Fact and Opinion in the News

January 14th, 2012

By Dan Miller

The Old Gray LadyAll the news and opinions that fit.

Letters from Art Brisbane, the New York Times’ public editor, on the subject of “liberal” bias in opinion pieces, are excerpted here. A problem is that the line between fact and opinion, to the extent that one is a recognizable, can often be unclear.  If I write, “my thermometer indicates that it’s ninety-eight degrees Fahrenheit three feet from my front door,” that is an objective statement of fact — even if my thermometer may be off by a few degrees because the statement merely reports what my thermometer indicates.  I may have misread my thermometer, but that’s a different matter, subject to objective correction.  If I write, “it’s terribly hot,” that’s a subjective statement of opinion. Others may disagree but that does not necessarily make my opinion wrong.  If I write, “I think it’s terribly hot,” that’s an objective statement of the fact that such is my opinion. In politics, religion and other areas where people disagree, often vigorously, the line separating fact from opinion becomes less recognizable.

Mr. Brisbane acknowledges a “liberal” bias in The Times opinion pieces and addresses it as follows:

I will agree in the broad sense that, taken together, it is clear that this community of opinion-based writers — as distinct from news reporters producing material for the main news sections — clearly share a worldview that is liberal and antithetical to the Koch brothers’ political perspective. That they find ways to lace their writing with these views is perhaps unfortunate. I would be happier if The Times had a more diverse mix of such writers, leading to perspectives that are not universally of one political persuasion.

But we are talking here about The Times, and as you note others have deemed it a liberal newspaper. I have not yet written a piece pronouncing on this issue broadly (a couple of my predecessors did so, and perhaps I will do so before I am done). With that caveat, I have no problem stating here that in the domain where opinion writers ply their trade for The Times, the liberal view is overwhelmingly dominant. The Times is within its rights to contract for such material, as the opinion sphere is distinct from the news sphere, and there can be little doubt that the Times ownership and editorial page ascribe to a liberal perspective. …

I remain steadfastly opposed to the paper proffering only liberal perspectives in news coverage. But in the opinion-based features of the paper, The Times is within its right to do this. In my view, it makes for predictable and sometimes very dull reading. But others apparently don’t agree. (Emphasis added)

I agree with Mr. Brisbane that The Times can and should publish such opinions as it wishes; that’s one of the meanings of a free press; besides, it’s often more stimulating to read opinions with which I disagree than those with which I agree — at my age I need all of the stimulation I can handle. However, I found it a bit odd that he did not say whether his opposition to presenting only “liberal” perspectives in The Times news coverage had been effective or at least well received.  Most of us have perspectives, and I make no effort whatever to conceal mine. Fortunately, what I write is mainly, albeit with a few exceptions, in the opinion category — perhaps because I live so far out in the boonies of Panamá that I can’t do any worthwhile on the scene news reporting.

Too often, fact and opinion become confused and it is difficult not to be concerned that fact checking — also the subject of a piece by Mr. Brisbane in The Times — is more weighted toward opinion than toward fact.  Mr. Brisbane asked whether and how The Times should report and check on the accuracy of assertions, principally political assertions.  He wrote,

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about. …

[S]ome readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.

[C]an The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here? (Emphasis added)

I don’t think The Times can do it objectively and fairly in all cases and I don’t think anyone else could do so either; I certainly couldn’t.  Most of us see “facts” through our own peculiar filters and prisms.  If The Times reporters and fact checkers are cut from different human fabric than its opinion writers, or for that matter from different fabric than the rest of us, I haven’t yet noticed it.

What happened?Breaking news is probably more problematical than slow news for which there is ample opportunity to “fact check” before publication.  Reporters tend to go quickly with what facts they have and to speculate beyond them.

Here’s an example:  it has been widely reported that the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia “slammed into shallow water off Italy’s western coast.” At first, the incident seemed to reek of incompetence on the part of the crew and, therefore, of the captain.  The linked article was later updated to report that

The Italian captain of the cruise ship that ran aground — killing three people and injuring 20 more — was arrested late Saturday and is being investigated for abandoning ship and manslaughter, said a local prosecutor in Grosetto, Italy.

Before that update appeared,  I posted an article at PJ Tatler citing an article at Four Winds contending that the ship had been hit by a torpedo fired from an Iranian submarine.  Iran apparently has submarines equipped with torpedoes.

There may well be Iranian submarines in the Mediterranean and if so they likely have torpedoes capable of attacking a cruise ship.

In February 2011, Iran for the first time sent two ships to the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal, and a few months later, Sayyari also announced that an Iranian submarine had completed an inaugural mission in the Southern Indian Ocean and the Red Sea as well.

