Monday, April 12, 2010

How News Reporting Really Works, Part 3

Hanlon's Razor runs something like, “Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.” Someone has added, “But don't rule out malice.” Parts 3 and 4 of this series of articles will cover each in its turn. In this article, we're looking at stupidity as an explanation for how the news media get their stories wrong.
In saying that reporters are often stupid, I don't mean that they lack intelligence, or that they have a monopoly on stupidity. As Forrest Gump pointed out,“Stupid is as stupid does.” (And whom did Tom Hanks support in the last election?) It's worth reading Jim Longworth's commentary in which he gives five defining characteristics of stupidity and claims that America is suffering from an epidemic of stupidity.
For starters, reporters don't get their jobs because they understand the things they report. They get their jobs because they can write well enough to be understood and because they're willing to accept the low pay that most reporters receive.
Don't expect reporters to dig for the "real" news in their stories. Investigative reporting is rare and takes more time than most editors allow. The reporter doesn't have time to get the truth; he has only enough time to get a story. He quickly writes it and files it. The next day, it's another story and another deadline.
When a news reporter arrives on the scene, he finds many more facts than he can possibly cover in a story, so he decides on the spot which facts are important enough to report and which aren't. He writes in a style known as inverted pyramid style. In the first paragraph he places what he thinks is the most important information (though it may not be) which must include who, what, when, and where. The "why" and“how" is left to his discretion.
If he fails to understand the frame of reference for the people on whom he's reporting, he's likely to get the "why” and "how" completely wrong. If he does that, he risks getting the story wrong.
Here's an example:
In 1986, Dr. Lee Yuan-tseh received the Nobel Prize for chemistry. The news media acted as if Taiwan's educational system had received the prize. After all, Dr. Lee was, as the story spinners wrote, a product of Taiwan’s educational system. To this day, the media frequently give Taiwan's educational system credit for Dr. Lee's accomplishments. The truth is Dr. Lee, in his view, had to fight Taiwan's educational system every step of the way. Here are his comments.
Reporters write to please their editors, and editors edit to please media owners and advertisers. I'll discuss those guys in the next article.
There are many more stories out there than there are reporters to cover them or newspaper space to print them. How are some stories selected for reporting and all others are ignored?
The editor decides which reporter to send to cover which story. It's more a business decision than a matter of journalistic responsibility.
When Elvis Presley supposedly died, news anchor Dan Rather saw it as less important than some economic news of the day. On that occasion at least, he was choosing journalistic responsibility over ratings. If a news program gets the lead story “wrong,” he has lost his viewers for the rest of the program, and his advertisers won't like that. CBS lost viewers that day. (Please be patient; I'll discuss ulterior motives for editors in the next article in this series.)
The last person to touch a newspaper story is the headline writer. Years ago, I saw a newspaper article reporting the death of a man who had been a leader in the French Underground during World War II. The headline read, “Ex-Nazi Leader Dies.”
I recently heard the following joke about how news stories are written:
An Iranian was visiting Paris when he saw a vicious dog attacking a little girl. At the risk of his own life, he fought the dog to the death. A newspaper reporter praised his heroism and said, “I can see the headlines now: ‘Brave Parisian saves little girl from vicious dog.’”
The Iranian explained that he wasn’t from Paris. “Brave Frenchman, then?” No, he wasn't French. “How about, ‘Brave European'?” No, he wasn't European. He was a Muslim from Iran.
The next day's newspaper headline read, “Islamic terrorist kills little girl's dog.”


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