Carol Platt Liebau: High caliber journalism

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

High caliber journalism

Agence France Presse has distributed worldwide a photograph of an elderly Iraqi woman holding up two cartridges. The photo caption says "An elderly Iraqi woman shows two bullets which she said hit her house following an early coalition forces raid in the predominantly Shiite suburb of Sadr City."

It is evident from the photo that the bullets have never been fired. They're both still in their cartridge casings. The bullet tips haven't been deformed, and there are no rifling marks on them.

Are the photo editors at AFP so stupid they can't tell the difference between a bullet that's been fired and one that hasn't, or do they think we're too stupid to notice?

"Of course, the French can hardly be expected to know what happens to a bullet that's actually been fired," noted Morganfrost, a commenter on the Hot Air blog.

Since AFP's photo editors can't tell the difference between a bullet that's been fired and one that hasn't, It would be unreasonable to expect them to notice that the bullets the old broad is holding appear to be 7.62 mm , not the 5.56 mm that is the standard ammunition for the rifles and carbines carried by U.S. troops.

10 Comments:

Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

Is there a point to this post? I would think that most people are already aware that journalists aren't experts on anything except journalism.

And if you think that the report is blaming the Americans for damaging the woman's house, re-read the caption: they're reporting what SHE said, not their own opinion, and she said that they hit her house following a raid. That doesn't imply that they were fired by US troops.

In any case, this is making a mountain out of a molehill.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

"I would think that most people are already aware that journalists aren't experts on anything except journalism."

I am not sure what Chepe means by the above, or its implications. That journalists should only cover journalism? Journalists, as professionals, are supposed to bring an independent mindset and rigorous methodology to what they do. These attributes should allow journalists to approach a subject in which they are not experts and to determine the facts and the relevance of these facts.

Likewise Chepe's second comment. "They're reporting what SHE said, not their own opinion"

Journalists were supposed to check the veracity of statements before printing them. Otherwise, they are either printing gossip or acting as a conduit for propanganda (and we have the internet for those). Neither of these serves the professional mission of journalism, which is to inform.

That Agence France Presse failed to undertake these rudimentary steps demonstrates a lack of professionalism, resulting from either laziness or bias. That is the point of the post, and it is an obvious one at that.

Nitpicking is not the same thing as critical analysis.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

Coyote, my point about journalistic expertise is that the journalists' failure to notice the discrepancy between the woman's story and the bullets should not be taken as evidence of incompetence.

I'd also like to point out some obvious translation issues that blur this. For example, the old woman said that the bullets hit her house following a raid. Well, gee, they didn't hit during the raid? Are we to dismiss the woman as a complete liar because of this difficulty, or are we to assign this to linguistic differences associative the past perfect and past continuative? And what about the fact that the woman said that the bullets had "hit" the house? Did she perhaps mean that they hit with velocity or that they simply showed up at the house? This kind of distinction could also be crucial, but again, I doubt that the translation is precise enough to help.

The responsibility to double-check facts only extends as far as the relevance of the facts. The discrepancy I noted above regarding past perfect versus past continuative is not really relevant to the story; therefore, I wouldn't fault the journalists for failing to double-check it.

Lastly, I'd like to reiterate the pointlessness of all this. Remember, there was no slur in the original against the Americans. They didn't say that the Americans shot the old lady's house. They said that bullets hit the house. Surely the journalist can assume as common knowledge that it generally takes two sides to have a gunfight. Hence the implication of a gun battle implies two sides -- and a bullet could have come from either side.

5:52 PM  
Blogger The Flomblog said...

Maybe our guys threw them, just to confuse the Press? Isn't there a case in the Middle East where a Sling was used with amazing results?

See - there are many explanations for this heinious act

7:31 PM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

I cannot make heads or tails of Chepe's reply. Journalists should be clarifying the situation, not mucking it up. If the discrepancy does not arise from incomptence, then it arises from greed (sell the story) or a biased deisre to trash the Americans. The point of the original post remains valid and obvious.

The caption speaks of a coalition raid, not a firefight. The implication is that the coalition troops shot her house. I don't know how you can nickpick and parse text ad absurdam and then conclude with an appeal to "common knowledge" about a gunfight.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

If the discrepancy does not arise from incomptence, then it arises from greed (sell the story) or a biased deisre to trash the Americans.

You leave out the most likely possibility: that the discrepancy arose from ignorance of firearms. Sure, we Americans can tell a 7.62mm round from a 5.56mm round at a glance, but our French brethren aren't so expert in the field of weaponry. They can tell the difference between 23 different kinds of bread where an American would be baffled. Different cultures, different emphases.

The caption speaks of a coalition raid, not a firefight. The implication is that the coalition troops shot her house.

Let's do a little simple logic, shall we? We know that there was a coalition raid. We know that the woman claimed that bullets hit her house. Now then, how can bullets hit her house if there weren't gunfire? Would this not suggest to you that there was gunfire?

