The problem (and perils) of “false equivalence”

On Thursday in class, we’re going to talk with Scott Swafford and Gareth Harding about election and “Brexit” coverage and the differences in how U.S.-trained and European journalists cover politics.We’ll wade into the very murky waters of the “false equivalence” issue that has been raised in connection to this presidential race.

Here’s how a Huffington Post contributor defined false equivalence:

False equivalence is what happens when you are led to believe that two things should be given equal weight in your considerations as you come to any given decision, while those two things are not in any way actually equivalent. For example, let us consider the matter of climate change. John Oliver, on his HBO program Last Week With John Oliver, debunked the usual cable TV false equivalence in this issue dramatically last year. While today’s media tends to have one “expert” present each “side” of an argument, Oliver pointed out that, in the case of climate change, where 99/100 scientists agree that it is real and caused by humans, this one vs. one presentation creates a clear misconception for the viewer: a false equivalence. So he did the truly “fair and balanced” thing: he had 99 scientists argue against 1 in favor of man-made climate change.

HuffPo doesn’t pull any punches in its criticism of how the news media have covered Donald Trump. But remember, this is the same news organization that added this editor’s note to every story about Trump, starting in January:

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.”

Here’s what Nick Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, had to say about the way Trump has been covered. He calls him a “crackpot.”

Dan Gillmor, writing for The Atlantic, proposes that the upcoming debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump be placed on 10-minute delay to give fact-checkers time to do their job. Then, he proposes, when a candidate utters a factually incorrect statement, the media outlet could mute the candidate and, using some sort of subtitle or super-title, let the viewer know that the candidate was talking about (fill in the blank) and had said something untrue.

It has come to this, Gillmor writes, because:

…the media people have to do something to regain some control over their integrity. Right now they’re being played for suckers by manipulators whose propaganda skills are vastly better than journalists’ apparent ability to do their jobs.

Meanwhile, others see a liberal media bias in the coverage of the campaign. Peter Navarro offers this perspective in The National Interest.

I’m pretty sure there are a great many potential voters out there who aren’t in the least bit influenced by facts or fact-checking. They’re influenced by frustration and other emotions.

As I said, this is a murky area.

But it’s well worth talking about, so be ready on Thursday.

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Knowing how to find stuff (is half the battle)

Matt Dulin shared a bunch of tips and tools last week in class. Here they are. And now there is no excuse for you to not develop super ninja search skills.

Thanks, Matt! And thanks Joy Mayer and everyone else who helped compile this valuable list.

Original by Joy Mayer ( // Updates by Matt Dulin

Social searching

Ways and reasons to listen to your community

As representatives of our brand on social media, we need to be paying attention to monitoring what our audience is saying to us. Anywhere we’re talking to our audience, we need to be listening for what they say back. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit … we need to be on top of mentions of our brand.

In addition to that, we have an opportunity to eavesdrop on what our audience/community members are talking about to each other — in general about related to the things we cover. We look for conversations or posts that the newsroom should be aware of. Are there…

  • Posts we should share/retweet/repost?
  • Story ideas?
  • People curious about things we’ve covered lately? Would they appreciate a link?
  • Windows into what matters to our community?
  • Conversations about our content? Feedback we should be aware of?
  • People we should invite to contribute their own content?
  • Conversations we should capture to share with our readers?
  • Posts we should hit “like” on as the brand? Or ask about? Or ask permission to republish?
  • New followers we should follow back?
  • On Twitter specifically, set up lists with people whose conversations you especially want to keep tabs on. And search “near:zipcode” to get a sense of local conversation.

Twitter searching

Facebook searching

Instagram searching

  • Facebook signal (mentioned above) allows Instagram searches
  • Banjo – premium service only – there’s a limited “free” tier for verified journalists
  • Hashtag and location searching within the app

Other searching tips and tools

Some paid tools worth mentioning

I’ve been persuaded to add a section for paid tools. Help me fill it out. What tools does your newsroom invest in? (I’ll try to track down the ones I’ve deleted from my list because they’ve started charging!)

