Monday, May 11, 2015

The Trust Problem

In a recent Facebook exchange about Elizabeth Warren's claim to be a native American, someone raised the issue of what news sources one should rely on, comparing Breitbart unfavorably to Mother Jones. In support of that comparison, she cited a web page, NewsTrust, which posts its evaluations of news sources and gives Mother Jones a high rating.

That raises an obvious question that apparently had not occurred to her: What reason do we have to trust NewsTrust? To answer that I looked at their web page and discovered that the single source of information for which it showed the highest rating was Rolling Stone, the magazine responsible for the bogus UVA rape story—not merely a mistake, but a mistake pretty clearly due to irresponsible reporting with an ideological bias. Add to that the fact that the two blogs which they rate on that page are Daily Kos and Think Progress, both well to the left, and I conjecture that their ratings tell me more about which side a source is on than about how reliable it is.

That leaves us with the problem of how to figure out what facts to believe, given that not only news sources but sources of information about news sources are likely to be biased in various ways. In that particular exchange, I had already demonstrated one solution to that problem. The Mother Jones article was introduced to the discussion by me, as evidence against Warren, not for her. Both the politics of the publication and the tone of the story made it clear that any bias would be in Warren's favor. Hence I concluded that any negative evidence it presented was probably true—and cited that evidence in the exchange.

For a detailed discussion of the controversy over the evidence on Warren's ancestry, see this Breitbart piece and its links. Believe it or not as you wish.


At 4:53 PM, May 11, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

How about we stop treating journalism as this sacred "Fourth Estate" to be "trusted". It's just a non-fiction style of writing that comes in a newsprint, magazine, or TV or radio variety show format.

The only clear distinction journalism carries from other forms of writing is what I call its "bias camouflage." That is, the special tone, vocabulary, structure, stylization, etc. it uses to try to fool audiences into thinking it comes from a place of objectivity, disinterest, and omnipresence.

At 3:19 AM, May 12, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...

I find that perhaps most (definitely many...which is a bit vague I know :) ) people on the right don't quite trust the media today, definitely do not take them for "The Truth". On the other hand many people on the left do. I guess this is partially caused by the fact that most media have a left-wing bias, since most journalists, being liberal arts majors, do. Then if most media keep telling the story with a bias opposite to yours you don't trust it, if they play on your own biases, you do. Then you have groups on the right, like the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against islamisation of the west) in Germany who talk about "Lügenpresse", that is "lying press".

This may be different in the US, Fox seems to be a very right-wing biased media source (although some left-wing outlets in the US seem to be even more awful in their bias than the European ones, I cannot tell how mainstream webzines such as Slate are though...) but I know of no such media in Europe (although I only know Czech, British and German media outlets well enough to judge). There are right-wing newspapers, but they are much less biased than Fox. However, the majority of newspapers has a left-wing bias and a lot of them quite a strong one as well.

I think a relatively good way to judge sites like "TrustNews" is to observe whether their good and bad ratings cut both ways (or all ways) in the political spectrum or not. It is unlikely that half of the political spectrum is significantly less trustworthy (as a whole, I am not talking about particular newspapers) than the other and if a rating site systematically rates one side significantly lower than the other, it probably is not to be trusted itself. Maybe one could have a "MetaTrustNews" site which would rate the rating sites based on some transparent statistical algorithm:))

At 4:51 AM, May 12, 2015, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Related to this "trust problem" is the recent piece by Hersh on the killing of Bin Laden. I, for one, was very inclined to believe his story, but it does not seem to hold up.

At 5:03 AM, May 12, 2015, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Tibor, my impression is that in the USA they have a lot of news channels, which feature a lot of commentary programs (maybe because they are easier to produce?).

It is not my impression that Fox News is biased in their reporting per say. What gives Fox News bad reputation is commentary programs such as Bill O'Reilly and so on, which are blatantly bias, but they are commentaries afterall. That's what gets posted in youtube and so on.

