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McManus, John. Detecting bull: How to identify bias and junk journalism in print, broadcast, and on the wild web.

McManus, John. Detecting bull: How to identify and bias and junk journalism in print, broadcast, and on the wild web. (CD book). Pp. 272. Sunnyvale, CA: The Unvarnished Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9840785-0-9 (CD). $23.93. Available from

Aristotle never used the term "BS," but he might agree with John McManus' assertion that some journalism is simply that--Bald Sophistry. McManus' Detecting Bull is a book on compact disc that lays out basic propositions on the form and function of modern journalism in order to equip readers with tools to be more informed citizens--that is, to identify bald sophistry. He writes that journalism ought to "help as many people as possible make sense of issues and events that affect their lives" (Ch. 9, p. 2). The author, who is director of the San Jose State university-based Grade the News, carefully engages the reader in how journalism currently works in order to prepare them to identify BS.

Each chapter lays out several propositions about a classic issue in journalism such as bias, objectivity, or commercial influence. The issue in Chapter 1 is the rapidly changing nature of our information system. McManus argues that there are simply fewer well-trained journalists as a result of a shifting business model in the industry. Public trust in journalism is failing largely due to the perception (and reality) that journalism is motivated by profit. Spin and propaganda have undercut traditional journalism by supplying popular but unreliable information. McManus invokes Stephen Colbert in Chapter 2 to frame the battle between and truth and "truthiness"; fragments of the truth are disguised more than ever so truth doesn't seem to simply win out in public debate. This chapter builds the case for critical thinking about news sources. One major proposition is that the media should discover truth; truth then leads to trust, and "trust is the glue that holds society together" (p. 3). A discussion of philosophical positions on truth culminates in a final proposition that posits that journalists can draw from agreement (pragmatic) truths, or those truths based on the classic model of who, what, when, where, and how. McManus continues laying the foundation of his view of human information processing in Chapter 4 by posing propositions on human beings' ability to see the world clearly. Essentially, these propositions are based on perception. Among numerous examples, he cites a Princeton/Dartmouth football game experiment of 1951 to show how viewers of the same event see very different things; objectivity is essentially impossible.

In Chapter 5 the author discusses the influence of institutions on journalism. While some journalism still adheres to classic, agreed upon principles, much of contemporary journalism is motivated by profits. Commercial interests exert enormous influence, and one cannot understand the news unless one understands the commercial pressures behind it. Among the propositions is the claim that the most threatening bias is not an alleged liberal or conservative bias, but a commercial bias. As one example, McManus includes a memo on Brittney Spears from AP Los Angeles Assistant Bureau Chief Frank S. Baker that shows how some news seems simply to defer to publicists to shape the news. Baker wrote that virtually anything Spears did was "a big deal" and that the AP should watch whatever anybody else wrote in order to confirm it (p. 5).

McManus encourages us to reconsider objectivity in Chapter 6. He suggests replacing objective with empirical, reflected in his propositions: news is inherently biased and objectivity is not only undesirable, but is impossible. McManus draws from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil to define empiricism as a "practical or functional form of truth" (p. 6). He identifies three positive biases in which media engage--picking out the news, packaging it, and simplifying it. These processes prevent information overload, but we must be aware of the value systems behind these choices, for news represents reality, it does not reflect it. He references an interview by CNN's Campbell Brown with Sarah Palin to illustrate tough questioning, and Scooter Libby's revealing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA agent to illustrate the questionable credibility of unnamed sources.

Chapter 7 is on how to detect bias in news and opinion articles. McManus lays out a series of questions that provide one of his best detection tools. The questions promote critical thinking such as the nature of one's own biases, but he also asks readers to question the source, target audiences, groups affected, evidence used, etc. McManus uses well-crafted video news stories of a lay-about police commissioner in Southfield, Michigan, and double billing for prison inmates in New Orleans. He draws from reports by Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly to help illustrate two purposes in journalism: reporting information and providing an opinion on the information. A set of bias-detector core questions provides an interactive tool for distinguishing author statements from source statements, with adjustments for genre, symbol-system, and media. A video of the "Gates of Hell," a sensationalized story of alleged gang initiation in an abandoned power station in Westchester County, New York, exhibits the use of weasel words that sensationalize the story. These extended examples show both the text of the story with accompanying video, and then commentary from McManus to show how to detect problems with both source statements and author statements.

Chapter 8 focuses on mapping patterns of bias. McManus defines bias as "a pattern of favoritism, negativity, or absence of coverage about someone or something that is not justified by the facts" (p. 2). Though not mentioned specifically, this chapter seems to draw from agenda setting theory in its definitions of favorableness, placement, and size or length of story. Some of the tools for detecting bull include a favorableness grid and a bias map that allows readers to plot all three variables. He also presents two analyses on the 2004 elections, finding that news sources in northern California gave far less coverage than a 30-member coalition of public interest groups had recommended. The findings suggest a bias against substantive coverage as opposed to bias toward a party or candidate. An analysis by Grade the News of photo and headline space in local newspapers given to candidates in the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election concluded that Arnold Schwarzenegger received more space than Gray Davis, Cruz Bustamante, and other candidates. Chapter 9 departs from bias to describe "how to evaluate the quality of news," operating from the premise that even if bias is absent, stories are not necessarily good. Some of the standards for quality include consequences of the story, diversity of sources, and basic standards of fairness. These standards are laid out on a news scorecard that viewers can use to evaluate stories. He includes a video example of a story on protests surrounding the debate to ban Marine recruiters from the city of Berkeley, California with a completed scorecard as example.

Author Eric Wiener recently said on NPR that given a few hours with a book, he would "promise to inform and entertain" readers, often during "stolen moments on the subway or after the kids are asleep." In contrast, e-books, he says, give readers an opportunity to float away to something else on line that might be more interesting; e-books seem to be just another player on a noisy electronic stage. Though not exactly an ebook, the electronic format (CD) of McManus's Detecting Bull is sometimes both confining and distracting; even with a laptop, readers don't always want to remain saddled with a machine to read a book. However, there are numerous benefits of releasing this book on CD. Embedded video clips of local news stories exhibit both good and bad investigation techniques and include several full stories from local newscasts. These simply can't be done in print, and they make a great teaching tool. Interactive scorecards in several formats with detailed instructions provide students with tools to analyze news stories. The digital format also allows for some convenient electronic gadgetry. For example, roll over an image such as a cartoon of Calvin and Hobbes and it enlarges; roll over a pen icon near a source, and the entire citation pops up. Highlighted words take you to web sites for further explanation, (such as the Pew Research Center or the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics). Each chapter ends with exercises and discussion questions.

--Pete Bicak

Rockhurst University


Weiner, E. (2010, January). In an era of immediacy, why fear the e-book? National Public Radio. Retrieved January 29 from .php?storyId=122822760
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Author:Bicak, Pete
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:E-book review
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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