Archive for the ‘Churnalism’ Category
24 July 2012 – I intended to write about something called ‘moral licensing’, but the Daily Mail published something (on football racism) that deserves comment. This will probably interest those who’ve followed the John Terry & Luis Suarez cases, but I doubt it’ll interest anyone else, unfortunately. (The ‘moral licensing’ piece – which, in an odd way, is relevant to this – will follow in a few days).
I won’t rehash the Terry & Suarez cases (I’ll assume you know the details). There were some striking similarities between the cases, and some differences – eg process and burden of proof (more on that below). Also, the media coverage. Here’s what caught my eye in the Daily Mail yesterday (23/7/12):
(There’s an online version of this on the Daily Mail site – scroll down past the main story).
It was written by Mail columnist Martin Samuel. The parts which caught my attention were these (my bold):
- “To brand a man a racist requires only a balance of probability, according to the FA.”
- “…his outdated ideas about a case needing to be proven.”
- “Terry did not swing in a proper court, so now he will be tried in one with less exacting standards.”
So, to summarise: The FA’s “standards” in these matters aren’t as “exacting” as they could be. And, anyway, the newfangled “balance of probability” doesn’t establish proof, and it’s insufficient to “brand a man a racist”.
The UK media (en masse, including the Daily Mail) – took the exact reverse of this position over the FA’s “standards” on the Suarez case. “Balance of probability” was regarded as appropriate – yes, a lower burden of proof than “beyond reasonable doubt”, but just fine for the job. And quite sufficient to “brand a man a racist” (actually, “racial abuser”). As for “exacting standards”, the UK press fell over themselves to congratulate the FA on its 115-page Suarez report. Here’s what one fairly typical Guardian piece said about it:
The thoroughness, attention to detail and remarkable depth of the 115-page document [...] a report that has prompted legal experts to talk about a document that is “appeal proof”. [...] has brought a new meaning to the word transparency by revealing every last detail [...] this extraordinary report… (Guardian, 1/1/2012)
This kind of gushing praise for the FA report was all over the newspapers, as was quick denunciation of those who criticised or questioned the FA panel’s verdict. Even before the FA released its delayed 115-page report, criticism of its verdict on Suarez – whether direct or implied – was framed by the UK media as “shameful“, as “confusing” the “zero tolerance message” on racism. When Suarez’s club (Liverpool) raised the issue of lack of evidence, etc, they were denounced as “beyond the pale“, “hypocritical“, and their actions viewed as a “constant undermining of the FA’s role“:
“Some of the words being used to describe the FA and its role in governance on these sort of issues, that is really beyond the pale.” (Piara Powar, BBC, 8/1/12)
(One of the things I learned about the fight against racism – from campaigners such as Piara Powar, Lord Ouseley, Sports editors at the Guardian, etc – was that it entails, indeed requires, an uncritical acceptance of “the FA and its role in goverance on these sort of issues”. I’d never realised this before, as the FA always seemed to me like a dubious assortment of inept old blokes in suits, with a rich history of unprogressive views and general cluelessness. But that’s what the UK media is for – to inform and educate).
Bandwagons, herd-mentality, etc
So, what about Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail – author of the above critical remarks about the FA’s “standards”, etc (in the context of the John Terry case). Surely he, of all people, didn’t jump on the hack-bandwagon – praising the FA’s Suarez report and dismissing its critics? Actually, that’s exactly what he did. Here’s the damning evidence, from his Daily Mail column, 4/1/2012:
The FA uses the civil “balance of probability” rule of proof. This generally means a lower burden of evidence required to “prove the matter” than applies in criminal cases.
Many journalists seem to forget that “balance of probability” is a flexible rule, and that the more serious the allegation, the greater the burden of evidence required to prove the matter. This is clearly stated in the FA panel’s 115-page report on the Suarez case (see paragraphs 76-80). Paragraph 80 states: “The FA accepts that the Charge against Mr Suarez is serious, as do we. It is for this reason that we have reminded ourselves that a greater burden of evidence is required to prove the Charge against Mr Suarez.”
