And now . . . the rest of the story

In omitting critical facts, media sometimes commit greater sin than outright mistakes

by David Kopel

Dec. 30, 2001, Rocky Mountain News

And now . . . the rest of the story

In omitting critical facts, media sometimes commit greater sin than outright mistakes

Sherlock Holmes solved the Silver Blaze mystery when he "grasped the significance of the silence of the dog." The fact that the dog didn't bark was the key clue to the criminal's identity. In trying to solve the mysteries of media bias, facts that are omitted tend to be much more important than facts that wrong.

Examining The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News over the past couple of weeks, I found only one story about public affairs that plainly had a wrong fact. The Post's report (Dec. 14) on the controversial appointment of Ben Alexander to the State Board of Education said that Alexander "lost in a tight runoff race with Democrat Jared Polis for the at-large seat on the state board last fall." It wasn't a "runoff race"; it was the ordinary general election race.

This small error, of course, didn't affect the main point of the story, about the board's hardball political maneuvers to appoint Alexander to a vacant seat. In contrast, missing facts can change everything.

Consider Post columnist Diane Carmen's Dec. 23 article in which she slammed Attorney General John Ashcroft for withholding documents "in apparent violation of the Presidential Records Review Act of 1978." Yet three paragraphs later, she slammed Ashcroft for not letting the FBI examine records about background checks of legal gun buyers. She fails to mention that Ashcroft's decision about the records was compelled by two congressional statutes, as well by a regulation written by Attorney General Janet Reno.

This kind of omission, by the way, is pretty rare for Carmen. While I often disagree with her political viewpoint, her columns are usually admirably rigorous, factually.

Post Beltway columnist Bill McAllister (Dec. 23) got off to an interesting start, pointing out that three of Colorado's four Republican representatives voted against the Bush education bill. He accused the Republicans of refusing to "take the President at his word on the importance of increasing the federal role at the schoolhouse." McAllister quoted a spokeswoman from the Colorado Education Association who said she had "no clue" about why the three voted against the bill. It would have helpful for McAllister to try asking one of the three directly.

Another type of missing information can come from the case of the missing expert -- when the only expert sources quoted in an article all take the same point of view. An especially egregious example was an Orlando Sentinel article which the Post ran Dec. 17, disparaging "dangerous" nationalism, which was equated with "welcoming the destruction of the enemy." The one-sided article never acknowledged the possibility that when a nation is under attack by enemies who are attempting to mass murder civilians and destroy the country, welcoming the destruction of the enemy may be common sense, rather than "bigotry."

Runaway winner for the worst music article of 2001 was the article The Denver Post ran from The Washington Post (Dec. 16) about Neil Young's new song Let's Roll, written in honor of the heroes of United Airlines Flight 93. While most of the article was a straightforward description of the song, the last part of the article claimed that the Canadian-born Neil Young left "peace-loving" Canada and adopted "certain right-wing tendencies" here in the United States. The only source was music critic Dave Marsh. Had the article interviewed someone else, the expert might well have challenged the assertion that "peace-loving" people would not admire men who saved thousands of lives by preventing a plane from crashing into a building.

Marsh's claim that opposition to terrorism is a "right-wing" cause is outrageous, and never should have been left in the article without a balancing viewpoint. The overwhelming majority of American liberals -- including Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, Barbra Streisand and Dan Rather -- support fighting terrorism. Even the far-left fringe that opposes the war in Afghanistan hasn't criticized the Flight 93 heroes for thwarting the hijacking.


The Post front page (Dec. 12) brought some good news: "Sudden Child Deaths Decline." But Channel 7, on the same day, decided to look on the gloomy side of this good news: "Child Death Statistics Show Alarming Trend." Accidental deaths of Denver children were down, while suicide and homicide deaths were stable. This meant that accidents accounted for 25 percent of childhood deaths, while suicide and homicide combined for 23 percent. When one cause of death declines, and the others do not increase, that ought to count as non-alarming news.


My last column criticized the Post and the News for usually using slim Associated Press articles to report on the Denver University Pioneers hockey team away games. I should have noted that for Friday away games, the News doesn't use the A.P., but instead prints detailed articles filed by stringers.

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