McManus, John. Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast, and on the Wild Web

By Bicak, Pete | Communication Research Trends, March 2010 | Go to article overview

McManus, John. Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast, and on the Wild Web


Bicak, Pete, Communication Research Trends


McManus, John. Detecting bull: How to identify and bias and junk journalism in print, broadcast, and on the wild web. (CD book). Pp. 272. Sunnyvale, CA: The Unvarnished Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9840785-0-9 (CD). $23.93. Available from http://www.detectingbull.com/online_buy_page2.htm.

Aristotle never used the term "BS," but he might agree with John McManus' assertion that some journalism is simply that--Bald Sophistry. McManus' Detecting Bull is a book on compact disc that lays out basic propositions on the form and function of modern journalism in order to equip readers with tools to be more informed citizens--that is, to identify bald sophistry. He writes that journalism ought to "help as many people as possible make sense of issues and events that affect their lives" (Ch. 9, p. 2). The author, who is director of the San Jose State university-based Grade the News, carefully engages the reader in how journalism currently works in order to prepare them to identify BS.

Each chapter lays out several propositions about a classic issue in journalism such as bias, objectivity, or commercial influence. The issue in Chapter 1 is the rapidly changing nature of our information system. McManus argues that there are simply fewer well-trained journalists as a result of a shifting business model in the industry. Public trust in journalism is failing largely due to the perception (and reality) that journalism is motivated by profit. Spin and propaganda have undercut traditional journalism by supplying popular but unreliable information. McManus invokes Stephen Colbert in Chapter 2 to frame the battle between and truth and "truthiness"; fragments of the truth are disguised more than ever so truth doesn't seem to simply win out in public debate. This chapter builds the case for critical thinking about news sources. One major proposition is that the media should discover truth; truth then leads to trust, and "trust is the glue that holds society together" (p. 3). A discussion of philosophical positions on truth culminates in a final proposition that posits that journalists can draw from agreement (pragmatic) truths, or those truths based on the classic model of who, what, when, where, and how. McManus continues laying the foundation of his view of human information processing in Chapter 4 by posing propositions on human beings' ability to see the world clearly. Essentially, these propositions are based on perception. Among numerous examples, he cites a Princeton/Dartmouth football game experiment of 1951 to show how viewers of the same event see very different things; objectivity is essentially impossible.

In Chapter 5 the author discusses the influence of institutions on journalism. While some journalism still adheres to classic, agreed upon principles, much of contemporary journalism is motivated by profits. Commercial interests exert enormous influence, and one cannot understand the news unless one understands the commercial pressures behind it. Among the propositions is the claim that the most threatening bias is not an alleged liberal or conservative bias, but a commercial bias. As one example, McManus includes a memo on Brittney Spears from AP Los Angeles Assistant Bureau Chief Frank S. Baker that shows how some news seems simply to defer to publicists to shape the news. Baker wrote that virtually anything Spears did was "a big deal" and that the AP should watch whatever anybody else wrote in order to confirm it (p. 5).

McManus encourages us to reconsider objectivity in Chapter 6. He suggests replacing objective with empirical, reflected in his propositions: news is inherently biased and objectivity is not only undesirable, but is impossible. McManus draws from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil to define empiricism as a "practical or functional form of truth" (p. 6). He identifies three positive biases in which media engage--picking out the news, packaging it, and simplifying it. These processes prevent information overload, but we must be aware of the value systems behind these choices, for news represents reality, it does not reflect it.

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