Why Clickbait Reporting is the Real Problem, Not “Liberal Bias”

If you were reading Salon, ThinkProgress, or Glenn Greenwald this October 3rd, you might think the United States under Trump’s leadership began the process of criminalizing homosexuality and executing gays.

Here’s what happened: The United States and every other country where the death penalty is still in practice voted against a resolution introduced by anti-death penalty countries intending to push a moratorium on the death penalty.

Here’s how it was reported by Salon: “U.S. votes against U.N. resolution condemning death penalty for LGBT people; is this who we are?

ThinkProgress: “United States rejects UN resolution condemning use of death penalty to target LGBTQ people

Huffington Post Queer Voices: “US Rejects UN Resolution Condemning Death Penalty For LGBTQ People, Other Groups

Patheos Friendly Atheist: “Trump Admin Votes Against U.N. Plan Condemning Death Penalty for Gays

PinkNews: “Why did the US vote against banning the death penalty for gay people?

Newsweek: “Why did the Trump Administration Vote Against U.N. Motion Condemning Gay Death Penalty?

Glenn Greenwald: “US joins Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, China & Egypt in voting NO on UN resolution opposing death penalty for LGBTs

Human Rights Council Global:  “Ambassador Haley has failed the LGBTQ community by not standing up against the barbaric use of the death penalty to punish individuals in same-sex relationships.”

The reality is the resolution condemned the death penalty itself. It wasn’t limited to condemning capital punishment for gays, rape victims, apostates, “blasphemers,” adulterers, and other innocent people. That was but one provision within the 14 operative clauses in addition to two dozen preambular clauses.

The thrust of the resolution was to criticize the death penalty itself. The assertion that the U.S. “joined” a bunch of Middle Eastern theocracies is extremely misleading, too, as Greenwald’s too-clever-by-half inclusion of China, which doesn’t execute homosexuals, demonstrates. The U.S. joined nearly every country on the Human Rights Council for which capital punishment is legal, including India, Japan, and South Korea (which abstained), in not endorsing the anti-death penalty resolution. The one exception was Ghana, which hasn’t used the death penalty since 1993 and is considering formally outlawing it.

At the same time, almost all the countries that have banned the death penalty within their own borders voted for the resolution, the exception being Burundi, which continues to kill over 300 citizens a year extrajudicially despite having banned the death penalty in criminal law. (Had the U.S. voted in favor of the bill, then they would have “joined” such authoritarian countries as Venezuela, the Congo, and Rwanda.)

Some of the outlets above noted some of those details in their full stories — others didn’t — but if a reader just saw the headline on Facebook and scrolled past it, they would be left with a very distorted understanding. Online editors must think of interesting titles to attract eyeballs and get clicks, but that’s no excuse for pushing distortions and outright falsities. Headlines are still part of an item’s content and must be accurate in order to comport with journalistic standards and general ethics. Twitter and Facebook exacerbate the problem.

Conservatives and populists take examples like this as evidence to vindicate their distrust of the press. Timothy Carney, a columnist for the Washington Examiner (itself part of the conservative press), wrote of a somewhat similar example of media distortions that, “The Hill’s stupid coverage of Rick Perry’s sexual assault comment is why nobody trusts the media.” In truth, these kinds of media distortions take place on “both sides,” not just the “liberal media” so often demonized.

In the wake of terrorism in New York City, Fox News jumped into action to utilize the tragedy to smear CNN anchor Jake Tapper. The conservative cable news outlet stated via its Twitter account that, “.@CNN’s Jake Tapper says ‘Allah Akbar’ is ‘Beautiful’ Right After NYC Terror Attack.

He said it was an Islamic chant that is used by Muslims on all kinds of occasions. To take a quote from the text of Fox News’ article: “The Arabic chant ‘Allahu Akbar,’ God is great, sometimes is said under the most beautiful of circumstances. And too often, we hear it being said in moments like this.”

The lead of the article read, “CNN anchor Jake Tapper said the Islamic phrase ‘Allahu akbar’ can be said ‘under the most beautiful of circumstances’ just minutes after a terrorist attack in New York City.” Once a reader gets to the actual quote, however, there appears to be no reason why any news organization should write an article about such a trivial statement.

And yet Fox News’s prime time hosts spent their precious airtime hyperventilating about it. Sean Hannity said, with his usual offended sanctimony, “Fake Jake Tapper … described the phrase shouted by the terrorist, ‘Allahu akbar,’ well he said that sometimes can be something said in beautiful circumstances.” Hannity didn’t even check with the real Jake Tapper.

