Thursday, October 06, 2005

Why they don't trust The Meedja

The other day in J8000-nee-401, the Inimitable GK offered one of those light-bulb propositions that sound simple but can organize a lot of thoughts about a lot of things: News tends to sound bad because news is about the surprising -- the unusual, not the usual. That's why it seems to have a bias toward the depressing.

That's worth extending down the alley of whether and why The Meedja are irredeemably biased toward The Left. Needless too say, a good weight of evidence suggests that they're no such thing. But that bias of news toward what looks like The Unusual certainly does make them seem like it, especially if you're a bit out of step with the prevailing values of newsroom culture.

There ought to be a point to that, of course, and there is, from an AP lede in today's Missourian:

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers' footprints on contentious social issues suggest a moderate position on gay rights, an interest in advancing women and minorities and sympathy for anti-abortion efforts. Judging from the Smith & Wesson she once packed, she favors gun rights, too.

The point of interest is the last sentence, and the first thing to note about it is that it goes a long way beyond anything the story supports. "Once owned a .45-caliber revolver" is quite a way from "judging from the Smith & Wesson she once packed." Here's the relevant definition from the OED:

(orig. U.S.). a. To carry or wear (an object), esp. as part of one's regular equipment. In later use chiefly: to carry (a weapon, esp. a gun)

I'm not one to contend that meanings are set in stone forever once they're printed in a dictionary, but this one seems pretty clear. We're not just saying that she owned a gun. We're saying she carried it. Would the AP offer up the evidence, please?

That's a regrettably common occurrence in news language -- letting the lure of a terse, vivid, emotional word pull a story beyond the factual limits of what it can support. Indeed, you don't have to work very hard to find journalism textbooks that tell you, in effect, exactly that: Better a short, lively, specific word (even if incorrect) than a long, ambiguous one that has the misfortune of being accurate.

The phenomenon would still be regrettable if it were evenly distributed among the population. But from, erm, certain viewpoints, it isn't. Look at the relevant sentence again:

Judging from the Smith & Wesson she once packed, she favors gun rights, too.

"Favors gun rights" is pretty vague. Unlike, say, "First Amendment rights," which are clearly enumerated, we have nothing to go on here but the vaguely scary idea that it has something to do with guns. Does it mean she's not bothered by the idea that people are generally allowed to own guns, depending on the applicable registration rules in their areas? That's about as lede-worthy as being pro-Wheaties. Does it mean she wants to repeal the longstanding federal ban on civilian ownership of automatic weapons? That'd be a bit of a different story, but once The AP has brought in "gun rights," it apparently sees no need to suggest whether they're within or way outside a fairly well established mainstream.

And how did The AP reach this conclusion, whatever it might be? Well, a friend says she used to have a handgun and fired it at least once; doesn't that tell you everything you need to know about what she thinks? (And compared with a pesky trip to the sheriff's office, or wherever registration records -- should Texas have such things for handguns -- might be kept, it's a lot easier on the reporters too.)

That's where the surprise factor comes in. The AP knows how gun owners think; it's so not-news it can be put in a lede with no support whatsoever. It'd only be a surprise if, say, she were to say that she favored handgun registration. Then she'd be a "not your typical former gun owner."

But the things about gun owners (or evangelicals, or Republicans) that seem so strange to reporters -- that call forth the "not your typical" lede, or the WashPost's legendary newspage description of evangelicals as "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command" -- tend to look fairly normal among other gun owners, or evangelicals, or Republicans. We're given away by our surprise. No wonder they don't trust us.

This one's the AP's fault, and I'd like to hear the AP's explanation. But challenging a patently stupid lede off the wires is good practice for copyeds at small Midwestern dailies, too. That's a hint, by the way.

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