Number 588 November 6, 2015

This Week: Media Propaganda Self Defense Tips - Part 3 (Tip #5)

"Quote" of the Week: "The Most Urgent Issue Facing Minneapolis"
Media Propaganda Self-Defense, Concrete Tip #5: Read the Whole Article
Case Study: The Working Families Agenda in the News



The Fall 2015 Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive is over. The response has been GREAT! Thank you! It's still going on, actually—a number of you have written to say that "the check's in the mail." And I believe you! Nygaard Notes readers are an honest bunch, for the most part. Plus, every day I keep finding more Pledges. Yay!

Almost 50 of you have sent in your Pledges so far, and I thank you from the deepest recesses of my heart! And a special thanks to those of you who took an extra minute to enclose a note with your check. Your kind words really have an effect on me. And your good wishes and appreciation really heighten my already-high motivation to keep discovering, to keep researching, and to keep sharing with you the interesting, important, and/or useful things that I find on the journey.

Some of you are procrastinating (one apologetic reader hilariously signed her email "Slacky McSlack Slack"), but I'm sure she and the rest of you will get around to sending in your Pledge before long. Won't you? And the rest of you will hear from me again, as a certain small amount of pestering is more or less required when one wears the fundraiser's hat.

But the Official, Only-In-These-Pages, Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Broadcast Appeal (otherwise known as the Pledge Drive) is now officially over, and we can get back to our Concrete Tips for Media Propaganda Self-Defense. Before the Pledge Drive interrupted things, we had gotten through Concrete Tips #1-4. This week we pick up with Concrete Tip #5, and this time it's accompanied by a case study of a very important local issue.

Thanks again for all your support! Nygaard Notes now resumes it's regularly-scheduled programming.



"Quote" of the Week: "The Most Urgent Issue Facing Minneapolis"

On October 14th the Mayor of Minneapolis announced that she was backing off "for now" from a citywide initiative that would that would have mandated fair-scheduling protections for workers in this city. Responding to the Mayor's announcement, the broad-based coalition #MplsWorks issued a statement that included the following words:

"Closing racial and economic gaps is the most urgent issue facing Minneapolis. It is incredibly disappointing that our elected officials are backing away from one important part of the Working Families Agenda, fair scheduling protections, which would go a long way toward shrinking the racial divide in Minneapolis. We continue to believe that protections like earned sick and safe time and the prevention of wage theft are urgently needed solutions for Minneapolis workers. We will join with workers, policymakers, business owners, and community members to continue to press for policies that improve the lives of Minneapolis families."

In this edition of the Notes, I take a look at how the Mayor's decision was covered in the local media.


Media Propaganda Self-Defense, Concrete Tip #5: Read the Whole Article

I always encourage people who are reading the news to be aware of what I call the Media's PET, which is shorthand for the editorial decisions that the media make with each and every story they report. PET stands for the Placement, Emphasis, and Tone of a story. P = WHERE a story appears; E = WHICH PARTS are emphasized or de-emphasized; and T = HOW it is reported. I first talked about this back in 2004 (Nygaard Notes #267), in an article simply called "The Media's PET."

In this spirit, Concrete Tip #5 for Media Propaganda Self-Defense is simple:


It sounds simple, but as I explain it you'll see that it's not quite as simple as it sounds.

I always come to the media with at least three questions:

1. I use the headline and lead paragraph ONLY to see if there is a reasonable chance that the article concerns something worthwhile, and if it suggests a positive answer to what is actually my first question: Is there any information here that is worth having that I did not have before?

2. Can any of that information, however disguised or encoded, help me to better understand the social forces that are creating the world in which we live? ("The better to change them, my dear!")

3. How does the PET (Placement, Emphasis, and Tone) of the news story itself reinforce or challenge our perception of those social forces?

(Note: Recall here Concrete Tip #3: Formulate Your Questions Before Looking at the News Media.)

However biased or superficial a news story in the daily mass media may appear, the fact remains that the reporter producing the story was closer to the action than we were. And that means that she has seen or heard things that we haven't. Some of the things she heard or saw will appear in the news story. (And many won't, which is why a good media system would have lots of news organizations with very diverse crews of journalists. But that's a discussion for a later time.)

Those of us who skim the daily news, reading only the headlines or listening only to the top-of-the-hour stories that the media chooses, are going to miss a lot of important information. That's because it's often the case that the "real story" appears toward the end of an article. Often it appears in a random location in the article.

We increasingly live in a bite-sized information environment. I'm not talking about the 140-character world of Twitter, although that's probably worth discussing, now that I mention it.

But there's a larger issue here, which is that the modern world—and not just the electronic one—makes so many demands on our time that many of us tend to skim through things quickly because we have to get on to the next story, the next post, the next comment, the next video.

One result of this "snacking" approach to news is that we either limit ourselves to very short, Twitter-like news items or, if we do look at a longer-format news source, we skim it, looking only at the front-page headlines and maybe the lead paragraph. This approach fails to account for the fact that even the most biased, out-of-context, or blatantly propagandistic news story often has important information to offer. We just have to be thorough, and come to the media with some sense of what it is that we're looking for. (See Concrete Tip #4: Set Your Own News Agenda.)

Forget for a moment the "P" in PET, as the whole subject of the Placement of a news story is a subject in itself, and I'll discuss it more when we get to Concrete Tip #9. All I'll say right now is that it is sometimes the case that the whole story serves only as a distraction from the "real" story—which is sometimes why it is in the newspaper in the first place. Again, we'll cover this in Concrete Tip #9.

For now, consider the EMPHASIS and the TONE of an article, which is often hard to see unless we... read the whole article!

