Tag Archives: consuming the news wisely

Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Four


This subject has fascinated me for years, and writing these blog posts concerning the news media has been a great experience for me.  I apologize for taking so many words to express these ideas.  This will be my last entry on this subject!

 

WITNESSES PROVIDE THE LEAST RELIABLE EVIDENCE

It’s emotionally satisfying to read quotations from people in any news article, and the emotional impact of these witness statements tempt news writers to rely on them for filler in their news stories—especially when there is a great lack of actual information to report.  Recently I read what was probably the fluffiest news article I’ve ever seen in a supposedly serious newspaper.  The birth of the new princess in the U.K. was kept so carefully under wraps that the poor reporters were at a loss to provide any information on the subject as they waited for the official press release.  Unable to gain access to anyone who would actually know anything, one reporter filled his article with quotes from a random woman he had selected from the crowds on the street before the hospital where the baby was being born.  This woman had no connection with the royal family or with anyone who had any connection with the family—she knew no more about the blessed event than I did, a perfect stranger from across the pond.  But her every opinion was treated as seriously as any official statement.

This was an obvious attempt at filling out a sparse article with . . . something!  But so many more serious events are also padded with interesting but completely superfluous quotations from persons who have no actual knowledge of the incident in question.  It is human nature to want to experience the intense emotions of a tragedy at a remove—but is this news or exploitation?  Interviewing family members of a crime or accident victim or of a suspect of a crime gives the news consumer a rush of emotion, but does not actually convey truth.  No friend or family member will ever admit to the prying public anything but good about their loved one, even if they secretly know better; and using their grief to sell news is deplorable.  Such sentiments help to muddy the waters of truth and can shape public opinion more firmly than any cold, hard facts can do.

But even eye-witnesses to an incident are not really reliable conveyers of truth.  When my husband investigates an accident or a crime, he might interview dozens of witnesses to the event, but he inevitably gets dozens of different stories, many of them conflicting one another.  There is a reason more than one witness is required for the Old Testament law to convict someone of a serious crime.  Any one witness sees only one facet of an event from only one vantage point.  And it is a fact of human psychology that when information is missing in what a person experiences, the brain fills in the blanks as best it can.  The witness is not deliberately lying—he or she honestly believes what they are saying.  But an experienced investigator learns to take anything a witness states with a grain of salt, comparing accounts to find common factors.  Test this for yourself—ask someone who lived through a traumatic or emotional experience with you to describe the event and take note of how differently he or she remembers it.

Moreover, investigators know that forensic evidence is more truthful than anything a witness may say.  DNA samples and blood spatter and fingerprints and skid marks can’t lie or forget or fancify the facts.  But these pieces of cold, hard evidence take time to collect and analyze accurately, and the press and the public have no patience with it.   Building a picture of the truth can take months of careful work—and don’t we want investigators to do their jobs properly?  We should desire truth no matter how long it takes to discover—but the media wants sensation and wants it now.

Here is an example of a news article based entirely on eye-witness accounts of an incident which was completely inaccurate in every detail.  We can all remember the shock and fear that followed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  So imagine, just few days after commercial flights were allowed to return to normal, the sensation of a news report of a Middle-Eastern terrorist who forced a flight to land in Pennsylvania after a “violent altercation with the flight crew”.  The man was arrested upon the plane’s landing and taken quickly away, leaving only a stunned and terrified group of passengers for reporters to glean information from.  The airline refused to comment on the event other than to commend its crew for responding correctly to the incident, and the crew itself was not allowed to speak to the press.  The man in question was not named in the article, but a picture was taken of him and published with the article.

Two years later, my husband and I found ourselves the hosts to this unfortunate man, indeed a very large and imposing-looking Middle-Eastern male, who had just been released from a mental institution and was lost, unable to understand what was happening to him or what he should do next.  This “Middle-Eastern male” was, in fact, an Israeli immigrant, and so simple-minded and sheltered from society that he did not understand how money worked or how to find his family.  Moshe had literally been raised in a synagogue in Tel Aviv—we took him to a park for a picnic one day, and he admitted he had never spent any amount of time out of doors.  I asked him what sorts of trees grew in Tel Aviv, and he didn’t know—he couldn’t remember having seen any!  His mother had always taken care of him, bringing him with her to Florida when she emigrated.  But then she died, and her friends put the poor guy alone on a plane to send him to relatives on the other side of the country.  Moshe had never traveled alone before and was petrified.  He had a panic attack and tried to open the door to escape his terror—hence the “violent altercation.”  He had not harmed anyone, but had been difficult to control, and so the pilot had prudently landed at the nearest airport in order to get Moshe into the care he obviously needed.  He was compliant as a lamb as the police took him gently into protective custody and transported him to a mental institution.

It is completely understandable that the passengers on that flight were afraid of Moshe, describing him as hostile and dangerous.  He had been loudly vocal in his terrified panic, but since no one could understand his words they were interpreted as threats rather than pleas for help.  I would have been frightened in their place.  But the passengers did not have any of the facts—they had only their feelings.  And poor Moshe was decried as a terrorist on their word alone.

Which brings me to my last point:

 

OPINIONS ARE NOT FACTS AND OUTRAGE IS NOT A VIRTUE

Knowing intimately how investigations work, my husband and I refuse to form opinions on any newsworthy event until all the evidence is presented.  But reserving opinion in today’s world is considered a lack of empathy or some sort of anti-social behavior.  However, there is no merit in forming an opinion on any subject until all of the facts are known.  The press drives the emotions of the public to a frenzy with quotes from persons who were not present at an incident at all, or from eye-witnesses who nevertheless have no first-hand knowledge of the truth.  The public seems oblivious to the fact that observing an event at a remove, with no knowledge of the persons involved or of the events leading up to the incident, is fairly useless in getting at the truth; they seem equally oblivious to the fact that statements from persons who were not even present at the event are completely irrelevant.

It’s a sin in today’s emotion-driven world to have no opinion on a matter.  Worse, it’s a sin not to be outraged by events that the media deems worthy of outrage.  Persons who remain cool-headed in the face of an explosive event and try to discern actual evidence logically are perceived as trying to defend an alleged perpetrator whom the press has already tried and convicted, or as being coldly indifferent to the sufferings of the alleged victims.  But there seems to be no passion left for the truth itself.  When the forensic evidence contradicts the conclusions the media had already herded the sheep-like public into, the outrage increases.  Truth is no longer important—the perceptions formed by the press, drawn before there had yet been time to properly investigate the truth, becomes reality to the rage-drunk consumers of media.

And why?  Because outrage sells, and so the media eagerly milks every possible reason to create outrage.  And the consumers drink deeply of it, because being outraged feels like doing something important and joining the outrage of others feels like being a part of something bigger than oneself.  It becomes almost a religion.  And yet, no matter how much it feels like doing something, it actually accomplishes nothing of merit.  Outrage is a violent and mindless destructive force, lashing out blindly, harming everyone in its path.  And when its emotional impact is spent, the press finds some other event to exploit.

Has the media ever reported simple facts without fanning the flames of emotion to get the public response it desires?  I don’t know.  But if we want to use the media wisely, we must constantly be seeking truth, not sensation.  And truth is sometimes very hard to come by.

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Consuming the Media Wisely


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!

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