Media Bias

I’ve written about the dangers of believing everything you read and here I go again.

Matti Friedman was a reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of Associated Press who now exposes a particularly pernicious bias within the established news media. The article is entitled, An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth, and it exposes the news media’s bias against Israel. While I don’t agree with everything Friedman says in the article, my experience tells me that he is right that “the old comfort of parsing the moral failures of Jews, and the feeling of superiority this brings” is alive and well in the news media.

For over 20 years, I have had to sort through bias, prejudice, propaganda, and stupidity from the semblance of fact presented in news articles. Friedman’s article illustrates only one underlying narrative that distorts what passes for news reporting these days. If you must resort to searching for “facts” in news articles, then I urge you to read Friedman’s article.

Propaganda War

Shooting down a passenger jet has exposed some good old-fashioned Soviet-style propaganda. It’s not as good as some of Putin’s efforts, but it’s interesting to watch.

The Wayback Machine has captured some very interesting evidence that Russian-backed terrorists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. In a post by Igor Girkin on Vkontakte, Russia’s Facebook clone, the Ukrainian terrorist leader who is also known as Strelkov, claimed his forces downed what he thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane.

The Russian-backed terrorist claims he shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was caught by the Wayback Machine and publicized on their Twitter account, @InternetArchive ( See The Christian Science Monitor article that translates the content and provides a timeline of the attempts by the terrorists to hide this and blame the Ukraine government.

Meanwhile over at Wikipedia, the Twitter account @RuGovEdits monitors Wikipedia edits by the Russian government. It reveals Russia’s efforts to shift the blame to the Ukrainian government. Putin’s office and Russian media outlets made multiple edits to the page for the murder of the MH17 passengers to blame the “Ukrainian military”. @RuGovEdits should be trustworthy as the Wiki-twitterbot code is widely available on Github.

Social Media Early Warning System

Today, Social Media (SM) informs about emergencies, scandals, and controversial events before the traditional media. The news media has become a second source that tries to improve the signal to noise ratio.

Using SM as an early warning system isn’t a new idea, but few organisations actually do it because they never get around to creating an organised process for this function.

How to Create a SM Early Warning System

I start the process by first identifying the subject matter that I need in my early warning system and what informational role it will play. This includes identifying who will receive its output and who must act upon its output.

Carefully plan how you will communicate with the rest of your organisation. This needs to include an emergency distribution list with alternative distribution methods if normal communication methods start to break down.

The people who must act upon your information must trust that you will give them timely and accurate information. They must also know what you won’t provide. Gaining ths trust and understanding will take time and good old-fashioned salesmanship.

Next, I start identifying sources that provide reliable information that I then store, aggregate, and evaluate. As these sources become more trusted, I begin grouping them by topic, special knowledge, geography, and other factors. I then start asking them for more contacts that are equally reliable. To manage my contacts or sources, I build Twitter Lists, Facebook Interest Lists, Google Plus Circles, and use other similar list tools.

I contact my sources by email, Skype, and other means to build a relationship based upon trust and common interests. I note their strengths, weaknesses, skills, contacts, biases, and other relevant characteristics. It is important for me to treat all my contacts with respect and to view them as colleagues, rather than people to order about. I also act as a source to all my contacts as this isn`t a one-way street. I make it clear that I am looking for help rather than someone circulating rumors and misinformation. I do this by letting my contacts know what I do and do not know while steering clear of all inflammatory aspects of the topic as SM tends to amplify these without adding factual data.

I have seen many attempts to use SM for this fail once they realise that for this to work, it must be a collaborative effort. They don`t want to give as much as they receive as that requires too much effort, trust, and organisation.

To organise a SM early warning system you need to start a decision tree that allows you to go through the research, evaluation, and verification process in a logical and orderly manner without missing any steps. Design the process to identify the original content source or creator, verify that it represents events truthfully, and that the context of the content is not intended to mislead the viewer.

Use your favourite flow-chart software to make a decision tree suitable for the type of content and SM that you typically handle. Keep it simple. Start with only yes/no decisions. Each person on the team should add to the decision tree for their tasks as they learn new sources and methods.

Divide the decision tree into three components. First, identify the original poster or creator of the content. Second, investigate the source or creator of the content to help determine his reliability, biases, and online history. Third, investigate the content itself for defects that indicate that it is a fake, an intentional hoax, or some form of propaganda.

Over time, the decision tree and its supporting documentation will make your team seem super-human in its ability to wade through large volumes of complex material to expose fakers and reveal the true story.

Trolling RSS Feeds

RSS (Rich Site Summary) is a format for delivering regularly changing web content. Many news-related sites, blogs and other online publishers syndicate their content as an RSS Feed to whoever wants it.

