A Little Information is a Dangerous Thing :: How the Structure of a News Story Can Impact Public Opinion

The way a news story is structured or what goes in the headline may have a profound effect on what people think they know about current events. This, in turn, can impact people's views on politics and the world. A story in the National Post today provides an example of how a completely factual news story can be misleading, with potentially dire consequences.

As late as June of this year 63% of U.S. Republicans polled still believe that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. In September of 2011, 10 years after the event of 9-11, 15% of Americans believed that Iraq was directly involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. To people who know better these beliefs are baffling. No credible media outlet has ever reported that WMDs were found and there has never been any evidence of Iraqi involvement in 9/11.

Part of the problem may very well lie in how thoroughly people read or watch the news. People are busy and many do not devote much time to the news. They may simply read or hear a headline, they may only read the first paragraph of a story. Journalists know that this is true. In a written news story, only a fraction of the people who read the first paragraph will read the last paragraph. That is why news is written the way it is. The traditional model for writing a news story is called the inverted pyramid. Using this structure the information is organized in order of importance. The most important parts of the story are at the top and less important details are filled in at the end.

When 9/11 first happened there was speculation about Iraqi involvement, though no evidence for this was ever found. When the War in Iraq started there were many stories about "possible" WMD finds, though no actual weapons were ever found. However, in an effort by media outlets to grab readers and/or viewers the fact that there were no WMDs or that there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in 911 may have been pushed down past the point where casual readers would have noticed.

Take, for example, an Associated Press story in today's National Post: The story is titled "Iran could have enough uranium for a nuclear weapon in three months: Officials" might lead some to believe that Iran is three months from having a bomb. Having enriched uranium and having a nuclear warhead are two very different things, but it is unclear how much of the population knows that.

The opening paragraphs of the story, where the most important information should go, certainly do nothing to dispel the idea that Iran almost has the bomb:
Iran is on the threshold of being able to create weapons-grade uranium at a plant it has heavily fortified against Israeli attack, diplomats told The Associated Press on Thursday, calling into question an Israeli claim that Iran had slowed its nuclear time table.

One of three diplomats who discussed the issue said Iran was now technically ready within days to ramp up its production of 20 percent enriched uranium at its Fordo facility by nearly 700 centrifuges. That would double present output, and cut in half the time it would take to acquire enough of the substance needed to make a nuclear weapon, reducing it to just over three months.

It is not until the last sentence of the fifth paragraph that the following vital bit of information is included: "They say that Tehran is believed to be years away from mastering the technology to manufacture a fully operational warhead."  This seems to be an important bit of information. It says to the reader 'this is something worth watching but there is nothing to be alarmed about at the moment." Of course alarming people sells more papers.

In the United States and Canada violent crime has been declining steadily for some time. You would never know that from watching network news though. The phase "If it bleeds it leads" describes a common, even pervasive, approach to commercial news where the most horrific, violent stories of the day are given center stage. This approach creates unnecessary fear amongst the public, but it also works if you're trying to sell papers or grab viewers. Everyone complains about 'rubber-necking' but if you get near an accident on the freeway it appears that everyone stops to look.

In the case of crime the consequences may be increased alarm sales, increased attendance at self defense classes, a reluctance to go out at night, a general paranoia about your neighbors and increased support for police and prisons. In the case of Iran and nuclear weapons though the results could be far more dire. In the lead up to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq the American media did a poor job of asking questions and delivering factual information. As the war hawks begin to turn their gaze on Iran there is a danger of it happening again.

War is not an acceptable price to pay for newspaper sales and ratings. It is vital in cases like this that journalists and editors remember the public service aspect of their profession and deliver timely, accurate information about what is going on. For the casual news consumer, many of whom stopped reading this after the first few paragraphs, it is a good idea to carefully read the entire story when it comes to important issues.

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