cut on the bias

keeping an eye on the spins and weirdness of media, crime and everyday life

Thursday, February 28, 2002

Americans have taken some knocks from Europeans about how we have not flocked to the Continent since Sept. 11. There is an interesting article in today's Irish Times about low hotel occupancy in Ireland in 2001; an excerpt:

"Demand from the North American market was down by 21 per cent overall and by 18 per cent from the Continent. Average occupancy in Irish hotels fell by four percentage points to 61 per cent in 2001, the figures show."

So it appears that the Americans are not the only ones who aren't traveling. The article implies the Continental tourism reversal is due to "the foot-and-mouth crisis". Unlike, say, a plane crash, foot and mouth disease "does not affect...humans". So why are the brave Europeans staying home in droves?

It appears that an Irish foot-and-mouth crisis could expose a European foot-in-mouth crisis.

James Lileks answers the smug nastiness of a Guardian reporter who disses the US by way of an essay written from an Olive Garden restaurant in Birmingham, AL. As someone who grew up in fly-over country, all I can say is - goooooooo James! Pretty funny, and it echoes a lot of my own thoughts about European attitudes about the US.

One of my favorite things happened again! A cell phone recall - and no, that isn't the company trying to take it back.

One of my best friends wears his cell phone on his belt as he rushes around through his day. Periodically, he bumps into something with his auto redial button. Dutifully, his cell phone calls me (if I was the last person he talked to), and when I pick up the phone I hear the unmistakable sounds of him walking around. By now I recognize the sounds, and sometimes, if I'm not busy, I settle in to listen. I've heard him talking on the phone (land lines), ordering lunch, conferring with coworkers and, this morning, having his carryon searched at LaGuardia. I keep waiting for him to do or say something that will surprise me, but it hasn't happened yet. I've told him several times that this happens, and he just laughs.

I'm not quite sure why it amuses me so. I guess it's that little touch of voyeur in each of us. Lately I've become conscious of using his cell phone minutes so I hang up pretty quickly. I wonder, tho... how many people have redialed a number unbeknownest to them? And what have other people in their lives heard? Has anyone gotten into trouble from inadvertent revelations? Hmmmmm..... oops! There's the phone! ttyl...

The Cincinnati police have responded to a USDOJ review of their policies and practices with substantial agreement with the USDOJ's findings, although there is dissent with some of the findings. I haven't followed this situation closely, although it's on my list for attention during my current research project. One thing of interest in the article is the list of findings the Cincinnati Enquirer claims for itself, and lists under the department's plans for change as if the Enquirer was the reason for the change. Possibly the Enquirer did first flag issues the USDOJ found problematic later, but I question why they list their findings and conclusions without a discussion of the larger context. One example:

" • Officers now must explain on use-of-force forms the circumstances surrounding any uses of chemical irritant, and officers will get more training on the use of the spray.

"Chemical irritant is the most common use of force in Cincinnati — officers sprayed it almost three times a day last year. But an Enquirer investigation found the department did not accurately report all the incidents."

According to the Cincinnati police website, from January through November 2001 there were 26,164 major offense reports taken and 3,573 violent crimes. Cincinnati's population, according to the 2000 Census, is 331,285. Rounding up the Enquirer's stats, if officers used chemical irritant 3 times a day, every day of the year, that would be 1,095 uses, or in about 31% (less than a third) of violent crime incidents. If every use occurred on a different individual, that would involve 0.3% of the residents in Cincinnati. Even if the police department under-reported their use of chemical irritant by half, that would still involve fewer than 1 percent of the population of Cincinnati - and that's assuming only one use per incident and per person.

