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Sensationalism and the Bias of Story

Sensationalism and the Bias of Story

Is there such a thing as unbiased reporting? That’s a rhetorical question. Of course there isn’t. By simply choosing to select any information at all as worthy of reporting, we immediately are saying something about it. Bias is like temperature, in theory you can always make it lower, but you’ll never actually hit absolute zero.

I’m thinking about this because there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle recently about an article from New York Times writer John M. Groder. Taking a Tesla Roadster out for a test drive to test out a new series of charging stations between New York and Boston, he wrote of an underwhelming experience that ended with the stalled car being loaded onto a flatbed truck. Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive accused Groder of lying, first in an interview, then in more detail, citing “black box” data on the trip, after which Groder defended his article and denied the charges.

A cursory examination of some of Groder’s past writing doesn’t reveal any particular grudge either against electric vehicles in general, or Tesla, in particular. But there are other kinds of bias writers have to be wary of. There’s a kind of storyteller’s bias that is very human. You know, you edit, omit, add details, play fast and loose with “screen time.” Have you ever recounted a conversation and added in clever responses that you didn’t actually say at the time, only to say, “well, no, I didn’t actually say that”? And sometimes a story takes on a life of its own, a moral to the tale begins to emerge, and if we let it, the ending starts to write itself.

We perform this revisionism whether we’re trying to come up with an excuse for being late or simply trying to entertain our audience, but we’re storytellers, all of us, and it’s a natural tendency that journalists have to wrestle to the ground in order to do their jobs. A high-priced, brand new sports car stalled on the side of the road during its inaugural show-off test drive? That’s tough to beat for dramatic irony, but neither does it mean it didn’t happen.

Both sides in this little sniping session have carefully documented a plethora of points where they think one or the other has sought to deceive or mislead. But in all this hashing out of cruising speeds and battery charging times, what’s being missed is how much of this comes down to perception and interpretation.

Our very imperfect memories, our unconscious tendency to exaggerate flaws, particularly in retrospect and the effect our emotions have on what we actually perceive in the moment itself, our unconscious desire to be in the right – all these perceptual human weaknesses and more mean that even a truthful report can be full of inaccuracies. I hasten to add that this applies just as much to the irritated car executive interpreting the sensor data as the writer experiencing a disappointing ride. The only difference is we accuse writers of sensationalism while we call businesspeople spin-doctors.

I happen to think the development of gas-free vehicles is an important thing, and I want them to get as much news coverage as possible. I don’t want them to get slammed in the press, but if Groder’s experience, as he recounted it, is genuine, that’s what he needs to write. Because cover-ups and slanted consumer reporting tends to come out at some point, and then it does more damage. Failing to report on legitimate short-comings might well be more damaging, in the end.

Was this experience genuine? At this point, I’m going to battle against my own inner storyteller, remind myself that what I’m writing right now is a heterogeneous mix of opinion (editorializing) and fact-based reporting, but what it definitely isn’t is fiction, and I can’t necessarily write whatever ending I want.

Thus, there won’t be a dramatic reveal of a guilty party. There won’t be a smarmy “I knew it all along.” I actually didn’t and still don’t know what exactly happened, and won’t pretend my speculations are fact. You can create a narrative for anything, but writing down a tidy ending doesn’t make it true. Instead I’ll say that readers and writers both need to beware of getting too caught up in a good story, lest we miss the real world in all its pointless, confusing glory.

Related stories:

Will the Fuel Cell Vehicle Kill the Electric Car?

5 Bad Guys the Conservative Media Mislabeled as “Liberals

Top 5 Friendly Cities in the USA for Electric Vehicles

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75 comments

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5:23AM PDT on Mar 13, 2013

I'm afraid most are biased in some way.

7:38PM PST on Mar 4, 2013

Glad I am not a journalist. Comic book writer one end, fact, all fact on the other. All are in between.

6:31AM PST on Mar 4, 2013

................ CARE2 also is guilty of skewing facts and figures to make a point..........beaver anal glands in your vanilla ice cream for example, so add CARE2 news to the guilty list.

1:12AM PST on Mar 4, 2013

Thank you for the article.

1:06AM PST on Mar 4, 2013

Thank you for the article.

3:14AM PST on Mar 3, 2013

Noted.

5:05PM PST on Mar 2, 2013

Then there is the problem in the press-forms:
In the free press, companies make their profit from the sizes of their audiences. People join or remain in the audience because they consider the reporting credible. It is a lot easier to lose trust than to gain it, so the companies' primary concern is maintaining audience-loyalty. This is why they play "yes-men" to those audiences, telling them whatever they want to believe, confirming their assumptions regardless of the facts, etc. Those which check assumptions and try for rigour over bias will inevitably set the standard of evidence they require to abandon an assumption lower than will some of their audience, so they will lose people, lose profits, and shrink for each such assumption. Eventually they go bankrupt.

State-presses are no better. Those are formally propaganda-outlets and it their job to be biased however their owners want.

There can even be problems with raw data-archives: These are often technical so sometimes definitions don't match what one would expect. They are intended for professional use by people who know the field, so they assume some knowledge or assumptions which the public does not have.

Blogs, Wikis, and forums have known problems. Some are good. Some are horribly unreliable.

This is not to say that it is impossible to sort stuff out and find the truth even using only biased sources. There are effective methods, but they are time-intensive and rarely used.

4:39PM PST on Mar 2, 2013

Part of the problem is that to convert raw data into useful information, we have to make certain assumptions. The trouble is that there are often multiple different sets of assumptions which consistently turn raw data into coherent stories. They just make different stories.

In the case in question, it looks like the two sides had different ideas of what it means to "properly use" the car. The journalist may have misunderstood something in the manual, or just tried to treat it the way one does a normal car, while the company knew about specific restrictions, methods of use, whatever that were not intuitive. Whether it was an unclear user's manual, a skimming of the manual where a closer look was actually needed, or whatever, each side is probably telling the story that it honestly and reasonably believes.

Here is a more common example: Seeing two groups with statistically different wealth, one can see either an unfair system which hods one back relative to the other (the liberal view), or one group which is better at producing or acquiring wealth for whatever reason than another (the conservative view). It depends upon whether one assumes that the causes of differences between groups are, at the statistical scale at least, extrinsic or intrinsic. This is the dividing line in Western politics.

3:32AM PST on Mar 2, 2013

Totally agree. It's a hard thing to wrestle with nature.

1:34AM PST on Mar 2, 2013

Thanks. I'm glad it's becoming more obvious.

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