  • Geofeedia (recommended by Eric Carvin)
  • SAM (recommended by Eric Carvin)
  • Trendspottr (real-time viral search and predictive analytics service that identifies trending info)
  • DataMinr (finds trending Twitter topics, searches by defined geographical areas, sends alerts) (recommended by Jeffrey Meesey)
  • com (by user or keyword) – $28 per year to deep search Instagram


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First, follow the recipe

The world can be divided into two kinds of people: People who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who think there’s way way way way way more than two kinds of people.

I’m in the latter group.

However, I have noticed that there are people who tend to follow recipes and read instructions, and people who don’t (or would rather not).

If you’re thinking right now about a story, this is what I’d like you to do:

  • Go to this link (Story Starter), print it and fill it out
  • Notice how easy it is to think about audiences when you’re thinking about sources; they’re often the same
  • Plan your reporting around the question of who needs or wants to know something (fill in the blank).
  • Determine where, how, and from whom you can obtain this information
  • Decide what form the story should take, and remember above all that text is often not the best way to tell a story
  • Write yourself a “don’t forget” list for sharing what you produce with the stakeholders and other audiences.

Do it with every story, and let me know how it goes. I bet you’ll find it a much more organized and methodical approach to reporting.



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Coming soon: You on Videolicious

Just a quick note to say that you should be receiving an email very soon from Elizabeth Stephens about your Videolicious account. This is Elizabeth. She’s bummed out that had to wear her glasses for the first week of classes. At least it rhymes.


Here’s a little how-to (though there are many others) put together by a journalism educators association.

Your first assignment: Create a short bio about yourself using Videolicious. Try to make us laugh while we learn about you. Upload it to your blog.

Have fun!


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Welcome to the Missourian!

So it begins: your first week in the newsroom and the beginning of what is certain to be a pretty intense learning experience for you. It’s going to seem like a lot, at first, but you’ll get a handle on it, and, in the end, you’ll look back with awe at what you were able to do, this semester.

But how?

By putting in a steady and determined effort. Like these guys.


By spending a lot of time in the newsroom, at first, getting comfortable with how things work and getting to know your fellow reporters, the editors, the engagement and outreach team — everyone who makes the content and helps share it.

Spend some time checking off the tasks on The New Reporter’s Checklist. It’s a big help.

Spend some time reading what we’ve published in the Missourian over the summer and maybe even last spring. Watch some videos. Think about what’s going on in the community and how you can get a better understanding of the people we serve.

And do a story as quickly as possible. You don’t know what you’re doing? Well, maybe you need a recipe. Here’s one you can use over and over this semester.

It’s going to be great. I just know it.



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Knowing you’re in an ethical situation (and what to do next)

Tuesday, we talked about a process for thinking through ethical situations, and I referred you to Poynter’s 10 questions to ask to make good decisions. Be reflective, not reflexive, in decision-making, involve other people with diverse points of view and don’t ever make a decision based on what other journalists are doing or have already done — and you will probably be okay.

Don’t you wish it were simpler?

Well, it’s just not, and the complexity is one of the things that I love about journalism. Embrace it, and you’re likely to feel stronger, smarter and better-prepared for whatever curve ball comes your way next.

So, here are your blog prompts for Thursday and end of the session (which is Saturday):

NUMBER ONE: We asked you to read Columbia University’s report on the Rolling Stone “Rape on Campus” debacle, and I asked you to think about confirmation bias and how this story ran off the rails.

Think about these questions before you blog:

  • What is this story about, at its core?
  • What are its strengths as a story?
  • What was your reaction to the story at a gut level, the first time you read it?

Can you think of a time in your life or your reporting that you felt confirmation bias at work?

NUMBER TWO (waaay more fun): What did you learn over the past seven weeks in the newsroom or out in the world with your notebook, your smartphone and your reporter’s “hat” on that you wish you’d known about this whole business at the beginning? What advice would you give someone starting out in this class?

And that’s it.

I’ve loved being part of your learning experience, and I’m pretty sure Scott has, too.  I hope you’ll come back for advanced reporting or some other newsroom class.


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Summer session I is in the house

Hello. Take a look around next time you’re in the newsroom. These are your people for the next seven weeks.

And don’t forget to subscribe to this blog (scroll all the way to the bottom) for reading and discussion.

Ready, set, GO.

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(For you reading pleasure) Millennial Women At Work: A Reading List

These stories offer a glimpse into the weird world of “professionalism,” how young women are expected to adapt to rapidly changing, innately biased work environments.

