Deference to Officials Not New and So True, Research on Torture Says

by Matthew L. Schafer

The mainstream media keeps taking its punches for its performance in recent years.  After the mainstream media’s shock at being scooped by Michael Hastings, a freelance reporter working for the Rolling Stone, the media is again suffering from its apparent lackluster performance.

A recent study reaffirms past research that has shown that the  media treat the government with deference.

A recent study reaffirms past research that has shown that the media treat the government with deference.

A new study from the Harvard School of Government, which appears to show a change in The New York Times editorial policy regarding torture after 9/11, has the mainstream media in quite a tussle.  The researchers in the Harvard study examined 354 articles from The New York Times over an almost 110 year period beginning in 1901.

The study, originally popularized by The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, found that before 1999 approximately 80% of stories called waterboarding or alluding to waterboarding as tortue, while only 1.4% of articles appearing after 9/11 from 2002-2008 referred to waterboarding as torture.  The New York Times, one of four news outlets examined, called the study’s conclusions “misleading.”

“As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (i.e. the Bush Administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a New York Times spokesperson wrote to Yahoo News’ Michael Calderone. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves.”

Despite the Internet’s current fascination with the study, which was released in April of this year, the deference of the mainstream press toward the Bush administration after 9/11 has been shown in study after study.

In a 2006 study, political scientists Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence, and Steven Livingston published an article in the Journal of Communication, which concluded that The Washington Post refused to (in all but 3% of the cases) describe the torture at Abu Ghraib prison as “torture.”

In 81% of articles, The Washington Post called the happenings at the prison “abuse,” and 15% of the article fell under “mistreatment” or “scandal.”

“In the pages of the Washington Post, even at the height of the Abu Ghraib story, the most prominent categorization by far was “abuse,” with “torture” barely appearing in the news coverage, and only slightly more often in editorials,” the authors concluded.

“The results of this study demonstrate that there was a sudden, significant, shift in major print media’s treatment of waterboarding at the beginning of the 21st century,” the researchers of the 2010 study concluded similarly.

As Glen Greenwald of Salon recently said, “We don’t need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task.”

Professor Lance Bennet has called this “volunteering” or deference given to the government by reporters “indexing.”  He means, simply, that the press only “indexes” or describes all official viewpoints and frames of a story, and not those viewpoints of non-official sources.

According to the 2006 article, when The New York Times ombudsman asked its editors why abuse was used in lieu of torture, The New York Times editor said, “Now that you tell me people are reading things into our not using ‘torture’ in headlines, I’ll pay closer attention.”

For years, scholarship has shown the mainstream media to be deferential to the government.  It appears that this is just another article to add to the large collection that have been accumulating over the years.  Again, this is a conversation about the media that should be happening, just don’t be surprised.

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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