Why Iran might attack an Italian cruise ship is a good question.  I don’t have an immediate answer or even opinion.  Still, simple incompetence on the part of the captain and crew of the Costa Concordia didn’t seem an adequate explanation.  The update noted above may be inconsistent with the Four Winds article, but then again perhaps not. Shinola happens; when sailing in the Caribbean for several years, I was guilty of my fair share.  Still, I would expect and hope for more competence on the part of an experienced cruise ship captain and crew than I, an amateur, occasionally exhibited.

Here is a comment in which I responded to a comment on my article at PJ Tatler.  The commenter said, “Iran had nothing to do with this. It hit an uncharted rock. There are photos with the rock embedded in the hull below waterline. “

I responded,

I’ve looked at the big gash in the hull that you mention, and that’s certainly possible. However, for a ship to embed a rock of that size in her hull that close to her waterline seems rather odd, unless she was going much faster, much closer to land or in uncharted waters and with nobody paying attention than seems probable. Unless, of course, she had a good reason.

Cruise ships generally avoid uncharted waters as well as charted waters more shallow than their drafts permit. Waters frequented by large cruise ships are generally well charted and big rocks neither appear mysteriously nor ordinarily escape the notice of the people paid to update the charts. The frequently updated charts appear on bridge GPS displays, commonly along with real-time radar overlays, to help avoid similar occurrences. I have sailed in Caribbean waters honestly shown on the charts as “uncharted” and it was then necessary to be much more careful than elsewhere, with someone at the bow to advise, loudly and promptly, of waves breaking over submerged rocks (my boat drew only six feet). There are probably similar waters in the Med as well. I suspect that large cruise ships avoid them. So maybe idiocy lack of situational awareness is the simplest and best explanation.

Another commenter mentioned another article at Reuters stating that

At least three people died in the disaster. The huge, 290 meter long vessel, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew, ran aground in shallow waters off the Tuscan island of Giglio but the exact circumstances of the incident remain unclear.

“There was a dangerous close approach which very probably caused the accident, although it will be for the investigation to establish that fully,” coast guard spokesman Luciano Nicastro told SkyTG24.

He said the captain then attempted a safety manoeuvre, setting anchor and bringing the ship closer to the shore to facilitate a rescue.

“This was an operation which allowed thousands of people to be taken ashore quickly and in a reasonably safe manner,” he said.

That commenter noted,

this story bears out my earlier theory that skipper knew something bad had happened and maneuvered closer to shore in order to facilitate a rescue. This secondary maneuvering, very close to shore, could explain rock, or not…just saying.

We may eventually find out what actually happened. Until then, it’s fun to speculate.

There are normally few reasons generally to assume ideological bias in articles about ship groundings,  and there are many reasons to assume, or at least to be wary of, ideological bias in articles on politics, ideology, philosophy and religion. When reporters report and fact checkers check, those biases should be considered in reading what they write — even by those who agree with their ideologies.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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3 Responses to “Fact and Opinion in the News”

  1. larry |

    Mr. Dan
    Very Good
    Your writing ability and insight are refreshing. My read of this article is that people, their opinions and their facts, can vary widely. Most times I’m accused of being too opinionated and not capable of understanding. Its true that I read neither the Times or the Huffington Post. I have little faith in the credibility of either one. However, I do feel I’m as well read as the next person.
    My great dislike of this president and his policies does cause some reactions from others.
    I am who I am no more no less. Sadly many of my concerns about this president appear to have come to pass. Four more years of this?
    Dan please continue to post your articles. Like I said they’re very refreshing.

  2. Tom Carter |

    There’s no question that the media is biased, and that’s understandable given that human beings are involved. The bias toward liberal is clearly predominate, but there’s conservative bias, also. Maybe the split is something like 80-20, with the addition of a few weirdo conspiracy theorists who double as gold peddlers, the odious Alex Jones being a prime example.

    One thing that’s a bit disturbing is the tendency for true believers on both sides to refuse to expose themselves to arguments on the other side. Refusing to be informed on and think about points of view one disagrees with is a way of avoiding critical thinking and, at worst, promotes ignorance and extremism.

    Even Paul Krugman has an idea worth thinking about now and then, but how can anyone know that if he/she refuses to expose his/her fragile ideologies to different kinds of thinking?

  3. larry |

    Life has pretty much proven that there is truth in your desire /demand that we all keep an open mind and be willing to learn from experience. However we all pretty much agree that that age should bring wisdom, as in he was old enough to know better. People at the age of you, Dan and I should have established a certain mind set that has come with the years we’ve been exposed too. We know right from wrong whether or not we agree. We should be able to spot a scam artist or a thief. For our own safety we should know that there are people that will lie to us, steal from us and cheat us. That my friend is critical thinking as you call it. Fragile ideologies belong in the beginners class. People our age are expected to have the mental fortitude to stay the course.
    This country is, because of flexible ideologies, as close as it has ever been to failing. How would you define the ideologies that led us to this point. Better yet why has this not happened before now?
    I wish our points of view were more aligned but its not to be. Maybe in time?

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