Factual Misperceptions

I’m not going to say what the news article in question was, because doing so would ignite some sort of political discussion in my comment chain, and I don’t do politics here. The offending thing, I’ll simply say, was provocative in it’s writing…not only the headline, but also the abstract. With very little storytelling imagination, I could picture how the actual interviews and press releases involved in composing the story were woven together in a manner that was completely untrue to the reality of the situation in order to get more shock value out of the copy. And, of course, the comments on the story exploded in vitriol.

So, this isn’t a post about politics, its a (brief and ranting) post about journalism. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve done any formal journalism, but the basic tenants haven’t changed. I long for a differentiation in our media between the specifics of “news” and “opinion.” Opinion pages are for the types of things that most of us read and write in blogs. The news is the facts, and “just the facts,” leaving us to make up our minds on the situation for ourselves after being well-informed.

Or, at least, that’s what news should be.

Instead, its a difficult arena to navigate. There are more obvious offenders than others…media outlets that at best slant the facts (by doing reporting that isn’t well-rounded) toward their political preference, or, at worst, completely fictionalize accounts and re-interpret history in order to achieve ratings.

Media outlets, though, shouldn’t have political preferences, at least not that influence their stories. Philosophically, relativism really doesn’t enter the realm of conveying empirical facts. A sequence of events either happened or they didn’t, and careful examination will reveal the manner in which they happened.

Part of the issue is the desire to beat other media outlets to the story, to be the first to report something…which leads to errors in reporting facts that cause undue problems and emotional ramifications. And, while I’ll concede that this might be a bit of a political statement, that’s why I think that for-profit journalism is not a good thing. Ratings and clicks are money, and pursuing more money while attempting to be true to the story leads to a conflict of interest.

The result of slanting the news…which I’m defining here as reporting opinion as fact…is that large numbers of people are swayed to support causes or platforms that they would likely not support were they simply receiving facts to analyze for themselves. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m not removing individual responsibility from the equation. America is certainly a nation losing its ability for critical thought.

Even the most critical of thought, though, can be swayed with a good performance. I’ve directed a lot of plays. There’s a certain power that a theatrical performance holds over an audience once that audience experiences the “willful suspension of disbelief” that is critical to appreciating the story. When journalism takes the role of a performance, it wields a power for which it is not worthy. Statements of social ills are the realm of the performer or the opinion writer. Statements of fact are the realm of the journalist.

I really wish that all sides would get those facts straight.


  1. “Philosophically speaking” relativism has everything to do with both how and what “facts” get reported. The reason for that is that facts are never free of their contexts or the perception of “what’s there” in the eye/the mind of the reader and the reporter. This is why journalism can never be science. Even in science controlling the variables is no mean task.

  2. I think that it’s still possible, though, to drill down to the empirical nature of the fact and report that. We can be taught to bypass our perceptual filters and examine the evidence.

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