How to read a news story

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he good folks at Just Security have done a great service to news consumers. Last Wednesday Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey performed a nearly line-by-line dissection of a New York Times story on drone strikes in Yemen.

The analysis provides insight on how the news is written and consumed. What words are used? What assumptions from the writers go unchallenged? What “facts” are out-and-out erroneous?

The days of unbiased news reporting are over if they ever existed. Co-mingling the story with editorial opinion are now we receive news today. Let the reader be warned.

Below is an excerpt from the analysis at Just Security.

From the NYT article: WASHINGTON — American drones and Yemeni counterterrorism forces killed more than three dozen militants[1] linked to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen over the weekend in one of the largest such attacks there in months[2], officials[3] from both countries said Monday.

Analysis by Just Security: [1] Note that the story leads with “militants” instead of “alleged militants.” Technically this difference is solved by the reference to “officials … said” at the end of the sentence. Still, the lede creates an initial impression that the individuals killed were indeed militants, rather than signalling to the reader that the issue might be contested. This kind of formulation — asserting militancy as fact, and later attributing those claims to officials — occurs frequently throughout this story. Given the anonymity of the official claims, repeated cases in which official claims have subsequently proven unreliable, the difficulty of determining “militancy,” and what is at stake in the categorization, the NYT could assist its readers by including more nuance in such coverage. In addition to signals such as “alleged,” some stories could place an initial reference to “militants” in scare quotes.

[2] It is a significant understatement to call this one of the largest attacks in “months.” If the reported casualties are accurate, the weekend strikes were one of the largest attacks in the history of US strikes in Yemen. Prior attacks resulting in such large numbers of deaths in a short amount of time include the July-August 2013 cluster of strikes (9 strikes, 31-49 estimated deaths), March 2012 strikes, and the December 2009 al-Majala strike.

[3] As is often the case in news pieces on US “targeted killings,” the bulk of the information in this story is sourced to unnamed “officials” from both Yemen and the United States. In this story, anonymous officials are cited frequently throughout; yet CIA, Pentagon, and White House spokespersons refused to comment or to comment specifically on these strikes.

NYT: At least three airstrikes were carried out against Qaeda fighters[4] in a convoy and in remote training camps in southern Yemen. They were militants who were planning to attack civilian and military facilities[5][6], government officials said in a statement.

Just Security: [4] Note that the reference to “officials said” drops from sentences such as this one, and now terms like “Qaeda fighters” have neither that qualification nor a qualification like “alleged.”

[5] According to other news outlets — such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse – Yemeni official statements included the fact that these facilities were in Bayda province. This is important because it would suggest the militants were not directly threatening US persons. (And President Obama’s new rules of May 23, 2013 limit US lethal actions to threats only to US persons.) Are you curious as to whether Reuters/AFP got this right, and the NYT missed its relevance? The official statement on the Yemeni Defense Ministry’s website identifies Bayda as the target.

[6] It is striking that in light of such a “massive and unprecedented” operation, there has not been more reporting on what exactly the militants were allegedly up to.

I encourage you to check out the entire article. It is a good reminder of what we take for granted when reading the news, and a better reminder that what we should take for granted is nothing.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.