of this movie was supposed to be about government incompetence, but what it looks like is everyone-incompetence.  It's corporations responsible for the poorly maintained railroads.

It looks like the hero of this movie is a woman who proudly doesn't care about people, and the bad guy -- at least, the first bad guy we see -- is an executive who tries to avoid servicing monopolies and puts effort into areas outside his own backyard.  Pointedly, Miss Taggart, the heroic sociopath, is saving the day by going to a metallurgist who faces widespread criticism for his awful metal, who himself throws away appointment requests with people in a position to evaluate his work, on the basis that she studied engineering in college and is therefore qualified to decide that the metal is secretly perfect.

Reardon, the metal salesman, heroically squeezes as much money from her crisis as possible, and she explains that she doesn't have any emotions again.  He also heroically forgets his wedding anniversary.  He had already bought her a gift, though.  To celebrate the fact that he has a contract for his country.

I've gotten pretty sick of this, so I've decided to skip ahead.  I'm watching a YouTube video of a reading of the section of Atlas Shrugged everyone talks about -- the John Galt rant.

So... The point of this rant sounds like "Some of the rich people are the lynch-pins of the whole civilization, and without them everything falls apart."  And they're "On strike."

This ten-minute video cuts off in a way that suggests to me that it's not the whole rant.  But, if I may attempt to summarize:

(a.)  Popular morality is inherently destructive to civilization.  (b.)  The main premise of popular morality is 'people should be nice to each other, to the exclusion of themselves.'  (c.)  The alternative to popular morality is being rational, and (d.)  Rationality is inherently anti-kindness-to-others.

This argument sounds good, because all of its premises are really close to reasonable premises.  For example, take these alternate terms:  (a.) There are systems of morality that are destructive to civilization, (b.) One of the flaws these systems feature is an impulse of self-destruction in pursuit of others' welfare, (c.) We must therefore evaluate our moral systems through rational methods, and (d.) Reason doesn't come pre-loaded with any moral answers.

The conclusion of the first set of premises is "Everyone should be super-selfish, but think more than two hours into the future while doing so."  The doctrine of rational self-interest that is the main pillar of Ayn Rand's Objectivism.  The problem with that conclusion is that it argues there is a predetermined moral premise, that one should maximize one's material self-interest as determined by a zero-sum accounting of all the stuff that happens to exist at the time you're thinking this through.

The sort of similar, but much less overreaching, conclusion of the second set of premises is "A moral system that (a.) is interested in maximizing well-being for people, and (b.) is applicable to any given person who wants to pursue morality, should not have an actively negative effect on the well-being of its practitioners."  This doesn't fall into the same hole as the rational self-interest argument does, because it leaves the moral assumptions as they are -- assumptions that are outside the realm of reason -- but it doesn't therefore conclude "Thinking about morality is nonsense and no-one should do it."

Rand conflates acting against one's self-interest and acting in a way that serves the interests of anyone else.  It's obviously not inherently true, and fortunately it's also not true in real life, that there's nothing people can do that can improve both their own lives and the lives of other people.

I'd like to make it clear here, before I post this, that my point is that Ayn Rand is wrong; not that the inverse of Ayn Rand's philosophy is right, or that the philosophies she was arguing against are right.

So, this got away a little bit from watching part 1 of Atlas Shrugged.  But that movie kind of made me feel nauseous.  So, there's that.

George W. Bush's leaked paintings

I've seen some paintings of George W. Bush around the internet today, and I really had no idea what was going on with them.  I didn't particularly care.  I had also seen some stuff about someone hacking Bush's email account.  I didn't care about that either, and also it sounded like too much effort to read about while I'm sick.  (btw: I'm sick.) But the Daily Kos wrapped it up in a nice, short piece, and here's the gist of what happened:  Some douche hacked into George Bush's email account and publicly distributed a couple of paintings he'd done of himself, in his free time, which had been sent to his sister.  Other douches around the country are making fun of the paintings, criticizing Bush as an artist, and photoshopping stuff into them.

This strikes me as an obvious breach of ethical boundaries:  yes, email hacking of political figures can have positive effects, re: journalism and important leaks.  But these paintings aren't important political information.  They're really obviously part of the private life of a person who happens to also have a significant public life -- or, at least, used to have.

