"The media doesn't lie..." - BCB #36
Also: diversity training may be counterproductive, the politics of one-sided condemnation of violence
You’re probably mad about at least one major media outlet, whether that’s Fox News or the New York Times. In this article and its follow-up, Scott Alexander makes a counterintuitive claim: major publishers almost never actually fabricate or make up facts. Instead, the articles we get most angry about skew the importance of true facts.
Consider the Red headline, “Kari Lake Trial Bombshell: Audit Reveals 42.5% of Ballots Randomly Sampled Were ILLEGAL Ballots.” It’s possible the ballots were technically illegal, because they were accidentally printed slightly smaller than required and were causing problems for tabulating machines. The article was written before a court ruled the election results were still valid (these ballots were eventually counted by hand) but it doesn’t contain any outright lie. Or take the Blue headline about “Scott Walker’s Yellow Politics,”' which refers to requiring welfare recipients to take urine drug tests. It claims that only 0.01% of welfare recipients test positive for drugs. However, this would be far less than the 1% of positive tests in the general population. The key omitted context is that this “test” was just asking people if they were taking drugs. So, that 0.01% is a true result of a completely useless test.
This doesn’t mean all media outlets are equally credible — they’re not — or that stories with totally fabricated facts don’t exist – they do, but they are relatively rare, generally the work of financially-motivated spam shops, or even more rarely, state-sponsored information operations.
The next time you see “misinformation” regarding the pandemic, voting fraud, or conspiracy theories, consider reading carefully to see whether there are any actual false statements, or whether true statements are selected and framed to support a conclusion you disagree with. The distinction matters because it means that media “misinformation” is mostly not a matter of falsehoods, and therefore not as clear a category as we might hope.
If DEI training measurably improves institutions by making them fairer or more inclusive then we should certainly support it, but this article points out that there is little evidence that they do. Worse, there is some evidence that they can even make things worse. There are very few careful studies that test the effects of DEI training programs, and one of the best ones, from Harvard Kennedy School in 2018, lists five reasons to doubt.
First, there is no evidence that short-term educational interventions change anyone’s mind on these topics. Second, asking people to suppress stereotypes can reinforce them instead. Third, employees can become complacent about more deep-rooted biases by placing trust in quick-fix anti-discrimination programs. Fourth, “the message of multiculturalism, which is common in training, makes whites feel excluded and reduces their support for diversity, relative to the message of colorblindness, which is rare.” Finally, any effort that appears like an external power controlling behavior leads to negative feedback.
What works instead is a focus on action and behavior, rather than hearts and minds. This means that concrete, organization-specific interventions should be prioritized – such as changes in recruitment practices and policies. This requires more work, but it’s more effective than ticking the box with a white fragility workshop.
Last week, more than 200 House Democrats rejected a resolution condemning multiple attacks against pro-life pregnancy centers, pro-life organizations and churches following the leak of the Supreme Court abortion case this summer. It’s easy to see why Democrats didn’t vote for it: the resolution didn’t include any mention of the attacks on abortion providers and other pro-choice organizations.
The obvious thing to do would be to write a resolution condemning all of the violence around this issue, regardless of perpetrator and target. Part of good conflict is establishing and reinforcing norms against violence, norms that apply to everyone.
Therefore, we wonder if this one-sidedness was intentional, an old strategy that goes like this: publicly demand your opponents condemn violence perpetrated by people on their side. When they don’t – because they demand recognition of violence by people on your side too – denounce them for condoning violence.
Quote of the Week
Reporters rarely say specific things they know to be false. When the media misinforms people, it does so by misinterpreting things, excluding context, or signal-boosting some events while ignoring others, not by participating in some bright-line category called “misinformation.”