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Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Two


I’ve lived a varied and interesting life which has given me the opportunity to get to know many different people of every possible social strata, political persuasion, and religious affiliation.  As assistant to one of the most high-profile lobbyists for medical reform in my state, I had many frank conversations with hospital administrators, high-end attorneys, state senators, and other “important” people in politics; as an educator, I’ve had enlightening conversations with grade school teachers, college professors, principals, and school administrators; as the wife of a law enforcement officer who also doubles as a crash/fire/rescue worker and emergency medical worker, I’m intimately familiar with a great number of police officers, EMT’s, fire fighters, parole officers, and other emergency and law enforcement personnel;  as an active member of our highly-diversified church and its outreach, I’m friends with persons of many different races, sexual preferences and political convictions, including former convicts, felons currently serving prison sentences, recovering drug addicts, social workers, immigrants from many different countries, professional musicians, important businessmen and women,  and just about anything else you can think of.  My husband and I have taken homeless people into our home and looked after them until they got on their feet and have taken poor children from the local projects on doctor’s visits, camping trips and other outings.  In other words, I have a fairly all-encompassing outlook on life in America and have been privileged to have had conversations with people from just about every possible walk of life.

 

You might think that there is very little that all of these people would have in common, and you would be mostly correct.  But there is one thing that every person from every occupation and social strata with whom I’ve ever conversed can agree upon whole-heartedly:  Every incident in which any of these various people have been involved and has been reported in newspaper or television has been completely misrepresented by reporters.  You might think I’m exaggerating, and I certainly wish I was.  But it is unfortunately true that whether I am speaking with a liberal lobbyist or a conservative businessman, a police officer or a convicted felon—they all complain about how any incident in which they have personal knowledge has been twisted in the press.

 

There are many reasons this may be true.  One would be a lack fact-finding on the part of the reporters.  Pressing deadlines and a demand for scoops on breaking news  cause reporters to take short-cuts and does not allow for the fact that it just takes time for truth to be uncovered.  Often, if the story is minor, there is no follow-up story to correct the mistaken assumptions and incorrect statements made in the initial report.  Another reason for haste is the popular idea that reserving judgement on any subject is some sort of mental or moral fault.  Opinions must be served up hot, in spite of the lack of any solid evidence upon which to base them.

 

Another reason is a dependence of reporters upon official releases from the heads of businesses and governments concerning an incident.  Naturally, these official releases seek to put the entity in question in the best light, and so many details are left out or even falsified, and “weasel words” are employed to this end.

 

A third reason is the over-dependence on “man-on-the-street” interviews instead of relying on factual evidence in an incident.  This lends the personal touch to any story, but usually gives a false impression of an event or simply fills a report with irrelevant information rather than simple truth.

 

A more subtle reason is the reliance on statistics and other numerical facts.  “Numbers don’t lie”—or do they?  Readers tend to take numbers at face value without questioning where these statistics came from and what they really mean.

 

Last, but most insidious, is the apparent need of today’s press to create outrage on every possible subject.  One can no longer simply read the newspaper or watch a news program on television—one must be pumped up with emotion about it, and the cheapest emotion to pump is anger.  Outrage sells!  Get people worked up about the news and they will buy it.

 

I would like to explore each of these phenomena with examples.  The hardest part about this is choosing which of the countless examples to use!  This is the reason it has taken me so long to write “Part Two” in this series!

 

IN GREAT HASTE TO FORM PUBLIC OPINION:

“Genius detective proved to be a fraud.  I read it in the paper, so it must be true.  I love newspapers.  Fairy tales.  And pretty grim ones, too.”  If you are alive and aware of modern culture at all, you will recognize this quote as being from the super-criminal Jim Moriarty on the BBC television show “Sherlock”, spoken just before the defamed detective was forced to plunge to his death in disgrace.

 

Why was the general public so willing to accept a false report? Sherlock himself explained: “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever.  A lie that is preferable to the truth. . . . He’s got my whole life story.  That’s what you do when you sell a big lie—you wrap it up in the truth to make it more palatable.”