Martin Samuel’s piece, above (on the Terry case), perhaps confuses the issue over “proof” and “standards” (depending on how you interpret his wording). “Balance of probability” doesn’t, in itself, imply “less exacting standards”. It implies a lower burden of evidence, which is not the same thing – it doesn’t mean a licence to be sloppy. In fact, on the Suarez case, the media seemed convinced that the “balance of probability” rule had been applied to the most exacting standards. (Close scrutiny of the FA panel’s report reveals that this wasn’t the case. The FA’s own prescription for stronger evidence – in accord with the seriousness of the allegations – seems to have been “forgotten” by the FA’s panel, and completely overlooked by the media. No direct evidence/witness testimony was submitted in the Suarez case. And so the ironies pile up…).
Please also see: the original piece I wrote exposing media falsehoods on the Suarez case: Media on Racism: Part 1 – Churnalism (this article “went viral” on social media, and has been read by several hundred thousand people to date).
June 7, 2012 – What is it about football+racism that makes UK media coverage of it seem like something from the Dark Ages?
Do words contain demons? Do the terms “negrito” and “negro” contain metaphysical essences of badness? Are these words “offensive” regardless of context and the language in which they’re spoken? From reading the UK press lately, you might think so…
It’s not just the tabloids. The “liberal” Guardian and Independent have run some of the more hysterical (and error-riddled) material – eg see my previous article on ‘churnalism’ for details. (The Guardian published over a hundred pieces on the Suarez “affair” without once mentioning key, hysteria-defusing facts about the case).
This morning’s newspapers “report” a new “race row”. It’s also, apparently, a “race storm”. The Daily Star makes front page “news” of the story, but then few people take The Star seriously – unless the intention is to masturbate. The Independent, you hope, is different. Let’s parse the Indie’s “reporting” of the story, to see if we can figure out what’s going on:-
Dani Pacheco’s use of the word “negrito” in a Twitter message to team-mate Glen Johnson forced the young Spaniard to defend himself on the social networking site [...]
He tweeted: “@glen-johnson good luck negrito!!!!” (Independent, 6/6/2012)
Okay. So, why am I reading this in a ‘quality’ newspaper? “Negrito” can be used as a term of affection – with no racially offensive connotations – by Spanish-speakers (see examples cited by FA’s linguistic experts, below). Pacheco apparently felt he had to respond (or “defend himself”) to a few culturally-ignorant Twitter users. It’s just the usual social-media bullshit, no? The Independent piece continued:-
Liverpool team-mate Luis Suarez was banned for eight matches for using the same word towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in a match at Anfield in October. (Independent, 6/6/2012)
Wrong. It might help if the Independent got its facts right. One of the few things that the FA panel, Suarez and Evra apparently agreed on was that Suarez had used the term “negro”, not “negrito”. I thought newspaper reporters were supposed to actually read the official documentation they report on.
The Uruguay international [Suarez] unsuccessfully argued “negrito” was not a derogatory term in the Spanish language, despite its racial connotations in English. (Independent, 6/6/2012)
Hopelessly wrong. Suarez successfully “argued” (or, rather, simply stated) that the term “negro” was commonly used in Spanish (particularly in Latin-American usage) in a non-derogatory, non-offensive, non-racial way. The language experts employed by the FA (his prosecutors) agreed with him on this. Here’s what they said:-
“The term ['negro', Spanish] can also be used as a friendly form of address to someone seen as somewhat brown-skinned or even just black-haired. It may be used affectionately between man and wife, or girlfriend/boyfriend, it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech, it may be used to identify in neutral and descriptive fashion someone of dark skin”. (Paragraph 172 of FA panel’s report)
“…the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (Para 190 of FA panel’s report)
On the term “negrito”, the FA panel wrote:-
A Mexican footballer, Omar Esparza, is widely known in Mexico as “el Negrito”. Hernandez, the Manchester United player, has been a close friend of Omar Esparza for many years and refers to him as “el Negrito” in an affectionate way. Hernandez admitted that terms such as “Negrito” can be used with close friends and in certain situations without it being offensive. (Para 353 of FA panel’s report)
All of this is just a click away for newspaper reporters. They also have automated word-searches to make it easier to find the relevant paragraphs (containing “negrito” and “negro”). It’s not difficult to get it right. And isn’t racism supposed to be a serious business? Perhaps worth a bit of elementary fact-checking? Anyway, back to the Independent’s piece:-
When Pacheco received a couple of critical comments in response to his message he wrote: “I Allready (sic) explained in past what Negrito could mean. Good or bad depends how you say it. I always called @glen-johnson it in terms of love.