OK, so now that we have established that there was gunfire, let's inquire into the causal factors. Are you suggesting that coalition forces have so little fire discipline that they would fire their weapons in the absence of opposition? Horrors! You, sir, slander our noble troops! Your patriotism must be called into question! ;-)

So, we must choose between two possibilities:

1. Coalition troops lack fire discipline and fired without good reason.

2. Coalition troops met resistance.

Now, I don't need to blindly assume perfection, nobility, and saintliness among our troops to assume that they have the basic fire discipline to refrain from firing their weapons unless they encounter resistance. Therefore, I prefer option #2 -- although if you'd like to make a case for option #1, I'd be happy to hear it. You seem to assume that everybody else would assume option #1. That's a lot of assuming. And why should they make such an assumption? The notion that insurgents wouldn't defend themselves is a lot crazier than the notion that American troops do have basic fire discipline.

Given our conclusion that the coalition troops met resistance, that resistance could have taken several forms:

1. a pillow fight
2. spitballs
3. really nasty insults
4. gunfire

There are lots more possibilities, of course, but I think it safe to assume that anybody wanting to resist armed coalition troops is not going to use slingshots or bare fists; they're going to use guns.

Which leads us to the conclusion that there was a gunfight.

Now, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to go through this kind of simple logic; I suspect that almost any reasonable person could perform this easy logical exercise. And such a reasonable person would therefore conclude that the existence of the bullets in the woman's hand did NOT imply that American troops shot her house.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

If only the "jounalist" in question would have included a bare minimum of your deductive reasoning in the article itself, Chepe. Then you wouldn't have to go through such a detailed, apologetic defense of the science of journalism and the mental obstacle course you imply readers should be obliged to navigate.

By the way, here's an interesting article on the history of the "expertise" of journalists.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

"the discrepancy arose from ignorance of firearms."

Back to square one: only an incompetent, greedy or biased journalist would have run an article out of ignorance. One need not be schooled in firearms to know that a bullet in its caseding has not been fired.

"Are you suggesting that coalition forces have so little fire discipline that they would fire their weapons in the absence of opposition?"

I am suggesting the Agence France Presse is suggesting it. From Merriam Webster: raid "a hostile or predatory incursion b : a surprise attack by a small force
2 a : a brief foray outside one's usual sphere b : a sudden invasion by officers of the law"

The emphasis of this word is aggressive unilateral action intended to forestall or quickly overwhelm resistance. Compare this to the definition of firefight: "a usually brief intense exchange of fire between opposing military units b : a hostile confrontation that involves gunfire"

7:02 AM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

only an incompetent, greedy or biased journalist would have run an article out of ignorance.

The issue here is whether the ignorance here falls outside the realm of common knowledge. You assert that "One need not be schooled in firearms to know that a bullet in its caseding has not been fired." That's true, but the question is whether it's common knowledge. You think so. I don't. I once took a visiting French friend into a local gunshop. She was fascinated; she gaped in astonishment and asked all sorts of questions. I offered her the opportunity to fire a rifle at my place; she demurred. The fact is, we all assume that what is obvious to us is obvious to everybody else. As is so often demonstrated in these discussions, that is not the case.

Your dictionary definitions at first elicited a dismissive response from me: "Oh, come on! The key issue here is a matter of interpretation based closely on the context." But that gave me an idea. The ultimate root of meaning is what people believe it to be. So, why not asked some people?

So I called up six friends of mine and this is what I said:

"I'd like to read you a sentence from a news story and ask you how you interpret its meaning. Here's the sentence:

'An Iraqi woman claimed that bullets hit her house following a coalition forces raid in her neighborhood.'

And here's my question for you:

Who fired the bullets?

Here are the answers I got:

LM: "It's not at all clear. I don't think there's any way to tell from the sentence."
CB: "If they arrived following the raid, they must have been fired by somebody else, because the raid was over."
KB: "It could be either way, but the slant is that the coalition forces fired the bullets."
DY: "It sounds like the coalition forces. But if you think about it deeper, it could be anything."
BB: "Sounds like the coalition forces."
BB2: "I would have to say it was the coalition forces."

So it comes down to two people clearly using my interpretation; two people clearly using your interpretation; and two people hedging their bets. It looks like a draw.

I invite you or anybody else to repeat the experiment. I ask that you obey the following protocols:

1. Don't suggest that you're attempting to resolve a dispute.
2. Don't in any way let on your own personal belief.
3. Stick close to the wording I used.
4. Don't suggest that the question is political in nature.
5. Don't lead or question the respondent. Just ask the question and write down the answer as it comes out of their mouths.

This should be interesting. One surprising detail: the two who agreed with my position are the liberals; the two who agreed with your position are conservatives. In other words, the conservatives were quick to pass judgement on American troops, while the liberals were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. As always, reality if more complicated than stereotyping.

11:07 AM  
Blogger The Flomblog said...

err- but - err

The bullets were pristine and not fired?

Huh? hh

7:16 PM  

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