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Consuming the Media Wisely: Part Three


In my last post, I discussed the unreliability of the press as journalists rush stories to print without checking facts and invent “facts” when truth takes too long to uncover.  Often this is simply sloppiness and impatience—sometimes it’s something much more damaging and calculating.

But untruths in the press are not always entirely the fault of the reporters and fact-finders.  Sometimes it’s the powers-that-be who are at fault, providing press releases for media that are less than veracious.

 

PRESS RELEASES:  THE OPPOSITE OF INVESTIGATION

“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression,” read the headlines of the Washington Post on August 5, 1964.  As a result of this reported attack on our navy in Tonkin Gulf, President Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes on North Vietnam.  But the report was not true—there had been no attack on our navy in the Tonkin Gulf.  Relying entirely on Government press releases, the media spread deception designed to escalate the war with the full acquiescence of the American people.  It later came to light that journalists of the day had considerable information which contradicted the official accounts, but this information was never used.  It wasn’t until December of 2005 that the documents outlining the truth of this incident were officially declassified and made available to the public.

In this case, the media was not to blame for the dissemination of false information, although had they drawn from other sources than the official ones some truth might have been made known.  Asking pertinent questions might have helped to alter events—who knows, perhaps public outcry might have brought the war to end much sooner.

But not all press releases have global consequences.  Sometimes there are consequences only for one average American family.  Here’s a personal account of how the media completely misrepresented a terrifying accident in my own family.

My husband works at an airport and is trained to be both a police officer and a crash/fire/rescue emergency worker.  While most of his week is spent in law enforcement, once or twice a week he is assigned to a truck in the fire hall and responds to aircraft emergencies.    One night, responding to a potential crash site, he drove his 40 ton truck out of the fire bay and as he turned onto the runway it began to tip and groan; and then, off-balance, it crashed on its side, its momentum nearly causing it to roll completely over.  Every bit of glass in the structure shattered even before impact, and if my husband had not been wearing his safety belt he would have been flung out of the side window and then crushed to death as the twisted metal landed on him.  As it was, he suffered internal injuries from the safety belt and from stress of impact, but was treated in the ER and released the same day.  I received that phone call from the chief that every wife of police officers dread, but for bad news, it was better bad news than it could have been.  We felt blessed that the accident had been no worse.

And then the morning paper came out.

The upshot of the article stated that my husband had been the driver in a single-vehicle crash, destroying an immensely expensive piece of airport equipment.  “Officer Ross has tested negative for alcohol; the drug test results are pending.”  And that was it.

Sounds pretty condemning, doesn’t it?  If you read that article, you’d have no doubt in your mind that the accident was due to recklessness on my husband’s part, probably the result of drug-use on the job.  It wasn’t entirely the fault of the reporter who wrote this damning bit of news—police officers are not permitted to speak to the press, and so the reporter had to rely on the airport’s Public Relations Department for information.  And the airport was very happy to allow my husband to take the blame for the accident.

A little digging, however, would have provided just enough additional information to at least allow a bit of doubt to be cast on my husband’s culpability in the incident.  Alcohol and drug testing are standard procedure in any accident and regulations required the tests be done—but no one at the airport ever even considered that my husband might actually have been under the influence of anything.  Furthermore, the video camera’s footage from inside the truck itself showed that it had been proceeding at only 14 miles per hour at the time of the accident—hardly reckless driving.  The resulting investigation into the accident showed that the airport had (against the manufacturer’s warning) enhanced the vehicle with a  two-ton boom for spraying fire-deterrent foam, making the truck top-heavy and increasing the weight on the suspension—but did not reinforce the suspension to accommodate the increased weight.  Naturally, the suspension weakened and eventually collapsed, nearly killing my husband as it did so.

