"Instigative" reporting plays on its readers' emotions—especially their fears. It riles; it angers; it soothes; it advocates; and/or it mobilizes. Rather than simply reporting the facts, instigative reporting might "give voice" to a special group. Credible journalism strives for balance and thoroughness; in contrast, instigative reporting is almost always one-sided. Instigative reporting's impact may come from being well-written and galvanizing. This does not mean it is accurate or more informative. In his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011), psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for his work on decision-making, highlighted a study on people's judgment when given one-sided evidence. He wrote:
"[P]articipants who saw one-sided evidence were more confident of their judgments than those who saw both sides. [ . . .] It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern." (p. 87)
From a writer's perspective, a strong, coherent argument takes—or instigates—a single, focused position. It may seem more credible than it actually is. The reader might forget that the other side (or sides), though omitted, could have been argued just as effectively. However, most issues have more than one perspective. A story balanced by several perspectives is more informative. As political cartoonist Brumsic Brandon wrote for my exhibit "Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentators":
If 360 people formed a large circle and looked at an object in the center of that circle, each person would only be one degree away from the next person. Each person would have a slightly different view of the object. The greater the distance between the two observers, the more their views would differ.
If used cooperatively, those different views could be useful in completing a perception and in resolving issues.
One-sided "instigative" reporting violates the journalism ethic for balanced reporting. According to the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, "journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information [ . . .] distinguish between advocacy and news reporting [. . .] deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage." In other words, instigative reporting compromises its own (as well as the media’s) credibility and its role in informing a community.
On its front page on April 2, 2012, the Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California's "mainstream" newspaper published an article titled, "Feds Raid Medical Marijuana Properties: Oaksterdam University Targeted by Authorities in Industry Crackdown." (The 138-year-old newspaper placed this story next to the headline for a local shooting rampage the day before.)
I argue that this news story advocated or instigated a movement to rally around medical marijuana. The newspaper clearly supported the protesters. The newspaper told the protesters' side through emotional quotes that humanized them. For example, one supporter said the federal government "is trying to send a message that it's as big a bully as it wants to be . . ." and called the founder of the facility "a good sacrificial lamb." Another advocate was quoted in the newspaper as saying, "[The feds] took all [the facility owner's] materials, killed all his plants. The idea was to demoralize the owner and the staff." Even the newspaper called the founder "a leading light in the medical cannabis movement."
There were no quotes to tell the federal authority's side of the story. The writer simply stated that, "authorities refused to provide details about the raids carried out by U. S. Marshals and agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service." According to the Oakland Tribune:
The raid comes six months into a federal crackdown on California's medical marijuana industry. Authorities have forced dozens of dispensaries to close or relocate and threatened to seize the properties of landlords that rent to dispensaries near schools and parks.
[ . . .] Despite the federal crackdown, Oakland has remained supportive of the medical marijuana industry [ . . .] In March , the city pressed ahead with permits to double the number of dispensaries from four to eight, and several officials criticized Monday's raid.
However, these paragraphs could be misleading. Since Oaksterdam was not within 1,000 feet of any schools, playgrounds or parks, these paragraphs implied that the federal authority had no excuse for raiding it. The Oakland Tribune failed to mention that four U. S. attorneys were aggressively prosecuting marijuana dispensaries as profit-making criminal enterprises. They suspected the dispensaries were selling marijuana for more than just medicinal purposes. A February 1, 2011, letter from the U. S. Attorney to the former City Attorney provided the newspaper with the federal authorities' position. The letter was public information and I easily retrieved it by Internet. It concluded:
The [U. S.] Department [of Justice] is concerned about the Oakland Ordinance's creation of a licensing scheme that permits large-scale industrial marijuana cultivation and manufacturing as it authorizes conduct contrary to federal law and threatens the federal government's efforts to regulate the possession, manufacturing, and trafficking of controlled substances. Accordingly, the Department is carefully considering civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who seek to set up industrial marijuana growing warehouses in Oakland pursuant to licenses issued by the City of Oakland. Individuals who elect to operate "industrial cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facilities" will be doing so in violation of federal law. Others who knowingly facilitate the actions of the licensees, including property owners, landlords, and financiers should also know that their conduct violates federal law.
