Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 25, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

BAGHDAD BROADCASTING COMPANY?....Mick Fealty points today to an analysis prepared by David Steven and Mark Weston of whether or not the BBC was biased against the Iraq war. It's based on an analysis of the BBC Reporters' Log, a running commentary hosted by the BBC between March 19 and April 17 and containing 1,343 postings by 141 correspondents. Their primary conclusion:

A quantitative analysis of entries in the Reporters Log indicates that most reports are factual in nature, and do not contain comment or speculation on the nature and progress of the war.

Reports that do include comment and speculation, however, are likely to be critical of Coalition strategy and to report Coalition setbacks. Reporters are also more likely to be sceptical about Coalition claims than Iraqi claims. This provides some evidence of bias.

My initial thought whenever I see reports like this is that they don't really show much in the way of bias at least not the kind of bias the critics usually mean. The main bias of the press is that it reports crises, drama, and bad news. So the fact that the BBC reported more often on coalition setbacks compared to coalition successes probably doesn't mean anything more than the fact that the LA Times reports more often on gang shootings than it does on successful after-school programs.

But then I flipped to the end of the report and noticed an odd thing. Although the individual statistics that the authors choose to highlight are all correct, they don't quite add up.

For starters, when they say that "most" reports are simply factual, they aren't kidding. The total number of "commentary" posts is 249, which means 81% of the posts were factual. The entire universe of commentary encompassed only 19% of the total.

But there's worse. They broke the posts into eight categories, and three of these categories are related to Iraqi strategy and Iraqi claims. These three categories contain a grand total of 15 posts, of which 10 are critical or skeptical. That's 67%.

The other five categories are related to coalition strategy, coalition claims, and coalition setbacks and successes. There are 234 of these posts, and 146 are negative or skeptical. That's 62%.

If you aggregate everything together you find that the BBC is simply a skeptical organization, regardless of who they're reporting about. And if you insist on drawing any conclusion at all from this data setting aside the fact that 15 posts is far too few to be meaningful on the Iraqi side the conclusion would be that the BBC was actually a bit more skeptical of Iraqi claims than of coalition claims.

When you deliver the volume of news that the BBC delivers, it's easy to cherry pick plenty of individual items that are critical or in retrospect just plain wrong. String 'em together and they look pretty damning. But when you actually look at the whole picture, things come into focus a little better. I think serious charges of BBC bias will need something more than what Steven and Weston provide here.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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