 

But does this happen in real life?  According to my sources, I’m afraid it does!  In fact, it’s an American tradition that goes back to pre-Revolutionary times– to spin events in such a way as to form public opinion in a manner most suitable to those in control of the press.  Take, for example, the Boston Massacre.  Every school child knows that this tragic incident occurred when the evil Red Coats shot down innocent civilians for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  It’s in the newspapers of the day, so it must be true!  There’s even a woodcut by Paul Revere showing the events of that fateful day.  Never mind that Paul wasn’t present at this event—a picture is worth a thousand words!

 

The newspapers of the day reported this incident immediately, without benefit of any evidence other than the reports of a few obscure “witnesses” who later, it was proven, had not even been present at the time.  It was reported that the British soldiers had over-reacted to a few boys who were taunting them and throwing snowballs at them and shot into a crowd of innocents with that rather ridiculous provocation.  It was also reported that someone shouted “Fire” and that the soldiers then began to shoot into the helpless crowd.  Americans, already outraged by the presence of British military in “their” colonies, were quite ready to believe this actually quite unbelievable account.  And many American “patriots” egged the story on, wanting it to be true—after all, it made a perfect rallying point for their cause.  “See!  The British are evil and we must be rid of them!  They have no business being in America.”

 

Fortunately, not all of the patriots in the American colonies were so rabid in their cause that they could ignore the facts of the case.  John Adams, who later helped to write the Declaration of Independence and eventually became our second president, volunteered to represent the British soldiers who had been arrested for the murder of the five colonists who had died in the Boston riot.  He had a vested interest in stirring up the colonists against the British, but refused to compromise his integrity in that cause.  When he visited those soldiers in jail, he saw not a rabble of wicked murderers but a group of boys far from home, who had tried to do their jobs as best they could.  They had been tasked to guard the Customs House and were not permitted to leave their post for any reason.  Adams’ investigation uncovered a plot by a group of Americans—the city bells rang at 8:00 to rally about 100 men, who planned to attack the soldiers with clubs and sticks.  They found a single soldier guarding the Customs House and began throwing chunks of ice at him and hitting him with sticks and clubs.  He endured their attack without retaliating, but did call for reinforcements.  Twelve soldiers arrived to his defense and were also attacked with clubs and sticks.  And yes, snowballs were also thrown as reported!  And the word “Fire” was also uttered, it is true—it was an American sailor, one of twelve,  who shouted it, and his full sentence was “Why don’t you fire, you bloody backs?  Fire and be damned; we know you dare not!”  This, while beating the soldiers bloody with a club.

 

“Would it have been a prudent resolution in them, or in any body in their situation, to have stood still, to see if the sailors would knock their brains out, or not?” Mr. Adams asked in his final speech at the trail.  “Their clubs were as capable of killing as a (rifle) ball. . . .”  As you may imagine, all but two of these unfortunate soldiers were acquitted, and those two who were sentenced were convicted of manslaughter with mitigating circumstances and received a minimal sentence.

 

But this was not the way the trial was reported in the papers.  A riot started by American rabble rousers was consistently termed a “massacre”, as if the shootings had been unprovoked by unarmed men rather than self-defense on the part of the soldiers.  Even today, it’s very difficult to find the truth of these events because of the twisted and insidious way the newspapers handled it, and the use unprincipled patriots made of it—one of whom was John Adams’ own cousin.  Sam Adams took advantage of the public outcry to his own ends, speaking with authority on the events of that fateful night in spite of the fact that he had not been present at the time.  One must go to the transcripts of the trial itself, and to the private journals of those involved, to get at the truth.

 

And so began our American tradition of journalism, I’m afraid.  It really doesn’t get any better than this.  But sometimes it really isn’t the journalists’ fault that untruths are presented in the press.  On to Point Two in Part Three of this series!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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