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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Word Counts as a Measure of Bias

In a comment to my blog on Journalistic Bias I was directed to a blog that concerns itself solely with comparing CNN and Fox news. In it, the author compares the number of words devoted to a US air attack on insurgents vs the number devoted to insurgent activities. The stories were at
CNN and Fox.

The author's findings were
# of words about the U.S. airstrike / # of words about recent insurgent attacks
CNN: 66 / 736
FOX: 215 / 67

Just counting words is a mindless way to determine bias. It really does matter what the words say. A large story on the air strikes might focus on the apparent lack of success of the US military in ridding the country of insurgents, which, of course, would present a negative picture of US actions in Iraq. A shorter story might focus on the success of the attack and provide a positive spin on the significance of the attacks.

In both stories, reference was made to the 40 insurgents killed in the air attacks. The author of the blog claims that the Fox story adds information about the air strikes CNN does not mention, specifically saying
“U.S. fighter planes equipped with precision-guided missiles launched airstrikes … killing about 40 insurgents who were stopping and searching civilian cars"
This is true, but the CNN story also provides descriptive material concerning the attack, some not mentioned by Fox. Consider:
The Marines' attack against the insurgent compound and surrounding area involved jets and attack helicopters from the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the Marines said. They were assigned to Regimental Combat Team-2.
The reference to US "precision-guided" weapons in the Fox story evokes all of the exaggerated and sometimes false claims made by the military during the first Iraq war. The Fox story does not say that no civilians were killed, which is an interesting omission in this context since the point of saying the US used precision-guided weapons would normally be that they were intended to be precise enough in hitting the intended targets to avoid harming civilians. Interestingly, the CNN article does mention that no civilians were killed (according to the military). CNN reported:
The statement said no Marines were killed, and there were no reports of civilian casualties.
I note with interest CNN's saying "the statement said ..." Perhaps the reporters' caution results from their recollection of all of the misrepresentations during the Vietnam war of body counts and the misrepresentations during the first Iraq war of just how precise US weapons were.

Our blogger misrepresents the CNN story in saying:
While CNN notes that those attacked were armed, they do not explain what they were doing in the town. Fox had also included this information: “[the insurgents] had "set up a barricade on a main road to the city and were threatening Iraqi civilians," the military said.”
The fact is, the CNN story he links to says:
[The insurgents] had been stopping vehicles at gunpoint and threatening Iraqi civilians attempting to travel through their checkpoint, Marines said.
This counts as explaining what the insurgents were doing.

Unfortunately, if there was any bias involved in this blog, it was that of the blogger, who falsely represented the CNN story in two particulars, saying falsely that CNN did not provide descriptive material about the nature of the US attack, which it did, and saying that the CNN article did not explain why these particular insurgents were being targted, which it did. In my opinion, neither article was biased in any pernicious way.

I, of course, am biased. I don't trust anything the military says or anything that comes out of the Defense Department about what is going on in Iraq (or anywhere else) militarily. There is no prejudice involved in my feelings about the veracity of the US military -- my skepticism, which has risen, I fear, to the level of cynicism, has been learned from experiences that go back to the Vietnam War and includes talking with combat veterans. It may be an inherent feature of the military that it will lie (and I include all militaries of all countries) since they are in an ugly business and need frequently to put a smiley face on what they do. I will believe that the US military and the new Iraqi army and police force are winning the war against insurgents when the insurgency stops. Interim reports are a waste of time.

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