Monday, May 14, 2007

News Slanting by Package Dealing

Back in Dec. of 05 I did a post on how the news media slants news reports. I used an article by AP reporter Terence Hunt on Bush responding to democratic critics. I pointed to the technique used by Mr. Hunt which was to use violent and negative adjectives and adverbs when referring to Bush and using peaceful and civilized terms when referring to Democrats.

Another came to my attention recently when Sandy Szwarc at Junkfood Science posted on a new government study which in fact reports mostly good news on dental health. Unfortunately, that's not how the MSM reported it in their headlines and lead paragraphs. She tells us:

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"Associated Press headlines proclaimed:

“Too much sugar putting too many cavities in baby teeth, study says”

“Cavities on rise in baby teeth; too much sugar, experts report”


Tooth decay in young children's baby teeth is on the rise, a worrying trend that signals the preschool crowd is eating too much sugar, according to the largest government study of the nation's dental health in more than 25 years....One reason is that parents are giving their children more processed snack foods than in the past and more bottled water or other drinks instead of fluoridated tap water, [Dr. Bruce Dye of the National Center for Health Statistics] said. “They're relying more on fruit snacks, juice boxes, candy and soda (for the sustenance of preschoolers)."

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There is only one problem with this media report says Ms. Szwarc:
"It is equally unbelievable that none of the reporters appear to have read the CDC report because if they had, they would have seen that sugar was never even mentioned in the 104-page report.

Not once.

Neither were processed foods, snacks, sugary juices or sodas"
I urge my readers to read the whole lengthy post. It is excellent in its own right. Although the reporter does cite some good news, my concern is mainly with the distorting of the facts by the media and mainly with the AP story even though she cites other media reports. Since that was my focus I decided to double check. I looked up the study and read all 104 pages myself. Ms. Szwarc is right: there are no references whatsoever to sugar or sugar-containing foods and beverages. None.

So, the technique being used here by the reporter, Mike Stobbe, is obfuscation, a blurring of what came from where. For example, The first AP headline in The Seattle Times "Too much sugar putting too many cavities in baby teeth, study says" is false. The study does not say that. In fact the study does not deal at all with specific causal connections.

The second AP headline at the AZ Central site "Cavities on rise in baby teeth; too much sugar, experts report" is true as far as the "experts report" notion is concerned. Experts did say that, even though the study didn't. Since the actual study says nothing about sugar, one has to conclude that Mr. Stobbe solicited these causal opinions from the scientists. He does quote the lead author as claiming that sugar is the culprit. Now that would normally be fine with me if he had put it in that context. If for example he had said something like "the study says cavities are increasing in babies but offers no reasons so I asked the lead author if he knew why and he offered sugar as a cause even though it was not addressed in the study."
There would be no misleading of the public had he done something like that.

But, you might object, reporters don't always do headlines, editors often do. True enough. However, editors don't make up headlines willy-nilly. They get them from the reporter's article. The first paragraph of Mr. Stobbe's article says:
Tooth decay in young children's baby teeth is on the rise, a worrying trend that signals the preschool crowd is eating too much sugar, according to the largest government study of the nation's dental health in more than 25 years.
Notice what's being packaged here. The true statement that cavities in baby teeth are rising and that a government study says so is packaged with the unsubstantiated opinion that sugar is the cause. The reader will then believe the study has found that sugar is the cause of these cavities when in fact no such determination was made.

(In fact, Ms. Szwarc points out that this study and others have found a correlation between increased dental problems and low economic status. Poor people often can't afford a continuous dental monitoring regimen and good insurance.)

Why would a reporter say that something is in a study when it is not? The only reason I can think of is slanting. The reporter has bought into the idea that sugar products are unhealthy and sees an oportunity to advance this idea by pretending a government study supports it. He is mixing the facts found in a study with the unsubstantiated opinion of that study's author and is pretending that both have equal credibility.

There is something even more troubling though. Why would the study's lead author, a Dr. Bruce Dye, allow a reporter to say that something is in his (Dye's) study when it was not? Why isn't he objecting to such an addition? I surely would. But I'll leave that up to my readers.

I mainly want readers to be aware of this method of slanting: of packaging arbitrary assertions with some truth. Half-truths like this are more evil than outright lies. Lies can be uncovered with checking but half-truths use the credibility of the true aspects of a phrase to smuggle a false idea into the mind of the reader. The reader then is disarmed by the true parts and is defenseless against that which is false. He now believes something to be true that is not.

Let the reader beware.
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