I have written quite a lot about RSS in the past. The following are my choices for both installation on a PC and for a web-based reader.


RSSOwl is cross-platform as it’s Java-based. It handles RSS, Atom and RDF in terms of feed formats. You must have Java installed, no matter where you run it. It cooperates with Firefox to add feeds to RSSOwl from the browser. Just go to the feed and copy the URL then go to RSSOwl and click on add feed and it knows where to find the feed. You can also drag and drop Feeds from Firefox into RSSOwl. RSS Owl has an embedded web browser, so you don’t have to open up a separate browser window to view links or to view the full version of feed items that are shortened. You do have to set this up under “Browser” in the Preferences menu option. Choose to Default to the Embedded Browser. To get the RSSOwl embedded browser to work properly with OneNote so that it includes the URL in pasted items, you must enable Java Script. I do not recommend doing this except on an isolated machine otherwise, malicious Java Script code could cause serious problems.


When I need to collect video and podcasts from RSS feeds, I turn to RssBandit. The embedded browser is MS Internet Explorer, therefore, it includes the pertinent URL when you copy to OneNote as the embedded browser is the same.

This is my favorite RSS reader overall, though, I have experienced occasional problems with exporting feeds for another implementation of the reader. This problem seems to stem from differences in the underlying OS on the importing computer. It can be an irritation when starting a project with tight deadlines.

RSSOwl has an edge for a group of researching working in a collaborative environment as it is easier to set-up and distribute to the group.

Web-based RSS Reader

The two most popular seem to be Feedly and Inoreader readers that offers similar features and options.

Inoreader offers secure HTTPS access and over 40 different customization options. If I must use a web-based reader this is the one.

I refuse to use Feedly because extensions like NoScript, Adblock, HTTPS Everywhere, etc. prevent the site from loading. I never use sites infested with stuff that my normal suite of extensions prevents from loading. You only have to encounter one ad with malicious code to cost you many hours of work to purge the problem code from your machine.

Google Reader is Gone

Canada Day (1 Jul 13) has come and gone, and so has Google Reader. You have until 15 July to get your data out of Google Reader.

Now what? Do I need an RSS reader? Where do I get a web-based RSS reader? Have Twitter lists (which you may divide into different topics that focus on blog sources, news feeds and individuals) supplanted RSS? So many questions! So many decisions to make!

The RSS sky isn’t falling quite yet. There are alternatives and choosing one is a good reason to do some digital housecleaning. Alternative readers offer versions for Web browsers, mobile devices running iOS and Android, and cloud-based service. Hopefully, we will see innovation and competition in RSS apps and platforms.

Certainly, social media offers a human element that isn’t present in RSS feeds. However, RSS usually offers focused technical or industry information, the details of which social media usually omits. In the short-term, using  Reeder and Feedly as a front-end for RSS won’t work as these relied on Google Reader. I’m sure that will change very quickly, if it hasn’t already. (I don’t use either of these.) Twitter and Flipboard won’t replace an RSS reader for the information worker. The passing of Google Reader will only affect the ‘normal’ user who relied upon it.

The demise of Google Reader hasn’t changed how we deal with RSS feeds while doing Investigative Internet Research (IIR).  For a detailed explanation of how to handle RSS feeds while doing IIR get my new book, Sources & Methods for Investigative Internet Research, which is scheduled for publication in September.

Addition: Here’s How You Can Extract All Your Google Reader Data


If you haven’t heard, the Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, supposedly appears in a video smoking crack. Gawker wants donations to buy the video for $200,000. Well this seems like a 80/20 situation. 80% of the damage done in 20% of the time that this goes on.

Here are some things to consider about this strange news item:

1. If they don’t get enough money to buy this video, then we don’t know if it really exists, but the damage is done.

2. If they buy it, then they are paying-off criminals. After all they are self-professed crack dealers. They are the gangsters that bring about most of the shootings and murders in Toronto.

3. If they buy it, they need to buy the device that recorded the video or we can’t tell if it was altered.

4. It will take a long time to analyze the video to determine if it is likely unaltered. If it is altered or fake, it doesn’t matter, the damage is done.

5. While the video may be unaltered, we might not ever know if it was a continuous recording or one that was recorded selectively for some desired effect.

6. No matter what happens, the damage is done — damage that goes far beyond one mayor or city. Welcome to the brave new journalism.

What’s on Your Wishlist?

The Boston Marathon incident is somewhat instructive from an Investigative Internet Research (IIR) perspective.

News reporters are skilled at IIR — some to the exclusion of real journalistic skills if the preponderance of churnalism in the popular media is any measure. However, one instance of a reporter finding the terrorist’s Amazon Wish List is interesting. The reporter was drawing conclusions about the terrorist from the contents of the wish list.