“Last tweet about it. @glen-johnson speaks Spanish and he knows what that mean when I say it to him. He is one of best mates there for me.” (Independent, 6/6/2012)
So, Pacheco “received a couple of critical comments” from people ignorant of Spanish. This seems to be the full extent of the “race storm” – once you subtract the media hysteria.
I notice that the Telegraph and Daily Mail also covered the story – using the same wording (and errors) as the Independent (that’s probably because they all seem to have sourced the story from this Press Association release). Update: The Mirror ran the story using its own (slightly moronic) “Liver-fool” headline.
Even the Huffington Post covered it, referring to the “negrito” tweet as “another racial PR gaffe” for Liverpool. Hmm… but it wasn’t “racial”, it wasn’t “PR”, and it wasn’t a “gaffe”. Meanwhile, to digress slightly, the BBC’s Panorama documentary has been accused of sensationalism over its football-racism claims.
Jan 6, 2012 – 2011 provided some “high-profile” news stories about racism – but even the “quality” press provided little more than churnalism. No doubt it’s safer for reporters to recycle established or “official” views than to delve deeper (or, Editor forbid, to reframe the issue for greater insight). This type of churnalism has its own dangers, as we’ll discover…
Two cases, in particular, are worth looking at (and comparing): BBC2′s Top Gear and Luis Suarez (Liverpool FC footballer). Part 1 considers churnalism and misreporting. (Part 2 will address the media framing).
Top Gear & “Lazy Mexicans”
In January 2011, Jeremy Clarkson and his fellow Top Gear presenters did a routine about “Mexicans”. This led to a trickle of news coverage after a complaint from the Mexican ambassador, but it didn’t become a “proper” story until after Steve Coogan wrote a comment piece (for the Observer) which pointed out that Clarkson & co would never target Africans, Pakistanis or Jews with comparable group-stereotype jokes. When I say it became a “proper” story, I don’t mean penetrating, insightful coverage… I mean: “Celebrity A blasts Celebrity B”.
The official officials who officiated in this case were the BBC and Ofcom. First, the BBC:
‘In a letter to Mexico’s ambassador in London, the BBC said it was sorry if it had offended some people, but said jokes based on national stereotyping were part of British national humour.’
Coogan commented: “The BBC’s initial mealy-mouthed apology was pitiful. It cited the more benign rivalry that exists between European nations (ah, those arrogant French, over-organised Germans), and in doing so neatly sidestepped one hugely important fact – ethnicity [...] The Beeb’s hand-wringing suggested tolerance of casual racism, arguably the most sinister kind.”
The media regulator, Ofcom, then cleared Top Gear of breaching broadcasting regulations:
‘Ofcom said Top Gear “frequently uses national stereotypes as a comedic trope and that there were few, if any, nationalities that had not at some point been the subject of the presenters’ mockery…”.’
