Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Identifying Bias

By Ellipses

Scott Beveridge’s article on the Elrama power plant in the July 17 Observer-Reporter can be determined to have a distinct liberal bias. Beveridge’s article exaggerates the impact of consumers’ choices of energy efficient products, ignores obvious elements of the supply-demand dynamic, and paints the plant operators with a deceptively defeatist brush to minimize their inherent influence in the broader matter of domestic energy policy.

The article opens with Beveridge’s assertion that the Elrama plant is “operating at a bare minimum because of increased competition and smarter electricity consumers.Beveridge goes on to quote Benny Ethridge, the plant manager, in a way to suggest that the plant’s operating at 12% of capacity is due to compact florescent light bulbs and efficient appliances.

The demand for coal power is affected every time someone replaces a

traditional light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb or an old home

appliance with a new energy-efficient one, Ethridge said.”

Either Etherage is being deceptive in his disclosure of the reason that his plant is operating 88% below it’s capacity, or he is not particularly adept at accurately retracing cause-effect sequences. While replacing traditional incandescent bulbs with compact florescent lighting and upgrading appliances can have a marked effect on a household’s electricity usage, it has virtually no impact compared to a decades long population exodus from a region, both in individual citizens departing, and heavy industry and commercial development relocating. All of the energy star refrigerators and curly-cue light bulbs in the world aren’t going to compensate for the loss of the factories and mills that have closed down in the Monongahela Valley in the past 30 years.

How is that, though, a liberal perspective on the story? In going forward, we must generalize a couple of viewpoints and accept some premises as self-evident. First, we should assume that the environmental movement and primarily environmental concerns are the dominion of the left. We should also assume that the agenda of the left is to promote energy-efficient alternatives as equal substitutes for existing technology, and to portray the technology of yesteryear as woefully inefficient, dirty, and irresponsible.

By asserting that this power plant is operating at only 12% of its capacity because of newfangled light bulbs and new appliances, the message is clear: “New technology is devastatingly efficient and the path to a greener future is as easily traversed as replacing your light bulbs.”

Furthermore, Beveridge portrays the old technology in a way that suggests pity or a condescendingly patronizing attitude toward the plant operators. The plant is operating at such a reduced capacity that it isn’t even enough to require their half-century old pollution scrubbers to work up to today’s standards. So, for the few hours a week that it’s turbines limp to life, it belches soot and smoke, not unlike that racist, though elderly relative that is tolerated despite their anti-Semitic rants, odor, lack of control over bodily functions, and general unpleasantness because, quite frankly, they are old and nearly dead anyway.

Ethridge is quoted again as saying that the plant is “trying to compete as best as possible." Any sympathies for the energy industry can be attributed either to false pity for an industry that the left is all too quick to cheer the demise of, or to the author’s penchant for romanticizing the coal-fueled Burghs and Vales of Southwestern Pennsylvania in a sort of self-deprecating nostalgia for the age of blissful ignorance and self-righteous, blue collar arrogance that is present in every run down hole-in-the-wall mill bar along America’s Rust Belt.

The article ends with a pair of quotes that both appear to include typos. The first quote is attributed to Kurt Miller, resident of neighboring West Elizabeth:

"It let loose a load noise," Miller said. "Within a minute, it was

putting out pretty black smoke."

I am not familiar enough with power plants to know whether there is such thing as a “load” noise, or if I should assume that the noise that was “let loose” was, in fact, “loud.”

Also, there is some ambiguity as to whether the smoke was extraordinarily black (pretty black), or if the sight of smoke pouring forth from the plant is, to the valley folk, a beautiful sight (PRETTY black smoke). In context, the message is clearly the former, but the haphazard construction of the ending of this article suggests either an extraordinarily busy writing schedule (entirely possible) or perhaps an inability to maintain a consistently attentive connection to the demise of a power plant, a monolithic symbol of America’s industrial, fossil fuel-fueled era of false progress and faux prosperity.

The final quote contains a typo that may be a subliminal nod to the biases held by the author, and perhaps even of the editing staff:

"We have done everything we can to reduce our operating costs, lower

emissions and reduce efficiency," Ethridge said.

Certainly, the plant operator did not intend to suggest that his staff has done everything to reduce efficiency, but perhaps his failure to achieve the first two items in the list had a sub-conscious effect of Mr. Beveridge’s assumptions about the third. And since people generally bring their biases with them to an article, it would not be surprising for that misstatement to slip by an editor who fully expects power plant operators to not work in the best interests of the environment.

This is not intended to disparage Scott Beveridge at all. He is, after all, a human maker (in the Platonic sense), with human biases and human failings (depending on your orientation). But the point is that bias exists in each and every one of us. Some industries attract certain types of people. Media tends to attract people with pronounced biases, and individual organizations tend to attract people of similar bias. Therefore, media will contain more profound bias than, say, retail sales. Individual media outlets will come down firmly on the left or the right. The bias is systemic. It starts at the top, and trickles down to the interns. It is disingenuous to say that individuals can be relied upon to set those biases aside and report evenhandedly. Even if the production staff is capable of doing that, the fact that someone must choose what is news and what is not on a particular day allows for bias to percolate through the content that is chosen for submission to the public. Perhaps the public would be better served if entities would be upfront about their biases and then allow their product to compete honestly. Also, in regard to the subject matter of this essay, it should be noted that Beveridge’s article is not necessarily a “news” story. It doesn’t report on an event, such as a car crash or the aftereffects of a storm, but rather it speaks to the state of our region. It could have been written last week, today, or a week from now. In material that actually relates a record of events, it would certainly be less likely for one to find bias in the reporting of a car accident, though a good critic should be able to tease out fibers of the reporter from the cloth of the story. What material like this does, though, is cast a tint on the more subjective items in the news cycle. If a page contains 3 completely unbiased stories, 2 with this level of bias, and 1 that swings the other way, it appears as if that particular page leans more markedly in one direction that what it really does. The stain of bias bleeds into other content that, on their own, would not appear to have a political orientation.

