Unconscious Bias?

NPR’s On The Media this morning (Saturday, the 8th of December, 2012) had a segment about the ethics of photographing tragedy. Co-host and managing editor of On The Media Brooke Gladstone talked with New York Times’ media correspondent, David Carr about an incident where a man was photographed seconds before he was run over by a subway train; the New York Post published that photo on their front page.

The specifics of the incident were not what caught my attention and I won’t discuss them directly. What caught my interest was a portion of the discussion between Ms. Gladstone and Mr. Carr about whether it was appropriate for the Post to publish the picture. The transcript below is homemade so may contain inaccuracies.

Brooke: Back in August the NYT was criticized for running a graphic photo on the website’s front page of the victim of the shooting at the Empire State Building. Was that okay?

David: At the time I was on Twitter saying that it was. You couldn’t really recognize the victim and as someone who cares a lot about the issue of gun violence and thinks it is often depicted in ways that are unrealistic in popular culture, I thought there was value in suggesting there was sometimes gun violence ends in ways that are, you know, hard to look at but important to know. His family was actually livid about the photo and thought that we were doing precisely the same thing that the Post did which was taking a personal tragedy and deploying it to commercial ends.

Brooke: Okay, and you?

David: I don’t think so. The guy was dead. It was over. He was not about to be shot. I thought it was worth publishing – probably not on the front page of the paper, and we didn’t, but yeah … as one of the images that appeared on our web site, yeah. I think it was OK.

Brooke: Would it have been OK if the Post had put the picture of the man on the subway tracks on its web site?

David: I suppose … I’m not sure. I think it would have been better. What has happened is that it’s been memorialized and the language is doom; “This man is about to die.” That seems salacious. That seems over the top.

Brooke: I am no fan of the Post but I have been impressed by what the rest of the media have done with the ensuing coverage. And if that picture of the man at the Empire State Building serves a value in illustrating gun violence why wouldn’t this one serve an equal value telling you to stay away from the edge of the platform?

David: I am on the verge of being convinced by you which was not my intention when I submitted to your interview wiles, Brooke. You actually may be right. You made me think. That’s horrible!

It is rare to witness conversations these days where someone changes their mind about something or even concedes that doing so is possibile. Mr. Carr does so which redounds to his credit. That is not what piqued my interest however.

In September 2012 On The Media took up Ira Glass’ question, Does NPR have a liberal bias? They did a good job of probing the topic, or as a cynic might observe, as good a job of examining potential liberal media bias as a potentially liberally-biased media organization could possibly do.

What intrigued me about today’s On The Media conversation was that Mr. Carr’s conclusion that it was okay for the New York Times to publish the Empire State Building shooting victim photo because it would illustrate realistic gun violence.[1] This exchange represents an example of why some might think there is pervasive bias in the media.

What is interesting is that the conversation just continues on with this explanation and Brooke’s acceptance of it at face value, as if “Of course, all right thinking people agree with this objective and using the news media to achieve it is a good thing.”

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Who is in favor of gun violence?[2] Nobody. No, not even the the National Rifle Association is in favor of gun violence. NRA policies might affect gun violence levels (possibly upward or downward) but they do not advocate gun violence.

Nobody is in favor of gun violence. So what is the point in publishing the photo if pretty much everybody is already against gun violence? We are already against it. What we are not agreed on is the specific policies that should be adopted to address gun violence.

My inference is that the unstated point is to persuade people to take certain policy positions that Mr. Carr (and the media shibboleth) advocate to address gun violence.

The photo of the Empire State Building shooting victim is particularly problematic for those suspicious of pervasive media bias because, although not posed, the victim is an a Christ-like position with arms extended to the sides and bright red blood flowing from his head toward the gutter.

Can an unposed photo be propaganda? I think the answer depends on how the picture is used and if it is intended here to influence the public’s policy preferences, then it is propaganda.

I am not taking a position here on gun control. I am observing that there may be shared understandings between people – common ways of looking at the world – unarticulated assumptions – that left unexamined can manifest as unconscious media bias. To paraphrase Mr. Carr’s remark above, it could look to a suspicious mind a lot like the Times was “was taking a personal tragedy and deploying it to commercial political ends.”

  1. I suspect that the term ‘gun violence’ is itself is a leading indicator of bias. It silently presupposes that guns are the cause of violence and that the violence implemented with guns is more significant than that using other means.  ↩

  2. I assume that ‘gun violence’ means the criminal use of firearms. Except for pacifists, society make exceptions for limited instrumental violence, e.g. self-defense, law enforement, military actions, hunting that are permissible.  ↩