It was difficult enough as a family to deal with an accident which could so easily have been fatal, without also having to ward off accusations of culpability in the accident.  Our children were old enough to understand what was happening, and it was very upsetting to us all.  The press is very happy to assume that a police officer is at fault when an incident occurs—and it is not inclined to take the time to investigate the possibility that someone else might have been at fault.  Journalists also never seem to take into consideration the families of police officers and how false reports might affect them.

 

STATISTICS:  MARK TWAIN WAS RIGHT!

Numbers and graphs always seem to lend an element of veracity to an article—after all, numbers don’t lie. Mark Twain would disagree, and he famously quoted Benjamin Disraeli to prove it:  “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Anyone who actually deals with statistics for their livelihood or who teaches statistics classes in university agrees that one can make statistics say anything one wants, whether it represents truth or not.

The fact is, statistics exist for the purpose of estimation—they were never meant to be taken as literal fact.  Stats track trends and help businessmen and governments make educated guesses, but they are never actually true.  Take a census for example.  In 2014, the population of the United States was reported to be 318,857,056.  Was that number ever at any point of time literally true?  Probably not, given the number of births and deaths that take place every moment of every day, and taking into account the number of uncounted, displaced persons on the streets; not to mention inevitable errors made by census takers.

Here’s another way to make statistics say two very different things.  Doctor A and Doctor B both work in the ER at the same hospital.  Forty-six percent of Doctor A’s patients die under his care.  Sixteen percent of Doctor B’s patients die under his care.  Which doctor would you rather have treat you if you have to go to the ER?  What if I told you that Doctor A is an expert in severe injury cases, and so all of the worst accident victims are placed under his care; the patients are dying when he gets to them, and yet 54% of them live because of his expertise.  Doctor B is new and inexperienced; he is given the easiest cases to treat, and yet 16% of his patients don’t make it.  Now whom do you want to be your doctor?  Numbers can only tell you just so much—the most important bits of information cannot be quantified with statistics.

One often sees two very different things compared in the press to make points, but false comparisons don’t represent reality.  For example, here’s a news report:  there are twice as many vehicle-related fatalities in the U.S. in one month than the U.K. sustains in an entire year.  Are drivers more careful in Great Britain?  Is it safer to drive there than it is to drive in the United States?  The fact is, there are 254 million vehicles registered in the United as compared to only 34 million in the U.K.  This reflects the great difference in the population of the two countries:  319 million in the U.S as opposed to 64 million in the U.K.  Estimated per capita, drivers in the U.S. are actually much safer than those in our mother country.

We’ve all seen those weasely advertising scams that say “up to 99% success rate” or “nine out of ten” whatever experts agree.  Hardly anyone considers when reading these stats that every percentage point from zero to 98 is “up to 99%”.  And as for the “nine out of ten” experts—who are these people?  How many experts were polled? Where did they live? How were the questions worded?  Was every response counted, or just the ones the pollsters liked?  So many variables!  How can we take such information seriously?

Frankly, numbers and statistics are fairly meaningless as they are normally used in the media.  The truth cannot be reduced to a number—reality is always so much more complicated than math.

 

Sorry—this project has grown into a huge production!  Part Four should finish this topic for me, and then I will rest easy.

 

 

 

 

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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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Journalism at its Worst


 

I have always been a staunch supporter of the newspaper.  My favorite way to begin my day is to read the paper over a light breakfast–in front of a roaring fire if it’s a cold, wintry day.  I do watch the news on television occasionally, but I much prefer the more in-depth coverage of the printed word.  Don’t get me wrong:  I am perfectly aware that the written news is just as biased and as often in error as televised news.  Cynic that I am, I never take a journalist’s word for anything.  My husband, a police officer, has sometimes noted that the items of news he is aware of from his work are never reported accurately.  But I am fine with taking everything I read with a grain of salt and I think I’m pretty good at sifting through and finding truth where it’s offered.

But until recently, one could at least be certain of the quality of writing in a newspaper..  I took some journalism courses myself in college, so I am aware of the training it takes to prepare for a such a career.  I was taught that journalists were representatives of the people and should uphold the highest standards of excellence in writing.  Therefore, the shocking language I’ve been subjected to in our newspapers of late appalls me.  I refer to the astoundingly poor grammar many of our reporters have been using in the past few years.

