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The Flag of the World

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This here blog is a glimpse or two or three at the condition of the 'fortress of our family' through the eyes Timothy Goddard, a Christian writer with an unhealthy interest in politics living in the Puget Sound area.

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Friday, April 25, 2003


The problem with "many" and "some"
A quick way to figure out the manner in which a certain news article is biased is to look at the way it uses the words "some" and "many" to describe a situation, especially in regards to public opinion Do they use it with any qualifications, evidence or numbers? If "some" things are one way, than there must be "some" things that are the other way--does it mention those? If it does neither of these things, then chances are very good that the article is trying to show something that isn't necessarily true.

A particularly egregrious example of this is from an otherwise marvelous and encouraging article in the Christian Science Monitor, about the "Jefferson and Madison of Um Quasr," men who put together a town council to deal with problems that arose after the town was liberated from Saddam's forces (via The Command Post). The whole story is worth reading, except for the "but still" part that comes after the very encouraging and optimistic sounding beginning.
Less certain is what happens in the Shiite Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Will Shiite clerics agree to share local power with nonreligious groups in order to guarantee humanitarian aid and reconstruction help from the US and Britain? Or will they reject offers of help from the west?

Many Shiite leaders are urging followers to oppose all US efforts to set up an interim government. Some of Baghdad's Sunni Muslims are issuing similar calls, demanding coalition troops leave Iraq immediately. (Emphasis added)
See the problem there? Journalists use terms like "many" and "some" when they want to say something is true for a group of people, but have no hard numbers on the subject--they can't say how many there are, and they can't say 'most' because it may not be true, so they just take the easy way out and say "many" or "some." I know this, because I've done it. Sometimes, it's all you can do--though you can always provide some sort of evidence to back up your claim, and you always should. This article does no such thing--it could quote a Shiite or a Sunni leader, but it doesn't. It could quote someone in the military or the government stating that this was the case--instead, it moves on to a quote from a spokesman for the US Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, saying that "things are different in the north."

In part, this is done because those two paragraphs were just a piece of a transition from one article to the next, not focusing on those who want the US out of Iraq, like some other articles. But even in those articles, they tend to give no numbers, and if they do, to give them without any context. In the one linked above, it describes "100 Shiite clerics" calling for the US to leave and for a Taliban-esque Islamic state. But without any context, do we know if that's a lot? I suppose you could call it "some," a word which means very little, but is it "many," a word that can mean whatever someone wants it to mean. If 100 pastors in the US got together and made a similar declaration, they'd be waved off as loonies, because 100 is not a lot of people, even clergymen, in the US. Is that true in Iraq? We don't know, because none of these journalists have bothered to tell us--probably because they don't know. Sometimes, they cite anti-US protests in Baghdad or other places--but we have bigger ones in the US, and they obviously mean very little about the opinion of most of the country. On the other hand, in places like France, they seem to have meant something. But in Iraq? Who knows?

Much of this has to do with the still chaotic nature of a very decentralized nation, with no press, no working communication networks, etc.. It's not exactly viable to do opinion polls in Iraq at the moment, so journalists tend to just listen to whoever's talking (or looting, or shooting). This doesn't give us a very real picture of what the opinions of regular Iraqis are, which is fine, considering that those are right now impossible to get in a broad sense. The problem is that journalists aren't saying that--it's a great crime for a journalist to admit they don't know something, unless they can blame someone for not telling them about it. This is a problem. If they would admit the limited nature of their knowledge about the situation in Iraq, then it wouldn't look for all the world like they were hoping democracy fails there, as it does right now.
Agree, disagree, have more information on the topic? Please, feel free to leave a comment. No profanity!

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