Thursday, May 29, 2008

A note on bias & spin, using the context of McCain's Health.

You've probably all heard about McCain's recent divulging of his health care records. I tend to think this is a topic of little importance: if something were to happen to John McCain as president, rendering him incapable of performing his duties or perhaps dead, we'd find another president. The president should be determined by the criteria of who will do the job best.

Of course, as we've also heard, the means by which he revealed his health information to the press gave many suspicions. There were 1,173 pages of health records, and the press were allowed three hours to view them with no cameras, phones, or internet access. The three hours occurred on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, when (presumably) people aren't paying as close attention to the national news. The suggestion is, of course, that there was some intent to conceal or at least downplay some of the contents of these records. Stated positively (as many did), it displays McCain's media savvy.

So, to cite today's google search of "McCain Health" provides the following at the top:
McCain's Physicians Say He Is in Excellent Health
Wall Street Journal - May 23, 2008
McCain's health. Evidence of melanoma surgery in 2000 is obvious to anyone who sees his puffy left cheek and prominent scar. The campaign has made efforts ...
McCain medical records show skin cancer concern, healthy heart
McCain deemed fit to serve Baltimore Sun
McCain's Medical History: What Will it Show? ABC News

Mostly positive, with mention of his melanoma history. Further down you can find a longer list of his health concerns.

So, I'd like to propose that there are three major categories of news regarding this story:

  • Positive things about McCain's health ("fit to serve!" "healthy heart!")

  • Negative things about McCain's health ("melanoma!" "kidney stones!")

  • Things about how this information was presented to the press

I'd be curious, first of all, who of the general population had been exposed to any of the contents of those categories without being exposed to all three. Though the summarizations mostly focus on the first category, I saw no news story that didn't cover all three categories. I would suspect that those people who didn't hear either of the latter two categories of information likely have not payed attention to the story at all, though I certainly have no data to suggest this.

So let's again presume that any bias in the media could run in two directions: those favoring McCain would ideally only mention the first category, those against would ideally only mention the latter two. Those who argue for either side would consider the mention of the opposing category to be indicative of, well, the other side's bias, i.e., "Cover the way McCain released this information to the press, will you? Typical Liberal Media!" Again, remember, all the categories do contain accurate facts.

The conclusion and thesis (and perhaps, hopefully, a guiding principle in covering news here) will be that bias and context are inversely related, i.e., to reduce the bias of your media outlet, increase the context in the stories. Cover all three categories regarding McCain's health records. Conducting research? Reveal and report who payed for the research. Reporting on a poll? Say how the questions were worded. In each of these cases, this greater amount of information may seem as though it is spun, if only because it is reducing the previous spin of omitting that information. But the spin of greater information cannot be considered true spin, it is only the continuation down the path of the limit function toward objectivity.

This does, however, only cover the bias category of omission: deciding which facts to report and which not to given a limited amount of time. Other bias might include linguistic bias, which is inherent in the words chosen, or perhaps just the language used. And once we consider how much of human thought depends upon the language we are taught, we see how far away we are from objectivity on the aforementioned limit function.

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