Saturday, March 07, 2009

It’s All Opinion,
You Build the Facts

Frustration with the local newspaper is a bit like frustration with the dressing room mirror.  Both are simply reflecting the wicked or delightful truth, but making it worse or better with reflection mistakes.  There is no absolutely accurate reflection. Even the best mirror reverses right and left.

Dressing rooms have bad lights and weirdly colored wall paint that suck the life out of one’s visage.  Newspapers reverse letters in your last name, screw up their spell checks turning “college education” into “colleague’s education,” and they might even leave yesterday’s football sports caption under today’s tennis picture. 

Accuracy used to matter more in print…but not n 2day’s world o txt msgng, Twitter & revisionistic wikis and blogs.  Some just won’t abide by such lack of accuracy, finding it some sort of personal affront.  These folks want objective truth and a balanced array of facts in their text-based news story.  (No one bothers wanting that from TV…the medium has gone too far down the credibility drain.) These sorts of readers seem to expect some sort of objectivity from print news media. They can't seem to accept that the world is just full of lies and opinion.  Newsflash for the fair and balanced set; objectivity never existed; not even at the NYT level.  So get OVER it wouldja?

Anyone remember where newspapers ever came from?  A few seminal threads come to mind, but I’ll touch on just one; our friends across the Pond. (Thank you UC Berkeley for that fabulous class, The History of Journalism…I actually remember some of it!)  

Seventeenth century British pundits waited outside the doors of Parliament, to chat up the MP’s, then write it down and make fun, make criticism, make randy, tabloidesque entertainment for their news-sheets, pamphlets and magazines.  There also existed “newspapers” of the day, but these were not read by most  commoners and they were nothing like the newspapers we think of today--more like Pravda than like 1st Ammendment-protected, free speech media channels.

Seventeenth century newspapers existed, however they operated under severe libel and sedition constraints and penalties. These newspapers had better access to Parliament but less freedom. Hence it was the freewheeling pamphlets combined with the access-rich but content-proscribed “newspapers” that largely evolved into today’s print media.  No one expected objectivity then, they wanted entertainment, gossip, and opinionated, scathingly-worded critiques. The typographers of the day couldn’t set those letters fast enough, so popular were the pamphlets and news-sheets in the hands of the street hawkers.

So, the next time your small town local paper screws up, or reveals a bias, relax!  That’s why you were gifted with a critical faculty.  Use it.  Contribute to the medium and write a letter to the editor pointing out the flaws, but don’t get all insulted; just correct the record.  Blog your own news story.  Read some alternatives.  But whatever you do; please don’t get all hissy and prissy about your small town local news journalist, who is expected to master odd concepts, enormous egocentricity, and vast amounts of trivia, at hyperspeed, to produce some sort of typo-free synopsis to keep the townsfolk edified. 

She’s doing her best, she’s doing it for poverty wage, and she’s doing it on deadline.  Most people think they understand writing because they can read.  Most people think they understand deadlines because they got their Christmas gifts wrapped on time once.  Try it on a daily basis; try it for a miniscule salary; then try and sustain the pace for more than a month.  Then you can gripe about your lame local newspaper.  Although most reporters want to analyze and investigate their source data more deeply; they usually don't because it puts them out on a limb of  subjectivity and makes more work for the same amount of inches.  Safer to report it as you hear it, see it, or as the press release portrays it; then move on.

Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review describes the "how" of journalism's failure to provide objectivity, much less perfect accuracy;

...provide a window into a particular failure of the press; allowing the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it. We all learned about objectivity in school or at our first job. Along with its twin sentries "fairness" and "balance," it defined journalistic standards.

Or did it? Ask ten journalists what objectivity means and you'll get ten different answers. Some, like the Washington Post's editor, Leonard Downie, define it so strictly that they refuse to vote lest they be forced to take sides. My favorite definition was from Michael Bugeja, who teaches journalism at Iowa State: "Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were." In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists acknowledged this dilemma and dropped "objectivity" from its ethics code.

In this great and free country, there is no shortage of the written word, written news, and written opinion.  The facts however, you must construct for yourself. 

1 comment:

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