I don't think it's a bad thing for officers to explain why they chose to use a chemical irritant in a certain situation; the lowest level of force necessary to control a situation is generally best. Review of these incidents can help the department to assess what situations are giving rise to officers' decisions to use chemical spray, and possibly adjust training exercises to help officers gain control in those situations using other less forceful methods. But that's not the point - the level of chemical irritant use in Cincinnati just doesn't seem that high, in context, but the Enquirer presents the information with no context. I think this makes the situation sound dire when it is not. Policing by its very nature is about either maintaining order through the understanding that force is an option, or imposing order to any outbreak of disorder through a use of force that escalates along with the level of disorder. Excessive use of force occurs when a situation can be controlled with less force than was used. A newspaper reporter assessing a police department's use of force record out of context, without even an acknowledgement of the split-second decision-making involved, is in my judgment poor journalism. While I have some problems with the tone of this article, it does a much better job of giving context for use of force incidents in Cincinnati and Ohio in general.

The Enquirer article is an example, I think, of a newspaper touting its importance at the expense of the police, making de facto accusations that are unanswerable and inaccurate. This is a subtle bias - if the organization being considered was favored by the newspaper, I think they would have made more effort to provide context. I don't think the Enquirer necessarily dislikes the police; it just offers the department up for criticism with no context to mitigate. I found all the information in this analysis during the course of an hour of Internet surfing. That speaks pretty poorly of a newspaper actually in Cincinnati, ostensibly with both the contacts and the time to research the facts.

Does anyone but me find Russell Yates very frightening? His reaction to his wife Andrea killing their five children seems surreal. I guess we're seeing the type of internal denial that allowed him to live with her deteriorating mental state and not recognize (or take responsibility for) the need to get her serious help. I think she's culpable for her actions, but I wish the law allowed him to be tried as an accessory.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Well, talk about horrific timing. I have the worst cold I've gotten in ages, I'm sneezing and coughing all over everything. Not very pretty. So that's the reason for the dearth of posts this afternoon, but I plan to be back in the morning all better. Or else.

Today Andrea Yates’ husband testifies on her behalf, and FoxNews has a decent discussion of insanity pleas and their success (or more accurately, lack of success) in other cases. I stand corrected about the similarity of insanity defense laws nationwide; some are more liberal than others, while some states have eliminated it altogether. But the M'Naghton "right or wrong" rule is still the primary foundation.

Yates’ mental problems remind me of Laurie Dann, a woman with a long history of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who first tried to harm children she had babysat with poisoned sipper drinks, then in 1988 took a gun into a Winnetka, IL, elementary school, killing one child and wounding five others. That same day she committed suicide after police cornered her in a house near the school. If the police had succeeded in taking her into custody alive, what would her defense have been? Her history, detailed in an out-of-print book, Murder of Innocence, included behavioral tidbits such as stuffing raw meat behind the cushions of couches in her college dorm lounge area, and keeping her makeup in the microwave. But to most in her life she seemed quirky but friendly and functional. To what extent was she culpable for her later behavior? Andrea Yates thought first of using a knife to kill her children, but decided it was too messy. Could she not also have decided not to do it?

I think so. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

Mark Steyn says that Daniel Pearl was killed as much because he was a Jew as because he was a journalist, run afoul of an Islamic fanaticism that is the true oppressor of the Muslim world. A lot of good points, especially about how the US may react if Pakistan does not handle it. I love Mark Steyn - read his backlist too.

I've struggled with the case of Andrea Yates since I heard that she killed her children last summer. I'm sympathetic to the mental illness aspect, although I think it is unfair to characterize her mental problems as "post-partum depression". From reading this excellent article at detailing the chronology of her life after meeting the man who became her husband, I think it clear that her pregnancies and the stresses of motherhood exacerbated a pre-existing condition. This case is actually a good one to explore the concept of "insanity" in our legal system - a concept that is very narrowly defined and with a long history. Of course her actions horrify the majority of people, and it is some comfort to the citizenry to define her as "insane" because then we can separate ourselves from our own potential to do similar things, if just the right intersection of circumstances occur. And I think psychologically she was "insane" in the sense that she did not behave in a manner that was functional and healthy for herself and others. But the crux of the case is - was she legally insane?

