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.

Texas woman has two sets of identical twins at once; CNN covers

I started watching CNN while I was having breakfast today, because there wasn't anything good saved on my DVR and I didn't want to watch Kitchen Nightmares.  I don't see much non-fictional-script based TV apart from Fox, which is what my parents watch, so I didn't realize how disappointing the institutions Fox imitates are.

The story

It was actually a pretty cool story, so I want to start with that.  A woman in Texas had a set of fraternal twins who both divided into identical twins, resulting in four children.  They named the kids alphabetically by birth order, Ace, Blaine, Cash and Dylan, and thematically after Las Vegas, in keeping with their two year old son, Memphis.

The birth-order naming scheme sounds to me like a recipe for insecurity and conflict, but I can't reasoonably claim to be sure about that.

About CNN's coverage of the story

My major criticism of this story comes from this section, similarly expressed in the video clip:

Identical twins result when a fertilized egg splits into two embryos. Twins occur in about 2% of all pregnancies, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Of those, 30% are identical twins.

The odds of having two sets of twins at once is about 1 in 70 million, Dr. Alan Penzias, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News. Attempts by CNN to reach Penzias on Tuesday were not immediately successful.

I think there might be some sort of selection bias in the kinds of doctors who talk to the press.

Obviously, 1 in 70 million is a number that guy pulled out of his ass, unless ABC just did some back-of-an-envelope math based on the true things he said.  If we take the numbers he listed, and assume that the events: having fraternal twins, one twin splitting, and the other twin splitting, are all entirely separate events, with no related causes at all, then you do get odds close to 1 in 70 million.

If, for one obvious example, the event that caused one zygote to split was the same event that caused the other zygote to split, the odds are closer to 1 in 10 thousand.

Here are those numbers next to each other, in monospace, so you can see how big a difference there is:


The actual odds, insofar as they could possibly be established, is probably somewhere between those two.  Those odds are also kind of a pointless thing to report on, but if they must, they could at least aim for a more critical approach to statistics.

That story was followed up with a blatantly prejudicial teaser titled "Michael Jackson's Son Gets a Job," then a commercial by a mother who said her kids hated her before she got her teeth whitened.

About CNN

News organizations set the standard for the quality of discussion in the community they serve.  That's why it pisses me off that CNN is failing this badly.  It shouldn't be easy to spot obviously misleading or false information in any given story I'm not an expert in, but it is.  I was writing more than I was paying attention in the next few stories, but it was clear I didn't just get lucky -- CNN clearly sets a very low standard, to the point that I think they're actually stigmatizing critical thought and complex evaluation.

I hear the argument that TV-based informational content is inherently reductionistic and trivializing, but there are hundreds of examples to the contrary -- examples where creators make it clear when they're simplifying,  examples where they clearly, fully explain the relevant context, examples where humor is used sensibly in relation to the content, so it doesn't obscure the points.  Those examples are all from the last week, and they're all from YouTube channels that get these poitns right consistently.

Granted, those are all on YouTube.  But I don't think you can seriously argue that there's anything inherent about network news that makes it impossible to do what people on YouTube do, some of them in their free time.  What you can argue is that there are economic forces preventing them from moving on past their decade or two of mistakes.

I think the appropriate response to that is for good journalists to abandon the industry.  Maybe we can talk Google into offering more grants for professional journalism on YouTube?

Portal: the movie?

(via Reddit) According to Polygon.com, J.J. Abrams is in talks with Gabe Newell about making movies about Portal and/or Half Life.  This conversation took place during a Keynote talk about storytelling across platforms at the 2013 DICE summit, which before today is a thing I didn't know existed.  That talk took place today, and isn't up online yet.  I'm looking forward to seeing it.

My first thought when I read that Portal might be a movie was "No way."  I'm a little embarrassed that I had that reactionary response, because it's not fair -- the response under it, the thing that makes sense to me, is "How the hell would you make a movie out of Portal?  It's such a game."  The medium of the game, specifically the game, Portal, not just the medium of 'games,' tells the story of Portal better than any other way I can imagine, because the story was written specifically to fit the game, not the other way around.

Obviously, there's a huge difference between "I don't know how this could be done" and "This shouldn't be done."  I think it definitely should, if J.J. Abrams is on board and Valve is fully involved.  These are people with a real interest, investment and history in demanding more of their chosen media, and a Portal movie might be an avenue into new revelations for both games and film.

Or, I mean, they could make the Half Life movie instead.

Media Diary

My Mass Media course has a new homework assignment today -- we are to keep a 5-day journal of all the media we consume.  I started as soon as I got the assignment, writing up the media I consumed before I got to that class (Webcomics in the morning, radio on the way to school, reading The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson, reading Reddit in the bathroom, texting, text books, historical texts...) and continued thereafter -- I'm already at over a page's worth of content.

I am debating whether to publish the diary here, after I've finished.  We've been told we're allowed to omit porn, (not exactly, but the teacher was very clear about our not having to list things we're not comfortable sharing,) but we're supposed to cover everything else.

If I do decide to publish it, I definitely can't count it towards my daily wordcount.  That would absolutely be cheating -- I'm only up to 4:30 on the first day and it's already at 351 words.

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.