Here in Portugal, I am not aware of the same level of bias. But then, here there is no public debate between candidates (maybe because we vote in parties?), there are no scientists discussing evolution, atheism, etc on television, so there isn't much room for bias. News channels here only report and broadcast American reporting problems such as 60 minutes. I think people here feel disenfranchised and so they shut down wrt news. For instance, we have gay marriage, decriminalized drugs, etc even if most people are against it. I am glad we do, but we do not have primaries or anything so those things do not get discussed, and so we have no commentary TV programs. This is a much backward country than the US. If we had commentary programs, they would be worst programs than Bill O'Reilly heh.

At 7:12 AM, May 12, 2015, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Just to clarify, I think it is not the case that American TV programming is more biased. I think they just follow elections more closely and have more commentary programs, which by definition favor one or another position.

At 2:38 PM, May 12, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...


I see, so that is why I saw so many Algerians trying to sell us hashish in Lisbon who were so obvious (even for a tourist) that any police force which would actually want to do something about them could just pick them off the street :) That was some years back though, it might be different now.

As for the US/Europe difference, I'd venture a guess that this has a lot to do with the two-party system. I think that all continental European countries (or rather EU or EFTA countries) have a representational system with many parties and so the politics is not so sharply divided between two warring tribes (although based on what at least Jonathan Haidt writes, this did not use to be the case in America either and interparty cooperation was more common). The extreme case is Switzerland, where, under the so called concordance system, the members of the federal council (the executive branch of government represented by 7 people form all major parties, based more or less on their support, which is very stable there though, so pretty much the number of seats for each party has remained constant over the last 50 years or so) once they reach an agreement are supposed to defend the government decision even if it goes against the policies of their party or their own opinions. This makes political commentaries a lot more boring and less heated than in the two-party winner-takes-all system.

I don't actually own a TV, so I can just judge the written media (I don't watch political shows on youtube either), mostly online written media, but my impression of the czech media outlets is that the more left-leaning (that is basically those that support current EU, and its policies and advocate joining the Eurozone, against which there is quite a big opposition among Czechs) are more biased but also more "civil". The right-leaning are perhaps less biased but also more tabloid-like in the way they write (although I am basically comparing only the two biggest newspapers and two biggest weekly social/political magazines). Things like drug policies and gay marriage don't tend to be an issue, since I don't think there are many people who want to criminalize "soft" drugs and as 70% of the population is without religious confession (the remaining 30% are mostly catholic), there is not a serious opposition to gay marriage either - on either left or right side of the political spectrum. At least I guess that this is caused by the irreligiosity of the population. Most left/right issues tend to be eurofederalism vs. euroskepticism, high or low regulation and taxation (at least in theory, the last so called right-wing, or center/right wing coalition government actually increased many taxes) and recently the influx of asylum seekers in Europe is also becoming a left/right issue (even though since the Czech immigration law states that immigrants cannot get social welfare in the first 2 or so years of their stay, it is not the most popular country for rent seekers, so I personally think this is a the way, the head of basically the Czech version of Le Pen's Fronte National is called Tomio Okamura, and is half Japanese, which is one of the funnies things I've ever seen in politics anywhere).

I find that the German media are overall more PC than the Czech one (or about as much as the left-leaning Czech media), I think it has a lot to do with the fact that if you say something that is not PC enough in German media space, people come around that will conjure up Germany's history and put the nazi/racist label on anyone who is not PC enough. My personal experience with people there is that they are not as PC as the media, although obviously I have not met enough Germans or a random enough sample to make any strong statements.

At 4:36 PM, May 12, 2015, Anonymous Norm said...

David, of course, shows us how to decide who to trust. Check the sources' descriptions of things you know about and project that they will be equally honest/competent about other stuff. I find that outright lies/incompetence like UVa rape and editing Zimmerman's 911 call tend to come from the left and nonsense about the real world, e.g.mankind not producing CO2 or evolution comes from the right.
All sources bias by what they report. I've noticed that almost always a Drudge link to a crime video shows black perpetrators. The Main stream Media hardly report such crime compared to white on a black. For example, I followed on Google news feed for many years the story of Jan Pietrzak' murder. This spectacular story of immigrant, biracial marriage, Marines, home invasion rape/torture/murder and racist graffiti was barely reported.
It would be nice to have trusted sources.


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