From my reading of the case, I would have to say no, not to the degree necessary to allow a finding of 'not guilty by reason of insanity'. I think she knew what she was doing, I think she knew that it would be considered wrong and that it would result in negative repercussions for her. I think she could have chosen not to do it. I also think, however, that she definitely was operating with diminished capacity, and the verdict and sentence should reflect that. Finding her not guilty would broaden the scope of legal insanity; finding her fully culpable would damage the credibility of our court process. I do think she needs to be sentenced to a long term of incarceration, as punishment, but I don't think there is much hope for rehabilitation or even an acknowledgement that she should have chosen a different way out. Sometimes punishment for its own sake is reason enough for a sentence.

Naturally the coverage by the media ranges from very good to very poor. The article above was an evenhanded and thought provoking exploration of her history. Another article, this one from Reuters via the New York Times, showed numerous incidences of the juxtapositions and odd conclusions common to journalists making more out of things than they should:

"Prosecutors contend that when she committed the crime she knew right from wrong, the only criteria for being judged sane in Texas, which leads the nation in executions…

"Her illness so destroyed her mental acuity that a test in January found her IQ was only 103, or about average, he said.
He said the tests also indicated Yates had some hostility toward men, including a sense that they were demanding and frustrated by women."

Now, "knowing right from wrong" is the only criteria for being judged sane in any state, which naturally includes Texas. The interesting juxtaposition is the tag "which leads the nation in executions", implying that Texas applies this stringent rule with the goal of having more people to kill. Maybe they do bring capital cases more frequently, but the definition for legal insanity doesn't play more of a role there than elsewhere. The number of death sentences in Texas is a result of the state's legislatively determined list of crimes to which the death penalty can be applied, the willingness of prosecutors to seek the death penalty, and the willingness of jurors and courts to impose it.You wouldn't know that from this journalist.

Not to inject humor into a tragic situation, but the next section just made me laugh. Her "mental acuity" was "destroyed" - she had only average intelligence at the time of the killings. So is the psychologist - and journalist through quotation - saying that people of average intelligence haven't the "mental acuity" to keep from killing their children? The tests she took indicated "hostility toward men", with a sense that "they were demanding and frustrated by women". Ok, any woman who's been on a date, or had a brother, much less been married, knows that men are demanding and often frustrated by women. This understanding on her part is not a sign of mental illness; it's a sign that her maligned mental acuity was actually functional. Again, journalist and psychologist fall into a pit of silliness. (And so I won't get accused of male-bashing, I admit openly that women are sometimes demanding and often frustrated by men. But they start it.)

The well-constructed chronology of Andrea Yates' mental and emotional deterioration could very well rescue her from the death penalty, and in my judgment it should. But she should be found guilty of the crimes - she is a sick woman, not a legally insane one. And journalists need to promote understanding of legal insanity instead of playing games with words.

Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Let's rain a hail of blessings on the head of Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit! A link to my site from his gave me more than 500 visits on my inaugral day with this blog. Many thanks, Glenn! Do I get to send you the bill when I enter the 12-step program for blogging addiction?

A foundational principle of journalism is that as supposedly objective observers of the world with an almost sacred responsibility to the populace to present “the truth” about whatever issue is at hand, “suppressing” any information is somehow a transgression of that responsibility. The difficulty with this idea is that the judgment between what is “suppression” and what is merely making journalistic decisions about story is left to the journalist, who is steeped in his or her own bias about what is important and what is not. Often this decision isn’t a matter of life or death. But sometimes it can be, or at least have that potential.

A case in point is an article on about the search for the killers of Daniel Pearl, the WSJ reporter.

From all accounts, Mr. Pearl was an excellent reporter, a good man, a fond husband and an eager father-to-be. Working to produce fair journalism, Mr. Pearl placed himself in danger by contacting people who were allied with proven enemies of Mr. Pearl's nation, profession and employer. He was taken, kept and finally killed by these people, who excused their behavior by saying, among other things, that Mr. Pearl was not what he seemed. He was a spy, they said, not a journalist. Both the US government and Mr. Pearl's employer emphatically denied it. But it is understood that if Mr. Pearl was in fact a spy, then his activities would have indicated war-like intentions, and his death would have been in some quarters accepted as the price of doing business. Not right, not excusable, but understood as a risk warriors knowingly take. Mr. Pearl was apparently not a warrior in that arena, though. He was a journalist. And it is clearly in the interests of journalism for the world to understand that killing journalists is not the same as killing warriors.

