Your Incompetent, Biased, Lazy, Untrustworthy News Media At Work: A Case Study

Remarkably, Norman Rockwell accurately predicted how news would be reported in 2013!

Remarkably, Norman Rockwell accurately predicted how news would be reported in 2013!

Last week, the Huffington Post breathlessly reported that McDonald’s could double its workers wages, thus giving them a “living wage,” by raising the price of a Big Mac by a mere 68 cents. This obviously had appeal to the HuffPo’s liberal sensibilities, more proof of how a big corporation was needlessly lining its pockets while exploiting the lowest rungs of the workforce. The “proof” was in a study that had been represented as a being run by a “University of Kansas researcher.” The study results looked so good that the fine progressives at the site just knew it had to be right—after all, it perfectly confirmed their own beliefs. This, I’m sure you have guessed by now, is confirmation bias in its purest form.

The Huffington post writer and editors didn’t check the source, and didn’t check the study. And as some non-biased, at least in the same direction, reviewers quickly found out when they did, neither held up. The “researcher” was an undergraduate (Arnobio Morelix, whose wonderful name alone would have made me want to check him out) , and the “study” might have been a term paper. The paper’s assumptions, conclusions and math didn’t hold up, as is fairly common for undergraduate papers. The Huffington Post had to retract its story, five days later.

Alas, too late!

Confirmation bias is deeply imbedded in human nature, and when an entire profession no longer follows its own ethics rules designed to minimize the effect (Literally Rule #1 of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics“Code of whaaa?”: “Journalists should: Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.”), it takes over the field….and where confirmation bias isn’t to blame, laziness and incompetence fill  the vacuum.

HuffPo’s untested “study” by a KU undergraduate was repeated as reliable research by Think Progress, Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Fox News radio (which argued with it, but didn’t question or check its bona fides), The Houston Chronicle, the Business Insider, Gawker, The Franchise Herald, KIRO radio in Seattle, Newser, The Week, The Spokane Spokesman-Review, PJ Media, Truthdig, the Albany Times-Union, LiveLeak, The Daily Meal, AMNewYork, Moyers & Company’s blog,  ABC News, The Examiner, NewsMax, MSN, Truthdig, various food industry sources, and others.

The bogus story, in fact, was treated like a game of “telephone,” with the story becoming more distorted the farther it got from its source. By the time it got to, for example, the lead was this:

“Doubling the salary and benefits of every McDonald’s employee would increase the cost of a Big Mac by just 68 cents according to comprehensive research conducted by the University of Kansas.”

Now it’s not just “a researcher,’ but the whole university, and the study is “comprehensive.” As Ryan Chittum notes in his dismemberment of the study and the Huffington Post’s reporting of it, this is journalism malpractice…but then, the whole episode is. For after the truth about the study was known, and the Huffington Post finally corrected its story,  many of the news media sources never bothered to correct their erroneous versions of it, and some kept repeating the original tale about the “University of Kansas researcher’s study.”

How do the citizens of a democracy make intelligent choices about their nation’s policies, laws, government and leaders when they can’t trust the news media to check facts, be objective and avoid misleading them with misrepresentations, distortions and lies?

They don’t.


Pointer: James Taranto

Sources: SPJ Code of Ethics, Columbia Journalism Review 1, 2; Huffington Post

Graphic: Flaming Dumbass Files

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

27 thoughts on “Your Incompetent, Biased, Lazy, Untrustworthy News Media At Work: A Case Study

  1. “…where confirmation bias isn’t to blame, laziness and incompetence fill the vacuum.”

    So true, and so humbling – applies to every field of endeavor.

  2. We should have learned since the days of Kennedy (and before) that the days of ‘honest’ journalism is long since past. (In case you are too young or too ignorant, the press protected Kennedy from his many pecadiiloes, as they did Roosevelt before him). (Roosevelt, a hero of mine, presents the issue of public vs. private behavior… without him we’d be speaking German (or Japanese?) today, tho his personal morals were at question…a dichotomy I have yet to come to terms with…)

    Journalists today (liberal and conservative) ‘pick their issues” and go with them to take on those of other political beliefs. A few days ago (after the Washington Post was sold) I watched “All the President’s Men” — in case you’re totally ignorant, it was the movie about the Post bringing down Richard Nixon for subverting the US Constitution so he could get re-relected.

    True, this story made 90% of journalists from the ’70s onward want to be muckrakers, and to “break” stories that would change the political world. They all want to be Woodward & Bernstein today…But the Washington Post story — and its unwielding refusal to let Presidential threats stop them from pursuing the story — also showed that, with courage, the press could (and did) follow a story based on fact, not opinion. The impact was one of the biggest political stories in our short US history.