In a three-page December 8, 2010 letter, the Alameda County District Attorney warned the Mayor of Oakland that the ordinance would violate state law. The letter pointed out that the Compassionate Care Act of 1996 allowed a patient with a valid doctor’s recommendation to legally purchase, grow and carry medical marijuana; however, there were specific state and local regulations that pot farms could not meet. In addition, Californians had voted down Proposition 19, also known as the "Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010." Thus, they voted down an act that would have permitted local governments, like Oakland, to impose and collect marijuana-related fees and taxes. In the letter to the Mayor of Oakland, the District Attorney warned:
It remains an open question whether public officers or public employees who aid and abet or conspire to violate state or federal laws in furtherance of a city ordinance, are exempt from criminal liability.
The District Attorney's Office will uphold and enforce the laws of this State.
Though the activists' quotes in the Oakland Tribune made them seem innocent and law-abiding victims of overreaching Federal law enforcement, reading these letters left me with the question: Weren't the facility owner and the City of Oakland officials brazenly defying the law?
Thus, the activists' quotes were examples of what Kahneman called one-sided evidence. Throughout the news story, the Oakland Tribune propagandized such one-sided evidence. In the newspaper article, I identified all seven of the chief devices that the (now-defunct) Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) listed in its 1939 book, The Fine Art of Propaganda. The Institute identified the following as the chief devices of propaganda: name-calling; transfer; glittering generality; testimonial; plain folks; card stacking and bandwagon. The newspaper presented the one-sided evidence coherently and consistently—though it used these propaganda techniques nonetheless.
For example, the subtitle called the marijuana facility a "university." According to the IPA, the "transfer [propaganda device] carries the authority, sanction, and prestige of something respected and revered over to something else in order to make the latter acceptable." In other words, the newspaper transferred reverence for universities to the marijuana facility.
And later, in using quotes that called the feds "bullies" and the facility owner "a good sacrificial lamb," the writers utilized the "name-calling" propaganda device. The feds were the bad guys; the activists were the good guys.
The article opened with "Federal agents delivered a blow to the heart of the medical cannabis movement, . . ." According to the IPA, the "glittering generality" propaganda device associated something with a "virtue word" in order to make it more acceptable. In this case, "medical" was the virtue word. By calling the marijuana "medical," the newspaper removed any association with recreational use or drug abuse. However, there was no study to prove that all the movement’s customers had purchased marijuana only for legitimate medical reasons.
The Oakland Tribune quoted city officials within a narrative that seemed to characterize victimized protesters vs. villainous feds. A councilwoman was quoted as saying "We have a serious gun violence problem in Oakland. If there are extra law enforcement resources available, they should be focused on fighting illegal guns and gun violence." The City Attorney was quoted as saying she opposed "federal raids and prosecutions of Oakland businesses that are complying with state and local laws and regulations and paying their fair share of taxes."
Perhaps the Oakland Tribune misquoted them or placed these quotes out of context. After all, the federal authorities had warned the city that the permits violated federal laws. The District Attorney's letter plainly stated that these businesses—and landlords, investors, the city and its employees—also would be violating state law. The City Attorney could have provided legal background; the councilwoman could have discussed policy. In the story, the Oakland Police Chief might have been called upon to give a statement on which laws were violated—especially since Oakland police were usually called in to back up federal law enforcement.
However, the quotes in the story from city officials were "card-stacking" propaganda devices. In the story's "feds vs. activists" narrative, the quotes stacked the cards against the federal officials. Because those quotes did not mention that the activists publicly defied the federal laws, the newspaper made the feds look guilty of bullying.