To read Scott Beveridge's story, click the title of this post. Sphere: Related Content


MJ said...

I'm sorry, E, but your criticism of Scott Beveridge is ridiculous. I'm sure you have better things to do than dissect a typical newspaper story in thesis form.

Ellipses said...

Jonesie, there is a longer-form version of this on my other blog in which I detail the REASON that I did this exercise... Someone on Brant's blog claimed that the OR has a liberal bias. Brant asked for a single incidence of liberal bias in a non-editorial piece.

I also explicitly wrote that I enjoy Scott's writing. And I maintain that I can "discover" a bias in ANY writing... the fact that I picked Scott's is due only to the fact that it was literally the first link I clicked when I ventured off to start my exercise.

Pick another writer and I will do the same thing to something that they have wrote... Hell, pick a conservative... I am just identifying bias, I don't care which direction it goes.

MJ said...

A couple things just didn't fly with me.

First, you point out that Mr. Beveridge accidentally typed "load" instead of "loud." That's a typical typo. Second, you tighten the screws by saying one of the sources said "pretty black" smoke. As a reporter, we have no control over what our sources say, and it would be unethical to change the quote so the guy didn't sound like an idiot. Finally, you theorize that Scott's own bias pushed him to mistakenly write the final source's quote about "reducing efficiency." While it does seem bizarre, only Scott and that operator know exactly what was said.

So I must ask how any of those mistaken quotes prove a bias in any direction. The only possible problem I see - as a professional journalist - is that the lede has no attribution, but that is resolved by the rest of the story, which has plenty of sources that back up the statement.

Ellipses said...

The journalist can't control what the quoted says, but he certainly can control which quotes he uses.

You can agree that the way that I analyzed this article makes a case in favor of bias, or you can disagree with it... but in this realm of literary criticism, it often is not about authorial intent, but what comes through in the language.

You can do Freudian Psychoanalysis on Shakespeare, who lived a great deal of time before Freud was ever in his phallic stage... That's not to say that it is the absolute only way to read something.

Send me an article, Mike, and I will give it a similar treatment... pick a writer that I shouldn't have any background information on... someone from your old WV newspaper, perhaps...

And remember, i am not saying that there is anything WRONG in what Scott wrote... I am just showing that pieces of the author can and do slip through. I could probably have written a good 10 pages on that one article... I will try to be more thorough with the next one. i don't want to bore people too much with purely academic exercises, though.

Ellipses said...

PS- Mike... I know you have your breadline blog up (, but you are welcome to have admin rights here, too if you want.

MJ said...

I do not disagree that a reporter's opinions can bleed through at times, I just don't really see how that happened in this case. Scott was quoting authority figures and people who had to deal with the pollution caused by the plant. Sure, you can choose the quotes, but you don't choose what is said by sources.

A good reporter gets out of the way and lets the story write itself. In the end, we'll probably agree to disagree, but I think there are better examples of bias out there than this particular story.

Ellipses said...

There absolutely are! But for the sake of my point, I want examples of writing that APPEAR to not have any bias... if I can't squeeze the perception of bias out of a "neutral" story, then my argument won't hold up... Live interviews are much easier... tonal inflection, body gestures... that gives people away. But my "training" so to speak, is in tearing written work down into component parts to reveal a fundamental truth about the world.

Also, like I said... his story was the first link on the page... it very easily could have been any number of other writers.

MJ said...

That seems to be your first mistake, E. I think it was a mistake to try to prove a point on the first link you saw, thinking that would be the fair way to do it.

There were many times in journalism career where I went out looking for a specific story, but didn't find it. Instead, a new and different story idea found me. In this case, I think you went out trying to prove a point, and tried too hard to find a bias that never really materialized.

As to your ENTIRE point about bias in reporting, I kinda agree. I'll bet you $5 you could find biases in some of my stories. The key - like Uncle Walter said - was to limit it as much as possible.

Ellipses said...

I am trying to prove a point... the point that bias is present in anything written by a human being.

Seriously, send me an article and I will do the same to it... pick a writer that you don't particularly like :-) I can do this for anything, not just news. In fact, the majority of what I would apply this process to is literature.

But back to the point... why is there this staunch resistance to admitting that people are biased creatures? Yes, a good journalist suppresses it as much as possible... but why is there such resistance to admitting that it's there?

Send me an article by someone you think is a total dick and I will rip them a new asshole on a critical level :-)

MJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MJ said...

Let me try this again...

I won't argue that human beings hold bias feelings. My argument is that it doesn't leak through in every or even most stories. I did not give a damn whether Burgettstown Area School Board raised taxes by 5 mills for the past five years. Seriously, all that mattered to me is that they got their meeting over with soon enough so I could file before deadline. That's why I covered northern WashCo... because I had absolutely no dog in the fight out there.

Are we finding any common ground here?

Ellipses said...

Yes, we have common ground...

We both agree that people will have their biases.

You agree that SOMETIMES that bias comes through in what they write.

I posit that bias is ALWAYS present in anything that is created by a person, sans a simple record of an event. And by simple, I mean public notice, basically.

C'mon Mike... send me something... give me an assignment. Put me in, coach, I'm ready to play.

MJ said...

Have fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun...

Ellipses said...

Brilliant Jonesy... I don't know jack-shit about NASCAR.

This should prove to be a good test :-)

MJ said...

The real question is, Do you know anything about meth?

Ellipses said...

Alright Jonesy... I have my report written up on that story :-) This doesn't really fit into the kinda content that we are putting on this blog... so I made a bullshit blog just to house this story: