The Anatomy of Media Bias: Trayvon Martin, Mike Daisey, and the Press

Julian Sanchez -- Research Fellow, Cato Institute

Like many folks who had seen and been moved by Mike Daisey's powerful monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," I was profoundly disappointed by the recent revelation that he had not only fabricated some of the work's key scenes, but lied to the journalists and fact checkers at This American Life to prevent them from discovering the deception. There's no point, at this stage, in adding another condemnation to the chorus, but I do want to highlight a pair of sharp pieces by Slate's Daniel Engber and The Economist's Erica Grieder, responding to the common claim that Daisey's narrative was, as the saying goes, "fake but accurate."

While most commentary on the story has rightly rejected Daisey's invocation of "artistic license" to excuse the use of falsified anecdotes in a work of purported nonfiction, much of it includes the obligatory caveat that Daisey's larger point, the essential picture he paints of labor practices at Chinese suppliers like Foxconn, is true. So, for instance, in his performance, Daisey recounts how in a few hours of interviews outside just a couple of Foxconn plants, he encountered numerous underage workers--girls as young as 12 and 13 years old. Under pressure, he retreated to the claim that he'd spoken (in English) with one girl who identified herself as being 13, and seen several others who "looked young." The translator who accompanied Daisey on these interviews--the one he'd lied to prevent journalists from contacting--denies that there was even the one, and insists that she'd remember if there had been. Now, you don't get a gig as an English translator in China without staying on the good side of the Chinese government, so she might have her own incentive to downplay anything that reflects badly on the labor situation there--but all things considered, I'm inclined to agree with Ira Glass that her account comes across as much more credible than Daisey's.

Suppose we think Daisey probably did just make up this encounter. It's still undeniably the case that there have been underage workers employed by Apple suppliers: The company itself reports identifying 91 in an audit conducted in 2010, the year Daisey visited China. Thus, some argue, even if Daisey lied, the more important thing is that his dramatization reflected the underlying truth in an emotionally resonant way.

I agree with Engber and Grieder that this line of argument is wrong, and that Daisey's pseudo-anecdote is substantively misleading when you consider what it's really meant to show. Nobody disputes that the number of underaged workers employed by Apple suppliers is greater than zero. But in the context of Foxconn's 300,000-strong workforce, in a country where (as the report suggests) parents are willing to procure fake IDs to help children obtain a coveted factory job, it's also probably not realistic to expect that this would never happen. The real question is whether Apple is making a good faith effort to enforce some screening procedures, identify and correct failures in the process when they occur, and so on.

Daisey's anecdote implicitly makes the far stronger claim that Apple is egregiously, culpably negligent here: Child labor is so prevalent that you scarcely need audits to find cases. Rather, a visitor standing at the gates of any randomly selected factory for a few hours will readily encounter numerous 12- and 13-year old kids who don't seem the least bit concerned about openly acknowledging their ages. Under those circumstances, as Daisey suggests, it would be hard to believe Apple wasn't well aware of, and deliberately winking at, a systemic indifference to the law.

If the point of the monologue were just to provoke an emotional reaction in the audience, as an artistic end in itself, maybe this wouldn't matter. But the monologue is explicitly and forcefully pitched as a call to both consumer activism and political action. In that context, it actually matters what the magnitude of this problem is, relative to others we might focus our time and energy on, and whether Apple is being especially irresponsible, relative to any number of other companies I might give my money to instead.

Those of you who recall the headline are probably wondering what this could possibly have to do with the tragic case of Trayvon Martin. I'll outsource the full rundown to Mother Jones, but the quick version is this:

On the evening of February 26, Trayvon Martin--an unarmed 17-year-old African American student--was confronted, shot, and killed near his home by George Zimmerman, a Latino neighborhood watch captain in the Orlando, Florida, suburb of Sanford. Zimmerman has not been charged with a crime.
A large and growing body of evidence shows that Zimmerman, fancying himself some kind of community guardian, had concluded for no good reason that Martin was "suspicious," left his vehicle to pursue and accost the physically smaller teen, and then demonstrably lied about key details of the altercation that led to the shooting in his initial account to police. Instead of arresting him, police appear to have conducted a slipshod investigation, allegedly "correcting" witnesses whose version of events didn't jibe with Zimmerman's jaw-dropping claim that he had acted in self defense. As many have noted, it seems hard to believe Zimmerman wouldn't have immediately found himself in handcuffs had he shot a white teen under otherwise identical circumstances. On Monday, in response to widespread outrage about the police handling of the case, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would be conducting its own investigation.

Between the shooting itself and the Justice Department's announcement, according to ThinkProgress, CNN ran 41 segments on the Trayvon Martin case. MSNBC ran 13. Fox News covered it only once.

In itself, that's a matter of news judgment that could probably be defended. But I want to suggest that the disparity here may have something to do with whether one thinks institutional racism remains a serious problem in the United States. Conservatives often seem to think it isn't, and that if anything, the real problem is how often spurious charges of white racism are deployed by their political opponents, while liberals more often tend toward the opposite view. Maybe both groups are drawing justified inferences from the data they're seeing.

Like child labor, institutionalized racism -- in the form of quiet bias as opposed to overt proclamations of white supremacy -- can be hard to detect and quantify rigorously. In both cases, the people closest to the problem have strong incentives to obscure and deny it.  So people tend to fall back on what psychologists call the Availability Heuristic, a rule of thumb that says the frequency of an event should correspond to how quickly you can think of examples of it. We automatically pluralize anecdotes into data. Like much of our cognitive toolkit, it often misfires in the age of modern media--it's why people tend to be irrationally concerned with extremely rare threats, like child abduction by strangers, that draw disproportionate media attention.

The tricky part, of course, is precisely in figuring out what level of attention is "proportionate." People hearing about cases like Trayvon Martin's will naturally tend to infer that for every such case that makes national headlines, there must be far more that don't--cases where police are far too quick to assume, even in the face of contrary evidence, that a young black male was a criminal or an aggressor. If the producers at your favorite news channel decide to give airtime to every similar case that draws some local press attention somewhere in the United States, you'll probably conclude that such cases are very widespread indeed. If, instead, they only do so when such cases are impossible to ignore, having already drawn intense national attention, you're more likely to conclude that the few cases you do hear about count as "news" only because they're such extraordinary outliers.

The peculiar problem of the information age is that we now have access to far more true stories than any one brain -- evolved for life in groups of a few hundred -- can possibly process. Our natural tendency to extrapolate from the subset we're exposed to means we can wind up with wildly inaccurate views of the world as a whole, even when all the stories we hear are true. For people with a storytelling gift as powerful as Mike Daisey's, or a job that empowers them to choose which of a hundred newsworthy tales makes the evening broadcast, that implies a responsibility beyond the traditional obligation to speak the truth. What we need today are the right proportions of truth.