Author: Albert Wong

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On the NSA and Media Bias: An Extended Analysis

By Albert Wong and Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Information Society Project at Yale Law School

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, we reported that major US newspapers exhibited a net pro-surveillance bias in their “post-Edward Snowden” coverage of the NSA. Our results ran counter to the general perception that major media outlets lean “traditionally liberal” on social issues. Given our findings, we decided to extend our analysis to see if the same bias was present in “traditionally conservative” and international newspapers.

Using the same methods described in our previous study, we examined total press coverage in the Washington Times, one of the top “traditionally conservative” newspapers in the US. We found that the Washington Times used pro-surveillance terms such as security or counterterrorism 45.5% more frequently than anti-surveillance terms like liberty or rights. This is comparable to USA Today‘s 36% bias and quantitatively greater than The New York Times‘ 14.1% or the Washington Post‘s 11.1%. The Washington Times, a “traditionally conservative” newspaper, had the same, if not stronger, pro-surveillance bias in its coverage as neutral/”traditionally liberal”-leaning newspapers.

In contrast, The Guardian, the major UK newspaper where Glenn Greenwald has reported most of Snowden’s disclosures, did not exhibit such a bias. Unlike any of the US newspapers we examined, The Guardian actually used anti-surveillance terms slightly (3.2%) more frequently than pro-surveillance terms. Despite the UK government’s pro-surveillance position (similar to and perhaps even more uncompromising than that of the US government), the Guardian‘s coverage has remained neutral overall. (Neutral as far as keyword frequency analysis goes, anyway; the use of other methods, such as qualitative analysis of article tone, may also be helpful in building a comprehensive picture.)

Our extended results provide additional context for our earlier report and demonstrate that our analysis is “capturing a meaningful divide.”

On a further note, as several commenters suggested in response to our original report, the US media’s pro-surveillance bias may be a manifestation of a broader “pro-state” bias. This theory may be correct, but it would be difficult to confirm conclusively. On many, even most, issues, the US government does not speak with one voice. Whose position should be taken as the “state” position? The opinion of the President? The Speaker of the House? The Chief Justice? Administration allies in Congress? In the context of the Affordable Care Act, is there no “pro-state” position at all, since the President, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice each have different, largely irreconcilable views?

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Bartelt’s Dog and the Continuing Vitality of the Supreme Court’s Tacit Distinction between Sense Enhancement and Sense Creation

Last Term, in an amicus brief in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. __, several colleagues and I highlighted the Supreme Court’s long, albeit not always clearly stated, history of distinguishing between sense-enhancing and sense-creating technologies for Fourth Amendment purposes.  As a practical matter, the Court has consistently subjected technologies in the latter category to closer scrutiny than technologies that merely bolster natural human senses.  Thus, the use of searchlights, field glasses, and (to some extent) beepers and airplane-mounted cameras was not found to implicate the Fourth Amendment.  As the Court explained, “[n]othing in the Fourth Amendment prohibit[s] the police from augmenting the sensory faculties bestowed upon them at birth with such enhancement as science and technology” may afford.  460 U.S. at 282 (emphasis added).  In contrast, the Court has held that technologies that create a new capacity altogether, including movie projectors, wiretaps, ultrasound devices, radar flashlights, directional microphones, thermal imagers, and (as of Jones) GPS tracking devices, do trigger the Fourth Amendment.  To hold otherwise, as the Court has stated, would “shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy,” leaving citizens “at the mercy of advancing technology.”  533 U.S. at 34-36.

In fact, of the landmark cases involving technology and the Fourth Amendment during the past 85 years (from United States v. Lee, 274 U.S. 559, in 1927 to Jones in 2012), only in one instance did the Supreme Court appear to deviate from this distinction between sense enhancement and sense creation.  In that case, United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, and its successors, City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, and Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, the Court held that the use of trained narcotics-detection dogs (more apparently similar to using a new capacity than merely enhancing a natural human sense) did not implicate the Fourth Amendment.  In our amicus brief in Jones, we rationalized Place, Edmond, and Caballes by arguing that dogs were unique, being natural biological creatures that had long been used by the police, even in the time of the Framers.  Further, we argued, a canine sniff, unlike the use of, say, a wiretap or a thermal imager, “discloses only the presence or absence of narcotics, a contraband item.”  462 U.S. at 707 (emphasis added).  Still, the apparent ‘dog exception’ was rankling. Read More