Truth is tricky

Since writing about the dangers of blindly trusting bloggers (except me, of course – you should blindly trust me), I’ve been meaning to write similar thoughts from the other side of the blogger/journalist line. We can rant about media bias and factual mistakes, but there are also smaller, more benign reasons to bring our critical thinking skills to the mainstream news, too. Even when we’re not being purposely manipulated (and I’m not nearly as cynical as some who think that’s the agenda of the media), we can’t possibly be given the whole picture of an issue in the bite-sized chunks we’re willing to sit still for.

At the beginning of my career, I interned at a museum that waived the fee for non-profit groups to use our auditorium. We were blindsided by a controversy about a gay and lesbian film festival using our space when a radio talk show host started reading excerpts on air from the festival’s brochure, which used explicit language to describe its rather tame films and workshops … and used our logo as the most prominent graphic element. All media outlets ended up covering the story, and while the information they presented was factually correct, the issues became so distorted I wouldn’t recognize it as truth.

In one instance, I watched a TV camera crew interview my boss. When watching the final news story, I was struck by the fact that our spokesperson had said everything the organizer’s spokesperson was quoted as saying, about the merits of the event, the evils of censorship, and the assertion that they were entitled to the same use of our space as any other non-profit group. None of our supportive words made it to air. The only sound bite they used for our organization was the information that they had used our logo without permission on their brochure, which we hadn’t even seen until we went to the radio station to see what the host was talking about.

Nothing in the story was incorrect. But the way the quotes were selected, it created the appearance of two opposing sides, when in fact we agreed more than we disagreed … until the story aired and the organizers believed we were slamming the event in the media.

When I worked for a cancer charity, I occasionally had to endure media interviews about research stories, just to give the sound bite that every advance in research does not translate into an immediate advance in treatment, and curing cancer in mice is far different from curing it in people, but it’s all part of a process leading to our goal blah blah blah give us money. But while that caution applies to so many of the multitude of stories we see about the latest medical findings, most of them appear without it. And most of them aren’t ready to be news except in the research community. That’s what leads to people’s frustration that one day scientists say chocolate is good for you, the next they say it’ll kill you. (Sometimes I have to go with tastebuds over science – I believe it’s not only healthy, it’s vital.)

I work for the health care system now, and we are limited by our inability to comment on media stories about specific cases due to privacy laws. Reporters are limited too – they end up reporting one side of a story because they are unable to get a balanced view. We can’t speak; they can’t stay silent. Even when the media include the disclaimer that we’re legally unable to comment, do viewers at home get that they’re missing half the story? I really doubt it, and it doesn’t much matter, since they will never know what that other half is.

I was briefly a world section copyeditor for a newspaper in Mexico before I made the transition to Living editor (that was my actual title, prompting the inevitable question from people on the receiving end of my business card: “are the other editors dead?”). The job consisted of combing through newswires for the most important stories of the day, and editing them to fit our space and our style. But … it’s a big world out there. Every day, we’d have qualms about what we chose not to cover. Every day there were wire stories about people dying in religious conflicts in Sri Lanka and Kashmir, but they were places “no one cares about.”

Canada was on that unwritten list, too, despite the disproportionately high percentage of Canadians working at the paper, and the large number of Canadian ex-pats who apparently weren’t starved for news from home. Our 2000 election finally made it into the paper, barely, on a slow news day and with the best sidebar ever: Rick Mercer‘s petition to have politician Stockwell Day change his name to Doris, to poke fun at Day’s proposal that a petition with 3% of Canadian voters’ signatures could trigger a referendum on any subject.

Instead of anything on Kashmir and Sri Lanka and Canada, for over a month we dedicated space to a special section: “U.S. Election Watch 2000: We Never Would Have Devoted A Whole Section To It If We’d Known It Would Go On This Long But We Can’t Change Our Minds Now.”

Someone has to decide what’s news on behalf of readers and viewers. Sometimes that someone is making pretty random decisions about what we should care about.

So all this to say: knowing that we don’t know the whole story is a good place to start when evaluating news stories, and should maybe spur us to find other sources before making up our minds. The paper may be written in black and white, but there’s always shades of grey hidden in there.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

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