Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bias, lies, and the media

One point I make, over and over, to my Critical Thinking classes is that the media is inherently deceitful.

First, let me explain what I don't mean by that statement.  I don't mean that all reporters are lying to you, nor that you should disbelieve everything you see on television, hear on the radio, or read in newspapers or magazines.  I also don't mean that they're all setting out deliberately to mislead (although some certainly are).

What I mean by that statement is that media are inherently biased, and that bias even extends to what they choose not to consider as news.  That choice ("this story isn't worth covering") itself represents a bias.  Then, when they conduct (say) an interview, they obviously can't show the whole thing; pieces get cut, sometimes rearranged.  Where do the cuts happen?  Did cutting a particular comment change the connotation of the one that followed it?  Sometimes even such seeming trivia as background music can alter your perception of what you're seeing -- in a previous post I described my AP Biology students' final lab project which conclusively demonstrated that changing the background music in an ambiguous video clip changes both your cognitive understanding of what you watched and your emotional reaction to it.

If you add in a motive to deceive, you've got real problems.  It's easy enough to be misled by media by the simple fact of its inherent biases; but when the creators have a political agenda to push forward, or stand to gain financially, by hoodwinking you, it's all too easy to fall prey.

To illustrate how simple it is to deceive without lying, consider the following trailers for The Shining and Mary Poppins.  Neither one is "lying to you," in the sense of showing you a clip that wasn't in the original movie.  All that's been altered is the background music -- the rest is just cherry-picking which scenes to string together, the same as has been done in every interview you've ever watched.  (And for those of you who don't usually click links in blogs, these are must-sees.)

Which brings us to the subject of Reality TV.

Because it is actually Unreality TV, of course.  It's all a tangle of clever editing and outright deception.  Easy as pie -- hell, if they can make The Shining look like a chick flick, they can get you to believe anything.  This is why yesterday's revelation that Animal Planet's new reality show, Finding Bigfoot, is a big fat hoax, falls into the "Color Me Shocked" department.

About the only thing surprising about the announcement is that it came from... members of the cast.  Normally, cast members are the last ones likely to blow the whistle, because it pretty much means the end of the series.  Here, though, we have some people who seem to be honestly interested in tracking down cryptids, and they have become increasingly pissed off by the editing antics of the producers.  The team leader, Matt Moneymaker, has been one of the most vocal critics.  He told reporters, referring to one of the typical grainy, blurry video clips showing a bipedal something running away from the camera, "... the thing I ran after up the hill was a human — someone who was sneaking around us in the woods trying to watch the production in progress.  I said so repeatedly and vehemently at the time, for the cameras, but they edited out all of that in order to make it seem unclear what I was chasing after."

My response:  of course they did.  Given that Finding Bigfoot didn't, um, find Bigfoot, they had to do something, because otherwise all you'd have to show would be these people stomping around in the woods not finding anything.  This is not the sort of program that tends to generate high ratings.  So what did you think they would do?

The sad fact is that all media are biased, but where there's a profit motive, the bias can slide pretty quickly into outright deceit.  It's a shame that Moneymaker has gotten tangled up with the whole fiasco, because he seems genuinely interested in playing fair.  The take-home lesson is that with the media, playing fair is nearly impossible.

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