    I remember in high school my sociology teacher told me that if I wanted to have any power I would go into the news business. Executives of each paper, blog, news cast, gets together and decides together what’s “news.” As a woman then I would have never made it into that inner circle, but just watch how newspapers (those that are left) sit around and decide what’s front page news, what’s “above the fold,” or “beneath the fold,” or buried on page 18, on each daily paper. All the electronic media do the same thing.

    The days of real, honest journalism are gone. Taking unsubstantiated stories from questionable sources and making them national “news” is not only lazy, it is rationalizing, unethical behavior, and proves only that today’s media cannot be trusted.

    When Stalin established “Pravda” as the only news source in the Soviet Union, he was on to something. If you control information, you can control opinion and thereby control the people. We’re there, folks.

    PS Jack, get rid of that slimebag that borders your posts. I’m sick and tired of him.

    • I agree with Elizabeth on many things in her post, but most of all her PS about the slimebag. He really is beginning to make me want to stop opening your blog.

      Anyway, one other thing that I’ve been thinking in regard to today’s post as well as what has been happening in news media in general, and you state it here — how are we to find fact-checked and objective news going forward? I’m already sick of internet sources. I love that insurance commercial with the silly girl (with the “French model” boyfriend) who says that they can’t print things on the internet if they’re not true. But I am serious. This truly worries me.

      • “That slimebag” is poor Justin Carter, and he’s there to remind people that a kid is still facing 10 years or more in prison because he made an obvious sarcastic joke, designated as such, on Facebook, and was arrested and charged with making terrorist threats.

        The real slimebags are the law enforcement officials who are abusing their power by criminalizing speech, the cynical media types and politicians who have made people so paranoid and fearful about crazies shooting up schools that they are willing to tear up the Constitution, and the citizens who shrug off one of their number being robbed of his liberty base on politically incorrect speech alone, and won’t pay attention to the assault on our core American rights until THEY are hauled off themselves.

        If Justin’s mug shot makes you uncomfortable, think of how people will call YOUR mugshot the portrait of a slimeball when you get arrested for expressing a point of view deemed “dangerous” by the elite and the “good people” in power. If you want it down, help get Justin some justice,, or at ask least the media to care. I’m at trying..

        • Whoa, sorry, Jack, I did not recognize him as Justin Carter. You’re right, of course, and this wouldn’t have been the first image on your blog that I didn’t like. There have been quite a few. And I’m really too cowardly to express “a point of view deemed ‘dangerous’ by the elite and the ‘good people’ in power,” so I won’t ever suffer his fate. But I will say this that will no doubt infuriate you — I am becoming weary of the tyranny of freedom of speech in all of its extremities. I realize that this statement is anathema on an ethics blog, but I honestly feel this way many times. And trying to block out the random exercises of this freedom of speech which I have no desire to experience becomes more and more difficult without becoming a hermit.

            • When I said tyranny, I meant the tyranny of the rampaging exercise of the freedom of speech which at times displays itself as verbal diarrhea and which so many people seem to feel entitled to force upon the world, especially with the internet. Freedom of Speech is a wonderful thing, but that shouldn’t mean that everyone ought to spew whatever is on their minds, just because they can. I have no interest in diminishing Freedom of Speech. But the deluge of it seems overwhelming to me at times. Just my reaction to too much verbiage coming at me from so many sources. I often tell the car radio to shut up while I’m driving because I’m so tired of the onslaught of words. From an ethical standpoint, I realize that this viewpoint, as I said, is probably anathema. But I’ll bet I’m not alone in these feelings of wishing people would just keep it to themselves sometimes, and have the discernment to know the difference between what’s worth stating publicly and what isn’t.

              • I see. Sorry, your original post didn’t make your position quite as clear. I certainly agree that more people need to shut up. Even Justin Carter shouldn’t have said what he said, but he should have kept it to himself because it was tasteless and annoying, not for fear of repercussions.

        • Well said, Jack. It’s bad enough that we have a press establishment that considers itself the sole arbiter of what’s newsworthy, but now we have one that all too often doesn’t mind altering or abolishing any sense of old-fashioned journalistic investigations and/or integrity into the bargain. That, in turn, has spawned a class of officialdom who use press malfeasance to their own ends. This isn’t the first time in our history that we’ve seen this, but never before has the press and government been so invasive in our lives, either. In the long run, a self-appointed ruling class based on lies built on lies cannot endure. But it can cause much misery before it finally tears itself to pieces. In fact, it already has.

    • Right. He said mean things on the internet, after all, and it would be so much easier if we didn’t have to think about how supporting “freedom of speech” includes freedom of juvenile, offensive, obnoxious speech. If he’s just a slimebag, he probably deserves to be charged.

  3. My favorite takedown of the Big Mac piece (seen on the comments at Popehat, but quoted from elsewhere) was short and sweet:

    If McDonalds could raise the price of a Big Mac by 68 cents and not have negative business consequences, why didn’t they already do it? Did the giant corporation forget to be greedy?