Enter the FoxNews article. At the end of the article, detailing the search for Mr. Pearl’s killers and the video of him that confirmed his death, the writer says:

"The video footage was obtained by a Karachi-based Pakistani journalist who works for an undisclosed New York newspaper, Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said Friday. He did not elaborate except to say the tape was then made available to the U.S. Consul General.

"A source close to the investigation told the AP that the person who obtained the tape was not a journalist but rather someone who was "posing as a journalist." "

What did the killers of Daniel Pearl think about him? That he "was not a journalist but rather someone who was "posing as a journalist." " What happened to him? He was killed. What is the value of the last paragraph of the story? Nothing, except to reinforce the opinions of people already inclined to believe that journalists for American papers are spies. What else could this Karachi-based journalist be? Do manicurists pose as journalists? Do ministers, or doctors, or high school math teachers pose as journalists? No. Spies and criminals are the ones with reason to "pose" as something other than themselves, especially in that context. Therefore, this article seems to say, "There is a spy in Karachi who is Pakistani, supposedly working for a New York newspaper as a journalist." I wonder how many fit the bill? For the sake of the person in question, I hope dozens, because otherwise we may soon learn his or her name as well as Mr. Pearl's.

Why did the writer of this article include the information in the last paragraph? If I asked him, he would likely say, "I can't suppress truth just because someone might be harmed. I have an obligation to the reader to be objective." Readers already know my views on objectivity - humans are not by nature capable of it. It is true that the journalist may feel an obligation to not keep something back merely because it may put him at risk. But journalists withhold things all the time to protect others - for example, the names of sex crime victims. And no article can include all the facts, so many things are left out of every article as a matter of course. So why did he include this? I think it was because he could. He had the information, it was exciting and very cloak-and-dagger to know; this journalist now had a view into a murky underworld. And what good is a privileged view if others don't know you're privileged? Besides, revealing information that puts you in danger should give your claims of objectivity greater validity.

But there is no honor in sharing information that titillates without useful purpose, especially when doing so could get someone killed. There is such a thing as too much information. There is a time when telling all you know is wrong. I think this is one of those times, and I think including this information could put other journalists in peril for their lives.

I have discovered the connection between the data and plagiarism woes of historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Bellesiles.

Legal pads.

Yep, their entire difficulties rest on using handwritten notes on legal pads. And, given the centuries of historians who did clean data collection and managed to recall all their sources using hand-written notes in pre-computer days, it must be the legal pads. You knew lawyers were in there somewhere, didn't you? And here is my data, properly attributed:

Bo Crader here at the Weekly Standard says:

"Goodwin, a well-known TV commentator and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, initially explained the similarities by stating that her notes, written in longhand on legal pads, had gotten "shuffled" and that she had mistaken her notes on McTaggart's book for her own prose...

"In a January 23 New York Times article Goodwin claimed that "on the Roosevelt book, I understood what had produced the problem on the Fitzgeralds and Kennedys; it was having taken handwritten notes on the books." "

Meanwhile, Kimberly Strassel, on WSJ's here reported similar difficulties for Bellesiles:

"Mr. Bellesiles then sent an e-mail saying he'd read them [probate records] in some 30 different places across the country. He also told Mr. Lindgren he couldn't immediately send detailed information on which records he'd used because his counts—made on legal pads—had been damaged by a flood."

Those of us in non-hard-science fields are always having difficulty feeling really good about our research - it is, by the definition in the post below, rarely truly objective. Therefore, we work (almost) tirelessly to meticulously record results, to make sure our definitions are clear, and to endlessly attribute so no cloud passes over our work. But when we deal with numbers - say, guns owned in revolutionary days - or people's lives - say, the Kennedys - we are in a state of joy because those things are frequently quantifiable, and if not replicable, at least there are often multiple sources to triangulate to give greater confidence in the accuracy of our work. And when we find systematic error - for instance, when pesky guns appear in the record that weren't there the first time we looked - we, as researchers, must review our methods to determine where the error lies. Now, in the case of these historians, a common thread is apparent.

