Monday, April 12, 2010

How News Reporting Really Works: Part 1

(This is the first of a four-part series)
I recently had an email discussion, concerning American society and politics, with a Taiwanese student. His perceptions of American politics weren’t exactly wrong, so to speak; but they were wildly exaggerated. Because I used to be a journalist, and I had taken journalism courses, I think I know the cause of his misperceptions. I believe the problem is systemic—that the problem caused by the way news is gathered and reported.
Let’s take a case in point.
According to a recent CNN survey, 56% of the American people see the federal government as an immediate threat to their liberties. That’s large enough a percentage to call it a mainstream view. Now take a look at this video news clip, and remember that this clip and the survey I just mentioned were generated by the same source: CNN. In this video clip, a CNN reporter characterizes the people who hold those concerns as being far outside of the mainstream.
What accounts for that disconnect between CNN’s polls and CNN’s reporting? One cause is that news reporting has become a form of entertainment; and, like other forms of entertainment, broadcast news programs compete for advertising dollars. Another is that, as a general rule, news reporters aren’t hired because they understand the issues; they’re hired because they can write well or can present themselves well on camera. Another is, although the camera doesn’t lie, the camera does exaggerate. Yet another cause is that there’s more news to report than means to report it; thus, the individual viewpoints of editors, reporters, and even headline writers tend to filter and slant the news. Advertisers also play a role in how news is reported. Finally, newspaper readers and television viewers—that means you and I—also play a role in slanting the news.
Today, let’s take a look at one of those causes: that the camera exaggerates.
Suppose you were shown two photographs of audiences attending speeches. In one, three fourths of the seats are empty, a few of the members of the audience are slumping in their seats, and one or two are yawning. In the other, audience members are closely packed, all the seats are filled, and everyone is leaning forward, obviously interested in what the speaker is saying.
You could be excused for believing that the second speech was more interesting and better attended than the first. Forgive me, but I tricked you. Both photos were taken at the same speech. The photos depict different parts of the audience at different times during the speech. A snapshot of how a small part of the audience looked over a period of 1/16 of a second or less gave you the impression of how all of the audience members reacted during the whole speech.
Now think about the Tea Party loudmouth you saw in the video clip. In the minds of those unfamiliar with the issues involved, one babbling loudmouth was representative of the entire crowd of perhaps 100,000 people.
Of course, the reporter in the clip showed herself willfully misinformed, but I’ll address the cause of reporter self deception in another article in this series. (I call this problem the Malie Bruton effect, after the reporter who spent two hours interviewing a folk religion scholar and, in her newspaper article, presented him as a practicing witch.)
So, why did the reporter head for someone who seemed pretty low on the food chain instead of someone more coherent? Part of the answer has to do with the nature of brief news reports. It takes longer to give an intelligent, well-thought-out answer than it does to rant and babble incoherently. When you have only seven minutes to make a news report, you pass by the rational-looking ones and head for the kooks. If you see someone whose knuckles drag the ground, you’ve hit pay dirt. Besides, let’s face it: Intelligent people aren’t interesting enough to drive up ratings and draw in advertising dollars.
Something like that also happens with interviews in which interviewees reasonably state their case. Many years ago, Martin Luther King was interviewed concerning his hopes for the future. By most accounts, he was pretty reasonable to all sides. When the interview was mentioned on the nightly news, however, his reference to “black power,” in a clip lasting only a few seconds, was the only thing that made the news. News reporting of that sort was credited with creating the black power movement.
That was the only part of the speech reported because that was the only part of the speech that made a good sound bite. People who get all or most of the news from the broadcast media are given sound bites in place of rational discourse. That’s only one of the ways that news reporting distorts the news.
We can find the solution within ourselves. Contrary to what the movies suggest, investigative journalism is rare. We have to be our own investigative journalists. The Truth is out there, but so are misinformation and disinformation. We have to be discriminating in selecting our sources.

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