    • *ding ding*

      Someone who understands that markets don’t react well to arbitrary and abrupt adjustments. All markets tend towards equilibrium within the set of rules applied to them.

      An increase in paychecks directly increases costs to clients: swell. However, fewer clients may be willing to purchase the service now because of the price increase. With the accompanying loss of revenue, the company either decides to accept the loss of profit or seek ways to reduce expenditure. Part of that reduction of expenditure is layoffs.

      Only now the market-ignorant agitators for pay increases can now bitch and moan about the monstrous businessmen firing people.

  4. So how much more would we have to pay for a Big Mac for workers to get a living wage? I’d still like to know the answer…..

  5. A data point.
    In Australia, McDonalds pays the minimum wage, $16. Big Macs cost $4.50.
    While there are no doubt many differences, the figures have to be in the right ballpark. By that I mean +/- 50% though. Most hamburgers in Australia cost a lot more than $4.50, often $8 and up – though are larger, with egg, bacon, cheese, lettuce, pineapple, beetroot, onion etc.

    • Assuming $7.50 hourly wage, McDonalds would be paying up to $15 an hour when you add in in federal taxes (Social Security, Medicare, Federal and State unemployment).

      While not all states are as bad as others, ones like California can easily be MORE than double the normal wages.

      And I’ll say it here for the record – this “living wage” bullshit fucking infuriates me. It is, in fact, possible to live on minimum wage. You will not live well, but you can live. You will not have a nice and big TV, you will not have the newest iPhone every time one comes out, you will not own a home, you won’t even live without a roommate, you will not even have a car that runs well if you have a car at all.

      But you can live. If you want more, get a real job.

      Can’t get a real job? Either think about the bullshit worthless degree you got, your choices to not get a degree, or maybe you should ponder why employers are not hiring, and what governmental policies might be the cause of that.

      Or you can bitch about how you aren’t getting paid enough to do a job that would be, largely, automated.

      • On top of the $16 there’s payroll tax, worker’s compensation, 10% superannuation…cost of employment varies from 1.6 to 3.5 times gross pay. 1.6 is unusually lean overhead.

        But no state tax, no medical insurance (we have universal single payer), no unemployment insurance (that’s the dole, benefits not dependent on income when employed, if you want more take out an income protection insurance policy).

        It is, in fact, possible to live on minimum wage. You will not live well, but you can live. You will not have a nice and big TV, you will not have the newest iPhone every time one comes out, you will not own a home, you won’t even live without a roommate, you will not even have a car that runs well if you have a car at all.

        Just don’t get sick, and have at least 2 jobs.

        Though in my own case, as a lowly adjunct prof (in US terms) I have such a low income I can’t afford to be poor. I have to buy $80 shoes that last 3 years rather than $15 ones that last 3 months.

        • Was a time that not only would the doctor COME TO YOU, but he’d be willing to work out some sort of payment plan with you, and maybe knock a little off the price.

          No. Longer.

          Because we don’t actually pay for treatment anymore – oh sure, SOME things we pay full fair for, but virtually nothing else. It is all paied for by a third party, so that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more.

          But this is BETTER, you see. Or so I am told as rates are fixed by bureaucrats instead of the individual doctors.

    • I may stop trying to mention schools by name at all—it’s too complicated. If the University of Kansas doesn’t call itself KU, then the hell with it. UK means someplace entirely different…

        • Delighted again! A couple of members of my family are highly successful, deeply respected, and widely beloved K-State grads. They turn ’em out good there! Class of ’59, and Class of…(uh-oh!) 2011 or 2012…

  6. If I may gloat a bit…LMAO…(sorry, couldn’t help myself). Though I rarely comment on HuffPuffPo articles, I did comment on this one, calling the study “likely a term paper” or an “assignment from a Sociology class”. To quote Hannibal Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together”.

  7. Biased and lazy journalism is nothing new, but modern technology has made it more prevalent. We all have a tendency to want to read and disseminate information that confirms our preconceived notions, or refutes those we want so badly to disagree with. The internet and social media has made that easy to do. On the other hand, modern technology has also made it quicker and easier to research and seek the truth for those who want to. But it takes a lot more time and effort.

    Sites have been created, on all sides of issues, to appeal to and appease our wants, desires and laziness. All we have to do is read, click, like and share. As a society, we are losing the ability for critical thinking. Few of us are willing to challenge our own ways of seeing the world and do the hard and time-consuming work of trying to gain knowledge and understanding and come to our own rationale, logical, reasoned conclusions. We all want to dig in, take sides and load up on ammunition to defend our sides and fight the others. We never let facts and truth interfere with our battles.

    We don’t want to think, and the media is big business providing us customers with what we want. Divisiveness is fun, easy and profitable.

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