Legal pads.

That's right. We've often wondered how lawyers could come up with some of the arguments and bizarre fact pictures that they present. Now we know - legal pads are scurrilous instruments that twist our information, shuffle themselves in dark corners and invite the rain in to obscure facts. For the sake of the academy, for the sake of our legal system, we should ban the use of legal pads in all note-gathering or rumination contexts. Make no mistake, they are evil.

But then, I've always preferred spiral bound anyway.

It's almost 12:30 a.m. and I'm at work - I should be heading home instead of writing this. But then, if I was smart I'd be home already, right?

I wanted to briefly outline my thoughts on bias. I think bias is a by-product of being human. If you are human, and you aren't biased, it's because you're dead. That's why we have terms like "fair" - that is a state where you understand and acknowledge your bias, and try to give someone with a different bias a thoughtful hearing. As a researcher, I understand objectivity to be limited to situations where judgment is not needed. The recent difficulties at the Olympics are a good case in point. When a skier goes down a mountain, there is a clock ticking off seconds which will tell us at the finish line whether this skier was faster or slower than previous or subsequent skiers. No judgment there. The time just is. Compare that to, say, pairs ice skating. While there are definite objective aspects - did she or did she not land a triple? - the bulk of the scoring is based on judgment. So pairs ice skating cannot be termed an objective sport, whereas downhill skiing can.

Journalists have a great deal of difficulty with the whole concept of objectivity, which is frightening because, if they can't get that right, how can you trust them with anything else? As someone with a degree in journalism and a few years of newspaper experience cluttering my resume, I have tussled with this idea of journalistic objectivity and seen from the inside how it is not true. And I don't really mind that, particularly. What I mind is the feverish insistence that journalism is objective when, objectively, it isn't. We would all be better off if journalists had the insight to see their biases and worked to offset them rather than denying them and in the process making them worse.

One of the things I want to do with this blog is encourage the average news consumer to read for bias. Probably many if not most of those who read this (yes, mom, that includes you) are pretty savvy to it already, but perhaps you will see something new. For instance, think of the points where judgment in journalism is activated - the decision on which story to cover; the decision of which writer to send; the decision of whether to send a photographer; the amount of time given the writer to produce the story; the placement of the story; the length of the story; and the headline. Those are editorial decisions. The writer has a whole other set of judgments to make - attitude; sources; time spent; you get the idea. One of the most insidious expressions of bias, though, is in the word selection itself. See how far judgment goes? See how far from objective the journalism process by definition must be? The different impressions created by "he slammed the door" versus "he shut the door" are clear; yes, the first is more vivid writing, but it also conveys to the reader something about the nature of the person handling that door. It's not a neutral style decision, or at least it shouldn't be. Think about it.

My primary "area of interest", as they say in the academy, is policing, with occasional forays into general crime, especially homicide or women's fear of crime vs men's. (Please, don't get me started, I could go for days and sometimes do.) Crime reporting is an area fraught with bias, presented as truth, and policing is top of the list in biased crime news. Of course sometimes police officers do things that are bad, inexcusable. So do doctors. So do journalists. All three have gotten people killed through their wrongheaded behaviors. But all three are crucial to a healthy society as well.

My goal in this blog is to show you bias where I find it, especially as it relates to policing. Sometimes the bias is positive (we love police!) or negative (police are scum!); often it is subtle. We will look at it together. I will also be looking at other things having to do with crime and with journalism, not always sticking with the intersection of the two.

Doesn't that just make you quiver with anticipation?

When my own bias seems to be escaping my notice, please let me know. And forgive my less-than-geekish blogabilities - I try hard but I will always be a technological lightweight.

Sunday, February 24, 2002

This new blog of mine is mainly to check out evidence of media bias evident through the journalists' words and choice of information. Crime, policing, and general criminal justice issues are my focus, but anything is open to scrutiny. Comments welcome! I'll post the email a little later. For anyone who cares, I'm a former journalist now in grad school studying criminal justice, and I'm researching media bias and policing.