Like in the Rick Perry example, many of the full articles include some measure of context and fuller quotes, but the overall meaning is to distort reality until it’s almost unrecognizable. The quote came from a forum with Axios and NBC, and Energy Secretary Perry’s clear meaning was simply that electricity — which is produced primarily by fossil fuels — is necessary for development:

“I just got back from Africa, I’m going to finish up with this, because I think I heard a lady say there are people dying. Let me tell you where people are dying, is in Africa, because of the lack of energy they have there. And it’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out into those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, ‘one of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I’m not going to have to try to read by the light of a fire and have those fumes literally killing people.’ But also from the standpoint of sexual assault. When the lights are on, when you have light that shines, the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that. I happen to think it’s going to play a positive role.”

Notice Perry was responding to a question about people dying from pollution and he countered that more people die from lack of energy or complications relating to lack of energy. He gave two examples: people dying from inefficient energy sources used to light homes and people allegedly getting sexually assaulted in the dark, but the broader point that can be taken is that there are many necessities of life, education being mentioned, that require electricity. Sexual assault was mentioned as an afterthought — see the “also.”

However, most of the outlets that covered it led with “sexual assault” in the headline:

The Hill: “Perry links fossil fuel development to preventing sexual assault

BBC: “US energy chief: Fossil fuels may prevent sexual assault

The Guardian:Rick Perry under fire for suggestion fossil fuels can reduce sexual assault

USA Today: “Energy Secretary Rick Perry says fossil fuels could help prevent sexual assault in Africa”

The New York Times: “Rick Perry’s Strange Sex Story

The Washington Post: “Rick Perry said fossil fuels could help stop sexual assault. Oops.

The problem everyone jumped on, as Axios noted in its article — which did print the full quote above — is that sexual assault is not clearly linked to public lighting. Axios linked to one study that found, “Overall, there was no evidence for an association between the aggregate count of crime and switch off (RR 0.11; 95% CI 0.01 to 2.75) or part-night lighting (RR 0.96; 95% CI 0.86 to 1.06). There was weak evidence for a reduction in the aggregate count of crime and dimming (RR 0.84; 95% CI 0.70 to 1.02) and white light (RR 0.89; 95% CI 0.77 to 1.03).”  But Carney linked to a study commissioned by the city of Chicago that “found an increase in theft, narcotics, battery and criminal damage associated with streetlight outages that impacted entire blocks,” so it’s not at all clear that there is a consensus in the literature.

A more salient point is that sexual assault often isn’t even done in the dark. If there is anything we have learned from the current news cycle, which is likely a reason why Perry thought to mention it and why the news thought to run with it, it’s that sexual assault is often committed under the fluorescent bulbs on a corner office. In that sense, Perry’s comment about sexual assault was off-target but didn’t impact the veracity of his larger point.

Yet, the Hill paraphrased his point and left the sexual assault line as the only direct quote:

“He said a young girl told him that energy is important to her because she often reads by the light of a fire with toxic fumes.

‘But also from the standpoint of sexual assault,’ Perry said. ‘When the lights are on, when you have light that shines, the righteousness, if you will on those types of acts.'”

None of this, however, is reason to distrust everything any news outlet says. Rather it is important to have media literacy and evaluate a news story just like you would evaluate any other claim: consider the evidence. If there is a short snippet of a quote, search for the full quote. Consider the context and question whether the interpretation is valid. Look up corroborating evidence.

Carney’s suggestion that Americans are justified in distrusting practitioners of his own profession is shallow and self-serving (for him as a conservative, not as a journalist). It’s a hallmark strategy of the Trump administration that helps it hold onto the one-third of the public that still supports him and Carney buys into that narrative in his opening line. But the clickbait problem knows no ideology. Encouraging readers to distrust the media is a cop-out (that conveniently aligns with the writer’s preferred ideology) to avoid the small challenge of actually having to read and evaluate critically.

Mitchell Blatt

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist and travel writer who has been published in National Review, Acculturated,
Roads & Kingdoms, The World of Chinese, The Federalist, and The Hill.com. He has written two guidebooks, including Panda Guides Hong Kong.
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Mitchell Blatt

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist and travel writer who has been published in National Review, Acculturated,
Roads & Kingdoms, The World of Chinese, The Federalist, and The Hill.com. He has written two guidebooks, including Panda Guides Hong Kong.

4 thoughts on “Why Clickbait Reporting is the Real Problem, Not “Liberal Bias”

  1. From your headline, “Why Clickbait Reporting is the Real Problem, Not “Liberal Bias”” I was expecting an analysis of clickbait — how it works and what makes it effective. Instead I got lists of propagandistic news slanting. I have to conclude that your headline about clickbaiting is clickbait.

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