Now, I am not a grammar prude:  I don’t expect perfect grammar in casual conversation, and use relaxed standards myself for everyday communication.  But speaking the language casually and writing it professionally are two different things.  Lapses in grammar are unforgivable in such a forum.  Journalists should be taught to use impeccable grammar in their work; and since even “Homer nods”, editors should be alert enough to catch any errors that creep into writer’s copy.  Writers in the news media should be setting an example for the public at large in correct use of formal language. I have in the past used the newspaper as an aid in teaching my writing and literature classes.  I will have to be more selective in my curriculum in the future.

I’ve been disappointed in the quality of writing in the newspaper for some time, but the breaking point was an article I read this past weekend in which the phrase “drug through the mud” was used, not once but twice!  Now I grant you that this was a quotation.  But I can think of only few reasons that this particular quotation was chosen the by writer of the article in question.  This was a quote by a spokesperson for a large, prominent, influential organization with thousands of members.  Could it really be that there could be no one found to speak for this important organization who was capable of conjugating a simple verb?  I’m afraid that may be true.  But if not, and there were other spokesmen which the journalist could have chosen to quote, why did he chose to quote the less educated speaker?  Was it because he deliberately wanted to make this organization seem ignorant and backward?  Or did this journalist really not recognize substandard speech when he heard it?  I am so afraid that this last is the true explanation.

I’ve been noticing more and more frequent lapses in usage lately.  For example, the use of “who” instead of “whom”; using “it’s” when “its” is indicated; incorrect use of quotation marks and commas.  I know I sound picky, but if we begin to allow error to creep in, where do we stop?  Correct grammar is important to reduce misinformation and misinterpretation of the writer.  As one is unable to hear the tone of voice used, correct grammar is much more essential in writing than in speaking.  I have also noticed an increase in the use of slang or colloquialisms in news articles, as the public’s vocabulary grows smaller.  Slang is fine in casual conversation, but formal English should always be used in a forum such as a newspaper:  the newspaper should be setting the standard in correct writing. It is already becoming increasingly difficult to converse intelligently with the general public because so many people no longer understand standard English.  The fact is, we can only think and talk about ideas that we have the words to express.  With a shrinking vocabulary and a growing inability to wield a pen, it is getting harder and harder for people to understand the world around them or to express ideas with any depth.

This is pathetic, because the English language is the richest and most expressive in the world, with the most extensive vocabulary.  The newspaper should be enriching us, stretching us to greater knowledge, instead of catering to the lowest common denominator of education.  I have noticed that as our ability to keep in touch with one another increases in ease, the topics of our conversation have dropped to the most basic levels:  what we are doing at the moment and how we feel about it.  Topics, in fact, that most animals are able to communicate by touching noses.  As humans, language gives us the ability to explore new ideas and discuss abstract thought; communicate facts and advance intelligent discourse on many subjects; express reasoned and logical arguments and debate differences with nuanced skill.  At least, we should be able to expect as much from our local newspaper.

I offer this example: the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf.  For months, every single news article I read about this event said that the oil pipe was “busted”.  Not any of the other dozens of more precise English words that could have been used was used–this uninformative slang word was consistently the only word used to describe the accident.  The pipe was never  cracked, split, burst, crushed, snapped, fractured, or broken.  Just busted.  Steam rising from the top of my head, I finally had enough one day and began to rant about it to my poor husband.  “Unless that pipe was arrested, charged with a crime, and tried before a jury of its peers, it was not busted!”  I exclaimed in disgust.  My husband glared at me.  “A law enforcement officer,” he growled with a look of offended dignity, “resents, abhors, and strongly objects to the use of such a slang term when referring to the apprehension, arrest, and conviction of a criminal through due process.”

See what I mean?

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