For a number of reasons, including lack of time, habit, embedded ideology, bias, limited sources, limited resources, and fear of reprisal from editors or powerful community voices, certain points in a news story get elevated to the "sound bite" that is found in the headline and lead paragraph, and that then appear on the top-of-the-hour news summaries and get talked about around the water cooler, etc. Other points get moved down in the article—if they're not edited out entirely—and often it is those other points that are more reflective of reality, and thus more useful. So, why are they moved down? Because they are less consistent with the culture of the newsroom and, more generally, with the larger political culture that the newsroom creates and reflects.

For all of these reasons, one should never assume that the headline and/or the lead as presented will be the headline or lead that makes the most sense. Remember that the person reporting a story does not write the headline. Editors do that and, while the headline and lead are supposed to accurately capture the main, or most important, points of the story, they don't always. Or, it may be that the editor's idea about what is the main point is not the same as yours.

I know everyone is pressed for time, but if you are in the habit of skimming the newspaper (online or print) by reading the headline and the first few sentences, let this be your warning: You're participating in your own indoctrination. Put simply: Here lies Propaganda.

The long and short of it is this: Despite reports to the contrary, news articles in the corporate press often contain very important information. But the information is often buried in odd places in the article, and sometimes it's referred to only indirectly. Therefore, in conclusion, and as a means of inoculating yourself against this particular form of propaganda, I offer Concrete Tip #5 for Media Propaganda Self-Defense: READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE.


Case Study: The Working Families Agenda in the News

In the previous essay I said that the most important point of a news story may appear toward the end of a news article, or it may be stuck in a random place in the article. Such placement has a large effect on readers' perception of the meaning and significance of the story. For an illustration of how this works, let's consider a front-page story from my local paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, of October 15th.

First, the background: Last year a coalition of labor, community and religious groups in Minneapolis began advocating for a set of proposals that would improve wages and working conditions for low-income working people in Minneapolis. The proposals included: A local minimum wage ordinance that would pay up to $15 an hour; Enforcement of laws against wage theft (that is, the various ways that employers get out of paying for the work that their employees do, for instance by not paying overtime or by forcing workers to work off the clock); Mandatory paid sick leave, and; A fair-scheduling ordinance that would require advance notice of work schedules and a legal requirement that workers be paid for last-minute changes or cancellations in work shifts.

Taken together, these proposals became known as the Working Families Agenda, and the coalition that formed this past summer to promote them—called Minneapolis Works—says that the motivation is that "Hourly workers, primarily women and people of color in Minneapolis, are facing enormous racial and economic disparities" in the city. The Agenda was supported by lots of local politicians, starting with Mayor Betsy Hodges. But, after a strong start, the labor news site Workday Minnesota reported on October 17th that "In the face of growing push-back from the business community [Minneapolis Mayor Betsy] Hodges announced Oct. 14 that fair scheduling would be pulled — 'for now' — from the Working Families Agenda."

A Victory? Or a Defeat?

The day after the Mayor's announcement, the local paper covered the story, in fact placing it on the top of the front page, under a large headline that read: "Mpls Shelves Workplace Mandate." Here's the lead paragraph: "After weeks of heavy criticism from business owners, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has pulled her support from a proposal that would have imposed the most expansive workplace scheduling requirements in the country."

Those who read only the headline and the first few paragraphs could be forgiven if they came away with a sense of relief: "Business owners" have just saved the city from another example of the oppressive and heavy-handed regulation on the part of government.

But readers who read the whole article would learn that there's another way to look at this development. Here's the lead paragraph I might have written:

"Despite a clear need to take concrete action to address severe racial disparities in employment in the city, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has pulled her support from a proposal that has broad support from the city's workers and communities of color."

Now here's where we get to Concrete Tip #5: This alternative interpretation did appear in the Star Tribune article, but it wasn't until the 10th paragraph, which said:

"Workers' groups said the proposals would provide stability for low-wage and hourly workers. They argued that regulations ensuring predictable scheduling, along with those mandating paid sick leave, would help erase racial and economic inequality in Minneapolis. [Mayor Betsy] Hodges has rallied the support of those groups for her other initiatives aimed at improving racial equity, one of the central goals of her administration."

The article also refers to opposition to the Agenda on the part of "large businesses" and "large corporations." But it fails to mention the size and power of this opposition. A look elsewhere in the news universe tells us that business organizations like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, with members that include some of the largest and most powerful corporations in Minnesota—corporations like 3M, Comcast, Cargill, Koch, the biggest of the big—have organized themselves into a group called the "Workforce Fairness Coalition," which promises "to oppose proposals calling for fair scheduling and earned sick time for Minneapolis workers."

So, what is a reader to make of the decision by the Mayor to withdraw her support from one of her central goals? Was it, as the lead paragraph implies, a reasonable backing off from an extreme proposal? Or was the proposal to have "the most expansive workplace scheduling requirements in the country" a reasonable proposal in a city with some of the worst racial disparities in the country? As the article goes on, the reporter does a good job of pointing out that this struggle has more than one side. But the people who skimmed the headline and the lead paragraphs—and that's a lot of us—would have come away with a one-sided version of the latest developments.

Editor's postscript: This is an important story, and not just for us here in Minneapolis. As the Free Market creates more extreme inequality, we will see more of the kind of battles we are seeing here. If you want to learn more about Minneapolis Works, check them out HERE. The labor news service Workday Minnesota in August ran an excellent story on the launching of Minneapolis Works. Check out the 4-minute video and article HERE. For the business perspective, check out the website of the Workforce Fairness Coalition HERE.