Because the City Attorney and City Council were elected offices in Oakland, those quotes could also have been identified as what the IPA called "testimonial" propaganda devices. In a testimonial used as a propaganda device, a respected person says something is good or bad. The quotes from city officials clearly made the feds into the bad guys. The local public officials seemed to be advocates for marijuana growing and distribution. Thus, their statements blurred the line between evidence and commentary.
Their statements also blurred the line between activism and city administration. Activists challenge rules. City administrators, according to former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, take an oath to enforce the "rules under which we all must live." He drew a clear line between activism and city administration (SFGate.com, dated October 30, 2011). One such rule banned the licensing and taxing of large-scale pot farms. Californians voted for it. Many Oakland citizens would likely support a rule against marketing and commercializing any controlled substances in Oakland. They had witnessed marijuana, crack cocaine and other drugs devastate their communities in the '80s and '90s. So, were the city attorney and councilwoman speaking for these citizens? Or were they pandering to the marijuana industry and overruling those Oakland voters?
Blurring those lines weakened the public officials' roles as credible sources of evidence. In addition, those "official" quotes could be read as instigating a disrespect of federal authority. As Kahneman argued, consistent, but one-sided, evidence was more influential than a balanced presentation. These quotes justified physically confronting law enforcement. In my opinion, Oakland does not need more disrespect for law and authority. According to the FBI, in 2011 Oakland had the fourth-highest rate of violent crime among U. S. cities with more than 100,000 people. With such a high crime rate, I believe elected officials—as well as local mass media—should not be publicly setting an example of disrespect for any law—whether it is local, state or federal. If city officials don't respect law and order, why should anyone else in the community? Why should any citizen respect any authority? Should we all choose the laws we will obey? Using their quotes, I could argue that perpetrators of gun violence might have their own rules; perhaps they should only kill only in compliance with their own rules—especially if they pay taxes. Oakland's City's Attorney has taken pride in closing down two hotels that welcomed the prostitution business, but can’t these same arguments be made to defend the licensing of those hotels for prostitution? Didn’t those hotels pay business taxes?
The Oakland Tribune also utilized the "bandwagon" and "plain folks" propaganda devices. According to the newspaper story, "Despite the federal crackdown, Oakland has remained supportive of the medical marijuana industry which last year generated $1.68 million in tax revenue." This was a "plain folks" propaganda device because it attempted to convince the readers that the "plain folks" of Oakland supported the industry—thus, the reader should. The statement could also have been called a "bandwagon device" because it suggested the article's readers jump on the bandwagon and support licensing marijuana since Oakland supposedly did.
However, this one-sided sentence omitted a few important facts. Last year, in a letter to city officials, the former City Attorney recused himself from representing the city on this issue because he too had warned them that it was illegal (SFGate.com, February 8, 2011).
The Oakland Tribune's use of these propaganda devices overtly justified Oakland city officials' actions: knowingly defying state and federal laws in order to raise money for the city. The newspaper, as advocate or defender of this attitude, made itself complicit in what I believe was a questionable act.
The Oakland Tribune news story ended with a sentence reporting that U. S. Marshals had arrested a man for suspicion of assaulting a federal officer. According to Kahneman, "Different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions." (p. 88). Did placing this statement at the end of the story suggest the officer's action was justifiable self-defense? Would placing this statement at the opening of the story have made the protesters appear to be the aggressors and hence get less sympathy from the readers?
Perhaps more important, the Oakland Tribune placed the story next to the shocking headline of the unrelated shooting rampage in Oakland. This placement raised more questions of instigative reporting. Someone reading about such violence would likely still be emotionally aroused when reading any adjacent story. I found "Feds Raid Medical Marijuana Properties" to be problematic because Oakland already had enough violence and financial problems. The city did not need the media to instigate more turmoil. Hence, I use this story as an example of instigative reporting not benefiting a community.