Apart from the fact that it's Absolutely Not Cool to make fun of a non-expert artist for being not an expert at art, this also reflects on the screwed up idea in American culture that notable people are public property.  It should be a no-brainer that responsible citizens of the internet shouldn't encourage this distribution and mutation of Bush's paintings.

If you're really curious, you can go googling, but I'm not going to embed the pictures or link to anywhere that posted them. (The Daily Kos article embedded them, so no link, but they were at least critical of the fact of their release.)

Essentialism and Racism via Psychology Today

David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., published an article today on Psychology Today's website called The Roots of Racism, which examines the idea of race, and the way it contributes to the idea of racism.  After clearly separating the biological definition of race from the "folk-conception," the popular understanding of the concept of race, he begins tearing it apart.

The idea that members of the same race resemble one another is very widespread and intuitively compelling.  The only problem with it is that it’s dead wrong.

Consider the fact that any two people resemble one another in all sorts of ways.  [... therefore], it’s vacuous to say that members of the same race resemble one another.  I think that what people who say that members of a race are similar to one another really have in mind is something like this: “Members of the same race resemble one another in more ways than members of different races do.” But this doesn’t work either.  Michelle Obama and the late Barry White are ostensibly members of the same race, but does Michelle really look more like Barry than she looks like, say, Ann Romney?

If your knee-jerk response is, “Of course she does!” I urge you to think again, because your response suggests that you are in the grip of a powerful illusion. Did you evaluate all of the observable features of Michelle, Barry, and Ann before you came to your conclusion?  Of course you didn’t. You considered only very few traits—primarily skin color.

He then points out that there's a popular conception, the idea of "Passing," which completely undermines the premise of visual resemblance.  "[E]ven virulent racists tacitly admit that a person’s race isn’t determined by how they look.  In the folk-conception, appearance is diagnostic of race, but it’s not identical to it."

Finally, he brings it around to the subject of Essentialism, which I've written about before.  The idea of race, he points out, is the idea that there are groups of people defined by some inherent trait, that they all share and that no other group of people possess.

[This idea] doesn’t entail anything of moral significance about either group. However, the idea that another group of people are not of our kind situates them as what social psychologists call an “out-group.”  When this happens, [... w]e develop an “us and them” mentality that leads us to consider these others as a homogeneous mass rather than a group of individuals, and to think them as our moral inferiors.

The combination of essentialist thinking with outgroup bias makes for a particularly nasty cocktail, for we not only think of the outgroup as having morally despicable characteristics, we also think of these characteristics as essential to them. This explains why racist beliefs are so difficult to dislodge. Even if a person’s behavior doesn’t conform to a negative racial stereotype, there is a tendency to assume that these dispicable traits are somehow latent in them, just waiting to be realized.

(Emphasis mine)

He concludes that those who oppose racism should concentrate their efforts on "undermining the very idea of race," which is the only point at which I disagree -- only because I don't think it's his place to dictate the course of progressive politics.

I do, however, agree that, as a cause all on its own, Essentialism needs to be combated.  It's a component in every awful way that humans interact with each other and the world, and we gain nothing by it that we would lose by understanding that it isn't true.

Twitter's horrible ethical call

(via Boing Boing) Having just announced that I'm leaving Facebook, and having listed Twitter as an ethically superior alternative, I feel it would be irresponsible of me not to write about Twitter's blatant ethical breach that the Guardian wrote about last night:

Twitter has suspended the account of a British journalist who tweeted the corporate email address of an NBC executive. The reporter, Guy Adams of the Independent, has been acerbic in his criticisms of NBC's (awful) performance during the Olympics in London.

Adams has posted his correspondence with Twitter, which claims he published a private email address. It was nothing of the kind, as many, including the Deadspin sports blog, have pointed out.

This would be an irresponsible decision even in isolation, but Twitter is partnered with NBC for Olympics coverage, and according to the Wall Street Journal, they're hoping to use this opportunity to expand into a more profitable audience.

If [they don't apologize and reinstate the account], this is a defining moment for Twitter. It will have demonstrated that it can be bullied by its business partners into acts that damage its credibility and ultimately the reason so many of us use it as a platform. And if that's the case, there will be much less incentive to use it.

Guy Adams's account was unsuspended literally while I was writing this post.