The default Amazon Wish List setting is ‘Public’. The other settings are ‘Shared’ and ‘Private’ which seems to defeat the purpose. The default setting is the most common.

Searching TV News Broadcasts

The Internet Archive now has a searchable “lending library” of major television news broadcasts back to 2009. TV News Search & Borrow allows searching the closed caption transcripts of these broadcasts. However, these transcripts are rife with spelling errors and phonetic spellings because the caption writers work in real time and type what they’re hearing in a live newscast.

The more/borrow button leads to a collection of short clips that comprise the whole show rather than a continuous video of the whole show, while the Share Clip button brings up the URL of the video.

Their loan fees for DVDs begin at $50 and include shipping charges.

The Vanderbilt University’s Television News Archive contains copies of network news back to 1968 and now contains more than one million records. Their fee schedule can be found at


Do you carry a pocketknife?

“Without a pocketknife, a man isn’t properly dressed.”
– My Father.

According to the Los Angeles Times, an 11-month-old girl died in a burning car 28 Aug 11 because no one on the scene had a knife to cut her out of a car seat. The article clearly illustrates that a knife would have saved the child’s life while another article illustrates just the opposite result:  Father’s Day knife saves accident victim’s life.

I wonder how many times events like this happen without comment in the accident report or news media?


Liars, Damn Liars, and Statisticians

While researching an issue surrounding violence to women in a particlular neighbourhood, I came across an article titled, Men who buy sex tend to commit more crimes, study says. This is a typical use of statistics to lie.

Careful examination of the article reveals the sample is not representative. The respondents were only people who read “a local free daily newspaper”. This can create all kinds of biases in the resulting data, both deliberate and not.

Next, one has to consider the medium reporting the “study”. In this case the popular media. Media outlets usually report things that they feel will raise readership and are not above tweeking the content to make it more sensational. The author is described as a ” anti-prostitution activist” so what would you expect the conclusions of the “study” to be? In this case, the study states that men who are open about their use of sex-workers are more likely to admit that they’ve committed crimes. This merely means that this particular group of customers are likely to be more open about their misdeeds. The control group could easily have much less propensity to be open. How can a corelationship be established if the propensity to be open about past misdeeds is not the same?

These types of “studies” are just an attempt to support a pre-existing belief or world view and offer little in the way of hard data.


Guilt by Association

When searching for media articles, we are reporting more often about the tricks editors use to create guilt by association. It is important for the Investigator to recognise and report the  most common tricks used by editors to promote their social or political agendas. Bias in a news media article is as important as the content of the article.

The most common sly trick we see is the ways in which photo captions are used to support the editor’s social or political agenda after reporters have turned in an otherwise objective article.

The most common guilt by association Web trick is to run a news story immediately before, and with a link to, a story that supports the editor’s agenda.

Reporting on these editorial tricks is an important part of evaluating the data in the article.



Today’s Front Pages

Through a special agreement with more than 800 newspapers worldwide, the Newseum displays these front pages each day on its website. The front pages are in their original, unedited form.

Roll over the cities you are interested in and double click when you see a front page that interests you to get a larger image than the thumbnail that appears to the right of the map.

This is something I just found and I think it is a great idea to keep track of what is the main story in other cities.

National Security Silences the News

Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the shortwave service, reports that several countries were trying to prevent their people from hearing the news about the protests in Egypt. The service’s Media Network Blog illustrates the heavy-handed actions taken to restrict access to outside news services.

These events reveal how vulnerable news reporting is to government censorship.

We regularly design news monitoring programmes for clients and we have found that monitoring the shortwave services using BBC Monitoring has proved to be a successful strategy. However, cuts at BBC Monitoring may make this strategy less effective.

Most HF broadcasters predicted an end to their services during the next decade. I hope the situation in Egypt, and the response of other dictatorships, will make them reconsider.

Toronto Sun Surprised by Private Investigator

Private Investigators, Adjusters, and insurance companies get a lot of bad press due to bias, ignorance, and a desire to sensationalize the news.

In today’s Toronto Sun an article titled, How Facebook can screw you by Alan SHANOFF, the author states,

I wouldn’t be surprised to see insurance company adjusters and investigators trying to become a claimant’s “friend” to obtain inner circle access. Instead of a private investigator hiding in a van on your street or behind a bush, he might very well be tracking your movements in cyberspace.”

It’s obvious that SHANOFF would be surprised to learn that Private Investigators and Adjusters in Canada wouldn’t do this to a represented claimant.  I have written on this subject twice, and all the PI’s and Adjusters I have spoken to about this know that they may not “friend” the subject of an investigation if he or she is represented.  Simple fact checking would have corrected this.