The Newsroom: My Thoughts

I've been trying hard to organize my thoughts about The Newsroom;  I seriously enjoy watching it (something I'll say several times in this post) but I knew it had been panned in the press, and Jay Smooth had some mean things to say about it, and amid what NPR's Linda Holmes describes, "Hearing a Sorkin character forcefully argue something you believe to be true is like bathing in a tub full of champagne while you listen to a CD of affirmations called You Are Great And Smart, And No One Understands You," there's an overwhelmingly uncomfortable sub-... Something. And that's what I keep slamming into.  It's not subtext, it's not a double meaning.  And it's certainly not the deep, pervasive cynicism of the show.  That, I'm fine with.  And it isn't the preachyness.  I love that, too.

But I think I've figured it out.  It's the nostalgia.

A Love Letter to the Great Men of History

The show opens with a beautiful rant, inspired by Will McAvoy hallucinating his ex in the audience[1. I know that (SPOILER!) it turned out she was actually there, but I liked it way better when I thought he was imagining it.].  The first half of the rant is awesome.  He rattles off all the statistics that I wish were printed in a column on the front of every issue of every newspaper.  Especially the thing about the defense budget.

Then he starts talking about the way things used to be.  When we "Never beat our chests," and "Acted like men," and "Aspired to intelligence," and "Didn't scare so easy."

The show has rightly been called on how much bull████ that second half is made of.  The past was not a superior time, we were not a better country back then.  Although, in episode three, they do start to defend the claims in what I think is a pretty coherent way.  And, again, I seriously enjoy watching this show.

MacAvoy, the great hero of the show, is sexist, racist and xenophobic, and MacKenzie's glowing endorsement that he's secretly a nice guy doesn't really make up for that fact.  It hurts, too, that the structure of the show supports that mythos.  You can pretty well rank the importance of the characters by arranging them by distance from the pinnacle, white-male-anglo-American.

It also portrays positive movement in news as a strictly backward trajectory.  I'm glad that someone mentioned WikiLeaks, but the fact that it was Neal, the Indian guy who writes McAvoy's blog (to his shock and disgust), and in the context of Jim (the white, male Batman producer) mocking him for suggesting that the internet is important.  Meanwhile, the model for the new program is Appeal to the Transcendent Model of the Great Men of Brodacasting History.

 On the other hand...

I mentioned the bull████ about the greatness of American history earlier.  But I also mentioned about episode three, where McAvoy points out to his boss, Charlie Skinner, who is easily my favorite character so far, that even at the height of the Hippie movement, the mainstream Democratic candidates were not interested in associating themselves with the Hippie leadership.

This is contrasted with the Tea Party, which now actively gets elected around the country.  I believe that McAvoy and Sorkin are right to raise the alarm, and to point out that this is something new.  Or, at least, something that hasn't happened lately, and should be getting more negative attention than it is.  I hope that the Tea Party aren't the major targets of the whole show, but it was a good defense of a hypothetically better past.

And the past they refer to in the show seems to focus more on the methodology than on the facts of the environment.  In many cases, McAvoy and Skinner seem to be nostalgic, not for a time when everything in America was awesome, but for a time when America was not so divided, when the methods by which change occurred were more organized, and better suited to rooting out bad change.

Indeed, the correlation between heightening scientific and philosophical understanding and heightening coherency in legislation seems to have... well, drooped.  Things may not have been better in the past America they're nostalgic for, but they were at least worse in ways that were proportional to their historical context.

In Conclusion

The Newsroom is not the greatest show in history, but it's a good show.  I seriously enjoy watching it, and I think that its arguments are more cogent than not -- and more cogent than many of the critics are saying.

I hope that in future episodes, the show gets more optimistic about the internet, and takes on the entertainment industry, copyright law, and student debt.  I hope the non-white and the non-male characters get fleshed out better, and get treated with a little more complexity, and I hope Jim ████s up, in a meaningful way, at least once -- and gets called on it.

I don't think there's much hope of getting away from the show's fetish for the Great Man, but I can suck that up.  It's a narrative thing, anyway.[2.  Not that narrative isn't important.  Narrative is the most important thing.]  And I'm not bothered by its preachyness, or the past-setting, "This is how the story should have been" mechanism.  If the show's going to help present-day viewers become informed, it needs to give them the appropriate context about where our country is and how it got there.

So, I recommend it.  It's clever and informative and truer than the news media is likely to admit (though it's not  totally true) and its cynicism is well-earned by its setting.  And I seriously enjoy watching it.


I've just discovered Medicative, a blog run by Dan Gillmor about false information on the internet. The first post I read on the site has pretty strongly endeared me to its contents. It describes a business decision on the part of the New York Times to require commenters to log in via Facebook accounts, in order to verify their identity.  Gillmor says:

This is vastly, vastly better for Facebook than the Times. Given Facebook’s tendency to track what people do online whenever possible — something you can take for granted in this case, given the attractive (for marketers) demographics of Times readers — the company will gain deep insights into what these people read and buy.

This post is from March 20 -- posts on this site appear to be rare, the last three being in March, February, and January.  It might be dead, but I'll be checking back for a while just in case.  There's also a book, of the same title, which I'm interested in getting a copy of when I have money, whenever that happens.