Interestingly, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) later upheld a complaint about the show:
“Although the remarks were humorously intended [...] their tone and cumulative effect seemed to the ECU to give the impression of reinforcing, rather than ridiculing, the stereotype”
All of which raises some important questions, none of which (to my knowledge) were addressed by media coverage – certainly not by the BBC. (I’ll attempt to deal with these questions in terms of framing in part 2 of this article):
- Is national stereotyping necessarily less serious than racial stereotyping, and if so, why?
- Is national stereotyping okay as long as you abuse all nationalities uniformly and humorously?
- Does the same logic apply to racial stereotyping, and if not, why not?
- Should TV celebrities be punished as severely as, say, footballers?
Trial by media – Luis Suarez
(Note: references to “para” are to relevant numbered paragraphs in the FA report)
This incident started during a football match, after Patrice Evra (Manchester Utd) made the offensive remark, “your sister’s pussy”*, to Luis Suarez. It’s alleged (by Evra) that Suarez used racial insults in the dialogue that followed. (*Evra made the remark in Spanish: “Concha de tu hermana” - para 87).
The official officials who officiated in this case were the Football Association (FA) and their “independent commission” (ie three blokes selected by the FA).
Suarez denies making racial insults. The case boils down to meanings of “negro” in Spanish (nearest equivalent in English is “black”). Suarez claims he said “negro” once, inoffensively. Language experts consulted by the FA agreed that: “the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (Para 190)
Suarez claims he said “Por qué, negro?” (“why, black?” – para 205). Evra claims he said “Porque tu eres negro” (“Because you are black” – para 205). The latter could be taken as offensive according to the FA’s language experts, but the phrase struck them as “slightly unusual” (para 182), whereas the phrase claimed by Suarez “sounded right linguistically and culturally”. (Para 191)
Initially Evra claimed (in English) that Suarez said, at one point: “I don’t talk to you because you niggers” (para 131). He later withdrew this claim, after realising Suarez had said, in Spanish, “negro”, not “nigger”. (The report quotes Evra admitting that he is “not exactly fluent in Spanish” – para 87). As the FA’s experts pointed out, “the Spanish word ‘negro’ cannot simply be translated as ‘nigger’.” (They also point out that “It may be used affectionately … it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech … several famous people in Uruguay are known as ‘el negro’…” (para 172)
These important details (and much else of relevance) somehow went unreported in most media coverage following the FA’s publication of a 115-page report (listing the reasons why the 3-man panel found Suarez “guilty”). Unfortunately, ‘churnalism’ had taken the place of responsible reporting…
“Racial abuse” churnalism
The report was published by the FA on New Year’s Eve – which probably didn’t help. What journalist wants to spend the last hours of the year reading 115 pages on racial abuse allegations?
The Guardian led the way with lazy, irresponsible churnalism. Three Guardian articles (each by Stuart James, plus another from Andy Hunter) stated as fact that the panel ‘found that Suárez used the word “negro” or “negros” seven times’.
But no such thing was “found” (even though the panel used that word). There was no evidence or corroborating witness statements confirming the number of times Suarez said “negro”. There was nothing but Patrice Evra’s word. (And Evra had altered his account – he initially told Canal+ TV that Suarez used the racial term “at least ten times” (para 154), but later claimed that this was just “a figure of speech” – para 159 – with the FA report stating that he later claimed Suarez used the word “negro” five times – para 205).
In fact, what the report clearly shows is that there was no evidence or supporting witnesses to back up either player’s version of the crucial dialogue between them on the pitch. The entire case came down to one man’s word against another’s. This explains why the panel spent so much time trying to establish a case (again subjective and uncorroborated) that Suarez’s testimony was “unreliable”.
Headline churnalism: “unreliable” evidence
Following the publication of the report, the Press Association ran with: “FA: Suarez evidence ‘unreliable’,” and virtually all major UK media followed suit with similar headings. In what way was the evidence unreliable? The report cites two things – firstly, a few inconsistencies in Suarez’s accounts of the sequence/timing of events (although the panel concedes this is understandable given that Suarez, unlike Evra, wasn’t permitted to see the video footage while being interviewed, and thus relied on memory more – para 320).
