I have been teaching writing courses to high school students for many years. There are many things about this job that I enjoy–well, come to think of it, there are really no aspects of this job that I don’t enjoy! But one of my favorite units to teach is journalism.
Naturally, we spend some weeks analyzing news articles and learning the basic structure and techniques of news-writing. Then I give them an assignment: they must write their own newspaper article in proper form on an issue that deeply concerns them. They may interview as many people as they like, but they must interview at least one person. They must research their subject and give me their sources. They usually pick a subject that they are passionate about and it’s always fun to read what they come up with. Because, unbeknownst to them, there is a Part Two to this exercise.
After the students have handed in their papers and I have graded them, we talk about in what ways their biases on their subjects show through in their articles. And then comes my favorite part. I assign them to write another news article on the same issue, using the same interviews and the same research, but from the opposite position. I assure them that half-hearted attempts will not do–they must truly try to convince me of the opposite point of view. Their reactions are always marvelously amusing! They are certain that I’ve given them an impossible task. I am the meanest teacher ever!
A recent example is an Eagle Scout who had written of the virtues and importance of the Boy Scouts as an organization. He had come up with some great examples and persuasive arguments as to Scouting’s vital role in helping to prepare young men for adulthood. His article easily convinced me that the Boy Scouts of America is a wonderful institution. So I had to grin at his crest-fallen face when I informed him that his next article must convince me that BSA is the very worst organization in the history of organizations! I had my work cut out for me to talk him out of his deep despair. But after about twenty minutes of brain-storming together, he was actually excited about giving this assignment a try.
The second articles are inevitably better written than the first, obviously because the students must put a great deal more thought into the subject. But the amazing part is, most of my students find this assignment great fun once they get over their initial panic. Picking through the research to find facts that back their new point of view and taking their interviews apart to find quotes that agree is challenging and it makes them feel as if they have really accomplished something when they’ve finished.
Why do I give my students such a heinous assignment? Well, obviously, to make them better writers, above all else. But this exercise is designed to also make students better consumers of the news media. From the time they take my class, they can no longer simply accept anything they read or hear in the news at face value. Because, after all, if beginning students can turn the facts in either direction they choose, just think what a fully-trained professional journalist can do!
I am not a journalist myself, but I was trained in journalism in college and I am friends with persons who are or have been professionals in the news media. Part of the learning process in writing in any news media, whether newspapers, magazines, television, or internet articles, is how to sift through the enormous amount of information available and pick out the bits that will support a particulate slant. That news is biased is a given–it has to be! How can any half-page news article or three-minute news story possibly cover all the available information? How can a reporter possibly include every quote from every one of the dozens of people he or she interviewed? How can a news story cover every point of view available and still remain a reasonable length? It’s just a fact that the news must be filtered and cut down to a manageable size before it can be published or broadcast. That’s just part of good writing: keeping the news story from becoming unwieldy and unreadable and making certain it is both cohesive and coherent. The only question is, through what viewpoint is it being filtered? Once one knows the point of view, one can avoid being herded along into believing whatever the reporter in question wishes the consumer to believe.
But most Americans do not receive this training. I’m dismayed by the passive acceptance by most of the population of whatever the news source of their choice feeds them. Naturally, most Americans choose to receive their news from a source that agrees with their general outlook and with their politics. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they are receiving news that is tailored to their worldview. This is true whether one watches Fox News or listens to National Public Radio or reads the Wall Street Journal. The points of view are different, but they are necessarily there. I am not saying that this is a bad thing; it is, in fact, entirely necessary. But the consumer needs to be constantly aware of it. This is doubly true for sources on the internet. At least in the newspaper business, there is (supposed to be) a code of conduct and a general consensus of standards the reporters are expected to follow. But on the internet, anyone may write whatever they like about anything without fear of consequences.
How are we ever to get at the truth of an issue, given that the information our news sources feed us are incomplete at best ? First of all, one must resign oneself to the sad fact that we probably won’t get at the whole truth of any current events in this lifetime. Not only are the news media biased, they are relying on sources that are biased. The governments and businesses and individuals who give them official statements and quotations each have their own agendas. And unfortunately, as we follow the career of a certain well-known newscaster, we must realize how easy it is for the reporters, on whom we rely to give us accurate information, to lie to us. I know–this is not helpful! But isn’t it better to face the truth than to simply swallow whatever anyone wants to feed us without careful examination?
My suggestion is to consume our news from a wide variety of sources with various biases and pick out the areas in which they seem to agree. If two opposing viewpoints concede that “x” is true, it may possibly be actually true! I also suggest reading news from other sources outside of America. Other countries’ media will be biased as well, but their biases will be different from an American’s bias. Persons from outside our country often see our country’s issues in a clearer light, since they are not personally involved. Conversely, it’s a good idea to get the news of a foreign country directly from a someone who actually lives in that country rather than relying solely on the viewpoint of a visiting reporter. Finally, I suggest holding any “facts” presented in the media loosely, whatever the source. Yes, this is a cynical viewpoint, but who has not read an article disproving a previously established “fact” which everyone believed for years and which is now proven false?
Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. I am, I freely admit, biased in my opinion.
Coming soon: Part Two–a more detailed rant–I mean, discussion– about specific news-reporting techniques!