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.

Fox complains about absence of Google doodle

So I guess today is Flag Day.  It's not a federal holiday -- Pennsylvania is the only state to celebrate it as a state holiday.  It's basically not important. Wikipedia lists a bunch of country's flag days as being synonymous with their independence days.  That seems pretty reasonable.  And Google does a doodle for every American Independence Day.

Not good enough for Fox, though.  They actually ran an article called Google Ignores Flag Day, while rival Microsoft celebrates.  Turns out, Bing put up a flag background to appeal to their primary customer base, people who can't figure out how to change the search settings on Internet Explorer.

This kind of crap doesn't belong on a major news site.  As of right now, it's their top story in Tech.  It serves no purpose other than to inflame nationalistic indignation, and that's not the role of a journalistic publication.

I mean, I wouldn't accuse Fox of being a journalistic publication, but they do pretend to be one, and a lot of people aren't in on the joke.

A case study in biased reporting: FOX news and global warming

FOX News ran an article today on their website, called Global warming skeptics as knowledgeable about science as climate change believers, study says.  It's a good example of how an article can be heavily misleading without actually telling any lies -- the way a story is told is a major factor in what people come away believing about it. First, the organization of a story matters.  The things that are in the headline and first few paragraphs pack a much stronger punch than what comes later, and a lot of the readers of a story don't bother reading past that point, feeling they've got the gist of it as long as they read a bit.

This is from the start of the FOX article:

 Are global warming skeptics anti-science? Or just ignorant about science?

Maybe neither. A study published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that people who are not that worried about the effects of global warming tend to have a slightly higher level of scientific knowledge than those who are worried, as determined by their answers to questions like:

"Electrons are smaller than atoms -- true or false?”

"How long does it take the Earth to go around the Sun? One day, one month, or one year?"

“Lasers work by focusing sound waves -- true or false?”

Compare with this, the abstract of the study in question:

Seeming public apathy over climate change is often attributed to a deficit in comprehension. The public knows too little science, it is claimed, to understand the evidence or avoid being misled1. Widespread limits on technical reasoning aggravate the problem by forcing citizens to use unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk2. We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest. This result suggests that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.

The abstract is the part of the paper at the start where they summarize the key points in the report.  In this one, they're saying that relatively more scientifically literate people tend to be more polarized -- they have stronger views in both directions -- and they think that's the case because of the social pressures of their peer group, and how that might conflict with the evidence.

Further along in the FOX article, in paragraphs 8 through 10, they acknowledge that this wasn't the point the study focuses on:

Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan, the lead author of the study, cautioned that the survey results are not evidence for or against climate change.

"This study is agnostic on what people ought to believe," he told FoxNews.com. "It just doesn’t follow to say this finding implies anything about what people should believe on this issue."

Kahan said that he thought another finding of the study was more important: That people’s cultural views – how much they value things like individualism and equality -- affect their views on global warming much more than actual knowledge about science. Regardless of how much they know about science, individualists were relatively unconcerned about global warming, whereas those who value equality were very concerned.

These paragraphs appear next to a large-text quote from the study, which reads:

'As respondents’ science literacy scores increased, their concern with climate change decreased.' - Study

In those paragraphs above, Kahan points out that the cultural views aspect was the most important part.  That was in paragraph 10 of the FOX article, and in the abstract of the study.  The study had an accompanying graph, which illustrates much more clearly that, while they accurately expected people who valued community to accept evidence for climate change, they were surprised by the results of individualists.  People who value individualism and power tend to get more skeptical as their scientific knowledge increases.

This is similar to a cognitive bias I've written about before, Escalation of Commitment, but it's a better example of one I haven't written about yet:  the Backfire Effect, which describes the fact that people tend to hold more strongly to their beliefs when confronted with evidence that they're wrong, rather than letting go of them.

In paragraph 11, FOX offers an equivocation to preemptively counter criticism that they're obviously misrepresenting the study to support their case:

Both sides of the global warming debate say the study's findings support their views. Those who worry about global warming say it shows that cultural biases blind even smart people to the “scientific consensus.”

Note the scare quotes.

Following that, the article offers a juxtaposition in which a scientist pointing out that the study is about how global warming gets politicized, immediately followed by a reference to 16 scientists who disagree.  (I'm finding it difficult not to be sarcastic about how they were able to find a whole 16 scientists who don't agree with the broader consensus.)

"Kahan’s research is so interesting,” Aaron Huertas, a spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told FoxNews.com. “Over the last few years, the policy issues surrounding climate change have become increasingly politicized, and that’s bleeding over into people’s perceptions of climate science.”

"What we need to remember is that we have a number of excellent non-partisan scientific resources… [They] all tell us that human activity is altering the climate in ways that are disruptive to our economy and way of life."

But some of the 16 scientists who signed a letter this January titled "No Need to Panic About Global Warming" disagree.

Dr. Richard Lindzen, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT, was one skeptical scientist who signed the letter. He said that the finding that skeptics know as much or more about science surprised him "not at all."

"MIT alumni are among my most receptive audiences," he added.

Like I said at the start, there isn't anything technically untrue about this article.  But they've managed to take a study that raises a very important and significant issue, that culture and politics are having a huge, undue effect on perception of climate science, and presented it in a way that sounds a lot more like "Smart people everywhere believe global warming is bull████."

To wrap up, here's a link to the SourceFed video about how people who watch FOX tend to know less than people who don't watch any news at all.  (MSNBC also does worse than non-news-viewers.)

Some news sources are counterproductive

I've heard this before, but I want to post SourceFed's video on the recent study that demonstrated that several of the major news sources in the US leave their viewers less informed than people who don't watch any news at all.

If you weren't already aware, the worst-informed group of news consumers (including non-consumers) were people who watch Fox News, and the best-informed were people who listen to NPR or watch the Daily Show.