Monday, July 5, 2010

It's not called torture if we do it

Aside: I would like to apologize the lack of blogging last week. I was involved in the preparations of the wedding of a close family member, so I had limited time to access the Internet. But, I did do a quick 15 minute scan of my favorite news sources and have a lot of post ideas, so expect a bit of heavy blogging this week.

A recent study (literature review) conducted by students at the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University on the media bias in the United States has revealed some interesting results. The paper, which focuses on the media coverage of waterboarding before and after 2004 (when it was revealed that the United States was utilizing waterboarding as an interrogation method) noted that in news articles from the 1930's onwards, waterboarding was uniformly referenced as torture in the majority of NYT and Los Angeles Times articles. In contrast, major American news publications rarely called or implied waterboarding as torture in their news articles from the period of 2004 to 2008. In these four years, the NYT utilized the word torture in reference to waterboarding in only two of its 143 articles (1.4%). The LA Times used it in three of its 63 articles (4.8%). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just one of its 63 articles (1.6%). As for USA Today, torture was never used or implied when describing this practice.

The results are much more interesting when it comes to other countries. According to the report, news publications were overwhelmingly likely to mention or imply torture in reference to countries other than the United States. For the NYT, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding were called or implied as torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The LA Times characterized waterboarding as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was involved.

This has important implications for the information that we access (or don't access) from these publications. Considering that only leading newspapers in the United States were examined, the subtle bias against criticism of US interrogation practices calls into question their journalistic credentials. It also highlights the extent to which self critical reporting is missing from the American establishment media.

It is unclear whether the decision for removing torture in reference to waterboarding was at the behest of the United States government or not. If this is the case, then the actions of the government clearly contradicts the concept of free press. However, it is more likely that the removal of torture references in the context of the waterboarding controversy in the United States is a case of self censorship, a more alarming scenario. If established media organizations are exercising self censorship and kowtowing to rather than questioning the official line, then it is a sad day indeed for the American press.

The report also highlights that the lack of critical journalism, is not only limited to American broadcast news organizations (see the attacks on Rolling Stone's Hastings who broke the McCrystal story), but also prevalent in prestigious news publications. Part of this has to do with the rise of new media, which forces news publications and broadcast organizations to compete on the same level as viral videos featuring kittens. The other part is the emergence of an atmosphere of fear in the post 9/11 period, where the language of patriotism has eaten away the objectivity and critical rational analysis central to good journalism. 

A fair and free press is essential to the existence of a healthy democracy. It fulfills the role of an overseer,  providing important checks and balances to power and access to information that ultimately decides the fate of democratic governments. As this Harvard study has indicated however, a fair and free press is virtually extinct among the established news media organizations in the United States. This may be the reason why it was a freelance jounalist Michael Hastings associated with Rolling Stone Magazine, not the New York Times or Wall Street Journal who broke the biggest story of the war in Afghanistan.

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