It’s no big secret that reporters and editors have ideological preferences that influence their work, and that media operations often have built-in biases that influence the news you consume. But how does this play out in practice? While there are numerous ways to bias the news, I’ll share a couple local media examples from the recent past that showcase one of the more subtle ways: the “fact vs. claim” game.
First is an October 7 article in the Vail Daily newspaper about Issue 7A, the Colorado River Water Conservation District property tax measure that appeared on the November ballot (the measure passed easily). The piece, written by a reporter for the left-leaning Aspen Journalism project, includes the following line near the end: “In an era when climate change is robbing the Colorado River of streamflows and water shortages are becoming increasingly common, 7A supporters say this is the time to come together to fund a common interest.”
See what happened there? The reporter states as a matter of fact that “climate change is robbing the Colorado River of streamflows” and then moves on without citing any source or otherwise offering any evidence.
But in a May opinion piece for Complete Colorado, former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Greg Walcher, calls such claims “patently absurd.”
“I am no ‘climate denier’,” writes Walcher. “The Earth warmed by roughly 1.6 degrees in the last century and a half. But to attribute a 20 percent drop in the West’s largest river to a temperature change that small strains credulity.”
Walcher continues that the cause for the drop is two-fold. First is “evapotranspiration,” where poor forest management has allowed far too many trees, causing rain water to evaporate before reaching ground. “The Bureau of Reclamation has estimated that the Colorado River loses almost four million acre feet per year to evapotranspiration – more than the entire “missing” flow,” writes Walcher.
Second is the invasive, non-native tamerisk plant, which as Walcher describes, “has spread across virtually every river system in half the United States, consuming unfathomable amounts of water.”
In other words, there’s enough evidence of causes other than climate change for the river’s decreased flow to make the Aspen Journalism assertion a good example of a baked-in ideological preference masquerading as “fact.”
The second example is an October 20 Denverite piece which lays out details on the killing of Lee Keltner by 9News security guard Matthew Dolloff during a downtown Denver protest. The article states early on, “Since late summer, small groups of armed and armored people have occasionally chased each other through downtown Denver in the dark of night, as protesters on the left try to keep the social justice movement from earlier this year alive, and right-leaning groups claim to patrol against vandalism and destruction.”
Catch that? The reporters tell us as a statement of fact the positive intent of the “protestors on the left.” This despite evidence that many left-wing agitators have taken advantage of the protests around the killing of George Floyd as cover for their more run-of-the-mill vandalism and rioting. Conversely, the positive intent of the “right-leaning groups” is not a fact, but merely their own “claim.”
Shocking disclosure: Denverite is an ideologically progressive digital news operation owned by the left-leaning Colorado Public Radio.
In all fairness, had this story been from a right-of-center publication, the bias could just as easily have been reversed: “…as protestors on the left claim to be keeping alive a social justice movement from earlier in the year, while patriots work to keep the peace, patrolling to protect the community from vandalism and destruction.”
See how that game works?
Beyond the slanting, both of these articles still offered valuable information about timely events. The Vail Daily piece actually did a good job parsing out some of the water politics of the Western Slope and the Denverite piece is a pretty deep dive into the politically charged killing of Keltner.
The point here is that knowing how to spot the signs of an ideological preference will make you a savvier media consumer, allowing you to take your news with an appropriate dash of salt.
Mike Krause is Editor-in-Chief of Complete Colorado.