News organization suppressing the news: Cops attacking protesters

(via Wil Wheaton on Tumblr) CBS's KCAL News at 9 recently reported on a case of police brutality against a crowd of protesters, some of whom were children.  They fired either rubber bullets or bean bags into the crowd, and one officer let loose a dog, who attacked a woman carrying her child.

When that news showed up on YouTube, though, CBS had it removed, via a copyright claim.  I can't embed it, but Occupy Iowa's tumblr has a video, linked here, along with this accompanying message:

The YouTube corporation and CBS have now censored the original video of Anaheim cops shooting at children. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MST4RhWdlMQ

“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by CBS.”

Spread links to the mirrors. Keep firing.

CBS might have removed the video to protect the police officers.  They might have removed the video to protect their ability to make advertising revenue on their content.  Either way, the decision is unacceptable.  News is news.    If it's not available, it's useless.

On Naming Names

Trigger warning: rape When I was writing about the shooting in Colorado, I hesitated to put the name of the arrested suspect in the post.  It was something I thought hard about, and I had to stop writing for a bit to try to figure it out.  People were throwing his name around a lot, and mostly just saying horrible things.  Calling him a murderer.

Ultimately I decided to put it in, but to be really clear that he was only a suspect, and no matter how damning the evidence looked at the moment, I didn't have all the facts (and neither did basically anyone else on the internet.)

Newsweek posted this exchange on Tumblr earlier today:




The first photos are coming out of the Colorado courtroom where ‘Dark Knight’ shooting suspect James Holmes appeared before a judge this morning. His hair was orange, he was wearing a jump suit, and heappeared dazed.

“Holmes is being held on suspicion of first-degree murder, and he could also face additional counts of aggravated assault and weapons violations.”

on suspicion

he did it, just say it, he did it.

He appears dazed, does he? Some sympathetic language for a mass murderer! Have ANY of you managed such sympathy for nonwhite killers?

Whoa, relax. That the killer appeared “dazed” is simply fact here. How in the world does this become a racial/media issue in reporting that?! Let’s not do that. This case is already too much to handle as it stands. Also, “on suspicion” is necessary. That whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing is a pretty important piece of our democracy, no matter who’s in the courtroom.

(Emphasis mine)

I had already been thinking about this, with a lot of apprehension, when I watched SourceFed's video earlier today, Twitter Rape Victim Punished!?, which addresses a case in which a teenage girl faces possible jail time because the two rapists, as part of a plea bargain, in which they got a slap-on-the-wrist punishment and a gag order, preventing the girl from talking about the case.

If you didn't watch the video:  The case involved the two boys raping her, then, months later, sharing pictures of the rape on facebook.  They were not charged with rape, and the judge ordered the victim to never talk about what happened to her.

As part of their coverage, Elliot Morgan and Tricia Hershberger gave the names of the girl, the judge, the rapists' attorneys, and the two rapists, Will Frey and Austin Zehnder.

I think they made the right decision, too, but it's a pretty radically different decision.  And as a news source, SourceFed is pretty clearly going beyond the call of reporting, moving towards attempting to influence the story.

That's par for the course in the mainstream media now, but it's a pretty radical departure from historical media ethics.  The issue of names is one of many areas in which the guideposts for bloggers like me aren't as clear as they might once have been, and it's difficult to make those decisions.

Regular readers:  If you think I've crossed a line in past or future coverage of sensitive topics where the release of names might be unduly damaging to those named, or you spot other ethical issues where you think I'm getting it wrong, let me know.  I want to have that conversation.

Yellow Jacket: iPhone stun gun case

(via SourceFed) The indiegogo campaign for the Yellow Jacket is at about half of its funding goal, as of this writing.  But they selected the flexible fundraising option, so they don't actually need to raise that much.  They've already reached their lowest goal.  They're going to get all the money that people have promised them, and the product, the Yellow Jacket iPhone case taser, will be created and distributed.

The co-founders, Sean Simone and Seth Froom, have displayed an impressive amount of faith in their product, the latter going so far as to take a shock to the gut in a pitch meeting:

All that said and seen, I have some reservations about the product.  I'm not worried about the taser discharging into anyone's ear -- with a rotating plastic cap and a safety switch, I think it's unrealistic that many people will harm themselves accidentally with this device.

Tasers are not safe weapons, though.  They may be safer than guns, but they can still kill.  The United Nations has classed them as an illegal torture device, and Amnesty International calls them inhumane.