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It’s not magic; it’s reporting

I was reading Jonathan Tilove’s series, “Along Martin Luther King: Travels on America’s Black Main Street,” as the plane I was on circled Midway Airport in Chicago last Sunday. The airport was completely socked in by clouds, and, in the end, we couldn’t land because some gear had broken. Some gear that would have made the difference between a safe landing and the other kind.

In spite of how much I hate being stuck on a plane in the clouds, I was glued to what I was reading. Truly, I was amazed. How had he done it? How had he laced together such a powerful narrative — a thing so strong — out of such delicate threads? How did the whole thing hold together?

If you read it, you noticed how Tilove drew connections between very distant places joined by their King-ness — an MLK Boulevard at one end of the country is linked to a King Drive thousands of miles away by the experience of the people who live or work along those streets.

That could have felt like a contrivance if it weren’t for one thing: reporting. Without the details that Tilove drew out during interviews or observed himself, it wouldn’t have been possible. A worse reporter would have had to force the pieces into place. Tilove had evidence.

Belle Glade’s MLK is alive like Harlem’s, if not as well-lit.

You can happen upon the tambourine joy of a Jamaican revival meeting along the loading ramp where the migrant workers assemble before dawn, or a flatbed truck of strippers in the lot at Tiny’s liquors, advertising their Miami club.

You can buy skinned rabbits by the tree where the men play dominoes. When the cane fields are burned for harvesting, the breeze flutters with black ash and the rabbits sprint for freedom, where they run into men and boys who chase and beat them. Run rabbits, and football comes easy.

Read that aloud and you can hear the rhythm of the language. To find the poetry, you need the right words, and to find the right words, you need reporting. Otherwise, you’re just bullshi**ing, and it will show.

Tilove’s voice as a writer comes from the place that is authentically his in connection with a place that is authentically American. It rings true because he didn’t take shortcuts. A project like this might be a very hard sell these days in journalism. But the values it reflects are not out of reach.

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Listening is cool (not cold), believing is hot

We’ve been talking about sourcing this past week, and I have to say that we could spend several weeks on this topic.

What have I said so far?

I said I have grown to dislike the word “source” because it implies that we simply take or demand what is freely given. Sometimes, sources don’t give. Sometimes, we shouldn’t just take. Sometimes, a “source” is a too-willing accomplice in a disinformation campaign, as we saw in “Merchants of Doubt” last week. (Let’s learn how to stay out of that business.)

Sourcing is sometimes better described as “finding collaborators” because in public service journalism, for example, you might well find yourself in a situation in which you’re trying to get more or less the same story out as a non-profit or a governmental entity. We found that out last week when we did our story on “date crime” (incapacitation) drugs. When we explained to police what we were up to with our story, their response was like, oh, really? Us, too!

Sometimes, the relationship is antagonistic because what we want to know as journalists, others don’t want us to know. Because they’re up to no good. Thank heavens for the Fourth Estate, a friend of mine often says to me. As my friend and colleague at IRE, Mark Horvit, says: No one is going to send you a news release about wrongdoing. And so this becomes our essential duty: Inquire. Investigate. Inform.

The story I’ve asked you to read for Tuesday is a masterpiece of inquiry into the complexities of “the source” — in this case, a trauma survivor. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to the awful, deservedly maligned Rolling Stone story about campus rape in which a reporter was disabled by her own confirmation bias. And in which her editors were too-willing accomplices.

I teach a class in trauma reporting because the subject is that complex and important. Trauma survivors aren’t always exactly like other folks. We do better journalism when we learn how to understand and navigate in the space they’re occupying.

And so, I ask you to read this amazing piece from Pro Publica and The Marshall Project. I had to take several walks while reading it. I don’t even know what to tell you was the most important lesson I took away from it because there are so many. But this — from a sexual assault investigator — stands out because it has such relevance for us in journalism:

“A lot of times people say, ‘Believe your victim, believe your victim,’” Galbraith said. “But I don’t think that that’s the right standpoint. I think it’s listen to your victim. And then corroborate or refute based on how things go.”

Is there a better way to describe our relationship to the people who tell us stories? If so, I can’t think of one right now.

Careful listening. Compassion. And process (of verification). The results do credit to everyone involved.




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