Secondly, the panel said it was “unsustainable and simply incredible” for Suarez to describe his behaviour as “conciliatory and friendly” given that “the players were engaged in an acrimonious argument”. (Para 453)
If journalists hadn’t been so quick to ‘churnalise’ the report’s key “findings”, they might have noticed the problems with this – its circular, subjective nature. The panel apparently took as given the very premise under dispute (ie the “acrimonious” nature of Suarez’s “behaviour” – which remains uncorroborated by witness statements and video footage. The panel’s interpretations of Suarez’s expressions and gestures – eg the pat on the head [para 243] – remain deeply subjective and contested).
As a result of this churnalism, every major newspaper report covering this “unreliable evidence” story failed to mention one of the most important pieces of “unreliable evidence” – namely Patrice Evra’s withdrawn initial claim that he was repeatedly called “nigger” (he later conceded it was “negro”), and his withdrawn claim that Suarez said the racial ‘N-word’ “at least ten times” (paras 154, 159). These inconsistencies are at the heart of the allegations, unlike the arguably more minor inconsistencies in Suarez’s account.
Inconsistencies in the “official” report
Another thing that journalists might have highlighted (if they hadn’t been in such a hurry to copy-n-paste summary “findings”) was glaring inconsistency in the report itself.
One striking example is the panel’s “rejection” of the claim that Evra was angry throughout the match – that he was “tipped over the edge” by events (para 333), putting him in an agitated/vengeful state of mind. Here’s what the report said:
‘We rejected that submission [...] Mr [Ryan] Giggs described the Liverpool v Manchester United game as the biggest match. He did not consider that Mr Evra was wound up save in so far as everyone was wound up to a certain extent given the fixture. We reject the submission that Mr Evra was unduly wound up such that he was tipped over the edge to pursue vengeance against Mr Suarez.’ [Para 333]
But this is inconsistent with the testimony of Giggs (who is a teammate of Evra) cited earlier in the report:
‘It was obvious to Mr Giggs from looking at Mr Evra that he was upset. He said that Mr Evra did not seem quite with it, you might call it red mist [...] Mr Giggs then told Mr Evra to calm down and not get himself sent off’. (Para 114 – my emphasis)
The report also states that Evra was “angry” from the very start of the match, “when he was seen to dispute the outcome of the coin toss with the referee” (para 329). (Evra, by his own admission (para 92), threatened to “punch” Suarez during the game). Of course, none of this negates Evra’s own testimony – but it provides a clearly relevant example of the panel’s inconsistent treatment of the evidence.
To my knowledge, not a single newspaper commented on inconsistencies of this type, which are evident throughout the report. The reporters had their easy-to-churn, momentum-propelled story: the “unreliability” was all Suarez’s. He was not only a racist, but a liar (although they wouldn’t word it quite so bluntly as that). Case closed. How could it possibly be otherwise?
An apparently widely-held view arising from the Suarez case (including, it seems, among Guardian writers and editors) is that since Suarez admitted using the Spanish term “negro” (once), he is guilty of racial abuse, that all mitigating circumstances boil down to “excuses”, and that those who defend him are effectively harming efforts to eradicate racism.
This view has far-reaching implications, of course. Even convicted murderers are granted the right to protest their innocence, citing lack of evidence, mitigating factors (such as self-defence, etc). Their defenders are not usually accused of misguidedly supporting murder – at least not by the “liberal” media.
So what explains these “deep” differences in conceptual approach? Was Patrice Evra correct when he claimed that the Spanish for “your sister’s pussy” translates to “fucking hell” in English? (para 87). And are there any meaningful comparisons to be made between the Top Gear and Suarez cases in terms of media treatment? All this will be addressed in Part 2, which concentrates on the media framing aspects…
[Update 11/1/12 - Football lawyer, Daniel Geey, has looked in detail
at some of the evidential inconsistencies which I mention above].