And it's not enough to say, "If you have a heart problem, don't assault people."  Mistakes get made, people do stupid things, and there's no weapon that can't also be used by the bad guys.  The more tasers are in the hands of citizens, and the more often those citizens are carrying them, the more people are going to accidentally shock someone who looks threatening.  The more teenagers are going to kill their friends with undiagnosed arrhythmia because they were showing off. The more repeated taser shocks are going to figure into domestic abuse cases.

Still, that extra 20 hours of battery life sounds awesome.  I can imagine getting one just for that.

Stuff I Like: Ice Cream

My computer's working again, but I'm still pretty stressed out.  I decided to have a bowl of ice cream to make myself feel better.  And since I don't want to talk about anything serious or awful today, I'm going to break down the possible objections to ice cream, and why I still like it.

It's not good for you

There's a pretty good case to be made that ice cream is bad for your health.  There aren't many vitamins and minerals in it, and it's really high in calories.  I'm not going to go and get the box to work out the relative health values to some of my other favorite comfort foods, like potatoes or macaroni and cheese, but it's probably a safe bet that I'm over the advisable caloric intake for someone of my activity level -- and whatever the recommended serving size is, I'll bet I had more.

That all said, I'm not having ice cream for breakfast every day.  I have a bowl every now and then, and I'm pretty comfortable with my body size and health level.  I'd like to be healthier, but at this point I think it's more an issue of getting more exercise than it is a problem with my dietary choices.

Dairy is exploitative of animals

I think I've mentioned before that I'm a weekday vegetarian -- so my dietary choices are already not super-respectful of the life-and-comfort rights of animals.  That said, I do have a lot of problems with the way cattle are treated in this country.

I like Temple Grandin's position on cattle -- that it's okay to use animals for food, as long as you give them a good life.  I'm not confident it's ethically perfect, but it's a lot better than our current position, and it's a compromise I could live with.

Cattle is bad for the environment

This is also true, and I do think we need to cut back on the amount of meat we produce as a country.  That would probably also mean cutting down on the amount of dairy produced, pushing ice cream, like meat, further into the realm of luxury food.

I think I could live with that, though.  If supply and demand led to its necessity, I could see myself paying 10 dollars for a bowl of ice cream.  Once in a while, anyway.  It's one of those foods that's just good, and I believe the demand for it won't go away, even if it gets expensive.

Plus, if there's just less to go around, that would help with the health decisions referenced in the first question.

Jonah Lehrer's self-plagarism

I wrote about Jonah Lehrer's article, Why Smart People Are Stupid, from the New Yorker, a few days ago.  I didn't realize that, at the time, I was also writing about Jonah Lehrer's Wall Street Journal article, The Science of Irrationality. The articles deal with similar topics, and the first several paragraphs are nearly identical.  Lehrer appears to have been doing this in a lot of articles -- recycling chunks of his old work as new.  This is unethical, because if an editor is paying for new content, and you're giving them stuff their customers may have already read, it's pretty close to stealing from your editor.

Slate.com's article about the ethical breach compares Lehrer to Malcom Gladwell, in that they're similar types of self-promoters -- people who connect a lot of vivid anecdotes and use them to spread ideas, allowing for a strong implication that they are the sources of this wisdom, not just the compilers.

But Gladwell, I’m guessing, would never get caught writing the same words twice. It’s not just that it will piss off your editors. It will also disappoint your customers. If you’re passing yourself off as an idea man, self-plagiarism is bad for the brand.

Ultimately, the Slate piece is charitable, though.  At the end, the suggest that what's happened here is that Lehrer is running on fumes, and made some bad decisions that lead to that state showing.  His transgression is not a failure to be the person he's suggesting himself as, but a failure to position that identity correctly.

Conflicts of interest in journalism are hard to think about.  Gladwell, the Slate article points out, has a 6,300 word disclosure statement talking his way through the issue.  I'll be reading that soon.

It's a difficult career -- it pays terribly, unless you're very high up, and it feels (and, indeed, is) very important.  The various elements of journalistic quality are in pretty direct conflict with each other -- being fair and informative conflicts with being entertaining and with drawing in customers, and both of those elements conflict with one's editors, who expect you to do work that (a.) makes them money, and (b.) keeps them out of trouble.

Lehrer is a professional, though.  He should have a better handle on that balance.