Last week we talked a little about the impossibility of reporting “Just the Facts.” I wasn’t actively looking for examples this week, but one just jumped up and slapped me in the face.
I followed a Twitter link to Mashable’s story entitled Kelly Clarkson’s Album Sales Down After Ron Paul Twitter Endorsement, intrigued by the headline. I knew they had reported last week that Clarkson’s sales were up following her endorsement of libertarian Ron Paul as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, although even then they focused on the “flap” rather than either the endorsement or the rise in sales. (The “flap” was about some followers who reacted badly to her endorsement. Other stories elsewhere reported a surge of over 400% in a single day, and quoted a number of tweets to her explicitly saying they had bought the album because of her endorsement. None of this was mentioned in either Mashable story.)
So when they reported this week that her album sales had dropped, it left the impression there had been a backlash, especially if you only read the headline and the first paragraph.
Later in the story, writer Samantha Murphy notes that the drop still left Clarkson shooting from number 39 on the album charts to number 17, explaining that “other albums experienced a greater decline in sales as shoppers cut back on spending the week after Christmas. The overall album market dropped 49% that week.”
Hmmmm. But doesn’t that mean that, compared to most other albums, Clarkson’s was actually stronger? Wouldn’t it have been more accurate to report “Clarkson’s sales remain strong following Paul endorsement?”
Of course, even that could reflect bias, since it was also the case that Clarkson’s album was a featured iTunes download during that same time. It’s quite possible the sales figures had absolutely nothing to do with the endorsement one way or the other. But you’d never know that from the headline and first paragraph, or even from the way the chart rise was reported.
Note: I’m not trying to build a case of support for Ron Paul or Kelly Clarkson. I’ve noted that Republicans and libertarians tend to emphasize the sales bump and the subsequent strong showing in the charts, while Democrats tend to focus on the drop in sales and the iTunes placement. Selection of facts isn’t lying, but it certainly does lead to bias.
This is even harder to catch in the realm of speaking. Readers have more of an opportunity to check written material, go over it again to separate their initial reactions from a more measured response later, and notice bias. Listeners tend not to remember details later, only retaining the impression created by the details. It’s a rare audience member who can separate what he or she heard from what he or she thought. In my mind, therefore, a speaker has an even greater ethical need to choose carefully.