Lying with the facts

It’s subtle, at first, but there’s always a narrative being spun, even in otherwise ‘objective’ reports. Take this story about wolves in the Netherlands:

Ruissen, a member of the fundamentalist Protestant party SGP, said wolves, which now number over 20,000 in Europe, are causing problems for sheep farms and agriculture in some regions. ‘It’s ok to want to protect a species but why would they need to be protected in all member states? In the Netherlands we simply don’t have the space, perhaps only for a few wolves in the Veluwe national park,’ he told the paper.

This argument may or may not be sound. I have no idea; wolves are well outside of my area of expertise.

What makes me suspicious is the phrase “a member of the fundamentalist Protestant party SGP”. What possible relevance could that have to the story? It feels like it’s a signal to say it’s not politically correct to agree with Ruiseen’s conclusion. Most readers aren’t likely informed enough to have a proper opinion, so will subconsciously take this as a cue ignore the guy—he’s a crazy fundamentalist, after all.

I first started to notice this in 2016 Democratic primaries. The NYT would write glowing praises about Hillary Clinton, try to ignore that Bernie Sanders existed and then only begrudgingly write about about him. It’s not that anything they wrote was factually incorrect, to my knowledge, but the narrative they wove was flat out wrong.

Another classic is this dissection of the “cyclist in a collision” genre. Rather than saying a driver on a poorly designed street hit a cyclist, reporters write in the passive and mention helmets, clothing and other irrelevant details to shift the blame on the cyclist.

This type of writing is all over. If you just skim the headlines, it’s easy to miss; although, I still would bet the subconscious influence remains. That’s why it’s worth taking the time to read full stories and spending even more time to analyze them.