Addicted to Tobacco Stories: A One-Sided Portrayal of a Risky Product

Part 2: Sources

One subtle, but powerful, form of bias in the media has to do with selection and placement of soundbites from sources. The most obvious display of source bias is when reporters interview or use sources only from one side of an issue. Sometimes, however, a story is biased even when reporters have conscientiously produced soundbites from both sides. One side may consistently get the last word in a story, thereby giving it an edge. Or reporters may interview sources from one side that will be credible in the eyes of viewers and less credible sources from the other. In the case of tobacco reporting during the year-long study period, every one of these biases was present.

Number of Soundbites

In stories about tobacco regulation, tobacco advertising, tobacco lawsuits, campaign contributions from tobacco companies, and second-hand smoke, there were more than twice as many soundbites from those opposed to the tobacco industry than from those either supporting tobacco or opposing government regulation. In such stories, there were 270 soundbites from anti-tobacco/pro-regulation sources. There were only 116 soundbites from pro-tobacco/anti-regulation sources. In many stories, only anti-tobacco/pro-regulation sources were presented.

Example: The introductory story for the May 23, 1996 CBS Evening News. The story was about a class-action lawsuit against the tobacco industry that had just been thrown out of court and a new study which indicated that smoking had increased among young blacks. Correspondent Jim Stewart's story included a soundbite about the lawsuit from John Banzhaf, an anti-smoking activist, who said: "I think this is a significant setback for the victims, but it is not a reprieve for the tobacco industry. We'll simply bring the cases in state court rather than federal court." He also interviewed Rep. John Lewis about tobacco sales to black teens. "I think there has been a deliberate, systematic effort on the part of the tobacco industry to target black teenagers." Stewart noted that many blamed advertising for the increase in smoking. He didn't make room in his story for comments from those who think tobacco lawsuits are frivolous, or from those who think advertising doesn't explain teen smoking behavior.

Getting the Last Word

The last soundbite in a story is often the most important. The exeprt who is quoted last often gets the chance to refute the best argument presented from the other side. In the stories about tobacco, anti-tobacco/pro-regulation sources were given the opportunity to speak last more than three times as often pro-tobacco or anti-regulation sources. In 132 stories, most of which were about either lawsuits or proposed regulations, anti-tobacco/pro-regulation sources were given the last word. In 40 stories, pro-tobacco/anti-regulation sources were given the last word.

In one typical story, CBS's Bill Plante first ran a soundbite from Bill Clinton arguing that further regulation of tobacco is necessary because "cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are harmful, highly addictive, and aggressively marketed to our young people." He then ran a soundbite from "tobacco-state lawmaker" Wendell Ford, who said: "The administration has chosen litigation over compromise." Plante's next soundbite was from Clinton arguing that voluntary measures won't work: "First of all, there'd be no way to enforce it. Secondly, the history of voluntary agreements with the tobacco industry is not good, to put it mildly." Steve Parrish of Philip Morris, then told viewers: "Make no mistake, the real issue and the real agenda here is prohibition." Plante's final soundbite was from FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who said the issue was solely about children: "If you don't start smoking by 18 or 19, you don't start smoking."

In each case, Plante let soundbites from Clinton Administration sources counter whatever arguments anti-regulation spokesmen brought up, without giving the anti-regulation side the same courtesy.

Credibility of Sources

In the stories about tobacco, television news reporters almost always went to anti-smoking sources that would likely be more credible in the eyes of viewers than the sources interviewed on the pro-tobacco/anti-regulation side. An August 3, 1995 CNN World News story about President Clinton's attempts to regulate the industry is an example. Correspondent Wolf Blitzer first ran a soundbite from President Clinton, who asserted that the best way to improve the health and health care of Americans is to stop teen smoking.

Then Blitzer ran a soundbite from George Dessart of the American Cancer Society. "Trusting the tobacco industry to set and enforce the same limits voluntarily," argued Dessart, "flies in the face of the industry's record, of its best interests, and of its motives." Blitzer then allowed the Tobacco Institute's Walker Merryman a chance to respond: "If the Food & Drug Administration gets involved in tobacco regulation there can be only one result, and that's a ban on the product." Finally, Blitzer ran a soundbite from North Carolina Representative Charlie Rose, who asked, "Why not take the word of the cigarette companies that they will join in a government partnership to keep tobacco products away from kids?"

Is this balance? Blitzer interviewed two sources from each side of the regulatory debate, and he even gave an anti-regulation congressman the last word. But both of those featured on the anti-regulation side of the debate had a personal interest in opposing regulations. This, of course, didn't make what they had to say wrong, but it certainly would taint their opinions in the eyes of viewers, unlike the source affiliated with the American Cancer Society. Blitzer should have also interviewed an expert, perhaps from a university psychology or marketing department, who would have questioned the efficacy of regulations on advertising.

In some cases reporters cannot be expected to find credible sources on both sides. For example, balance does not require reporters to find and interview scientists who claim that smoking is not risky behavior. But on such issues as tobacco regulation, tobacco advertising, tobacco lawsuits, campaign contributions by the tobacco industry, and second-hand smoke, there is a real debate with independent experts arguing, for instance, against the regulation of tobacco and against lawsuits aimed at the tobacco industry.

Usually the only people opposing tobacco regulations who were interviewed were those with a vested interest in stopping regulations, such as tobacco-industry spokesmen or tobacco-state politicians. Such sources should be interviewed. But they are not the only ones who oppose increased regulation. Other disinterested experts should be interviewed as well. Reporters who don't interview credible experts on both sides of such issues are not giving their viewers the entire story.