Emotional Health

Read All About It: The Danger of Getting It Wrong

Here in the United State we have just endured two monstrous storms in a row. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were both historic in their size and the damage they caused, which is still in the early stages of being assessed. This past weekend it was difficult to find any news station that wasn’t trained on the storm watch, issuing dire warnings about the size, scope, and danger of the approaching hurricane.

While most of this was focused on warning the public and helping it prepare for the worst, there was also an element of hype involved. Not in the sense suggested by Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that the whole thing was a hoax by the liberal media, but still, there was an air of breathless drama about the coverage. Was it necessary, as some have suggested, for every leading news source to send quite so many reporters to Florida, where they were seen standing and attempting to maintain their balance as they were whipped by dangerous winds and rain? In some cases, potentially lethal debris could be spotted swirling around in the air.

The job of reporting the news has always been twofold. One job is to inform the public about what’s going on. A second, and in some cases more paramount, goal is profit. Keeping up the numbers, whether it is selling papers, attracting viewers, or more, recently, getting page views on a website, is what keeps these organizations going.

Journalism is not a nonprofit business, and, though there are libel laws protecting individuals from false and damaging stories, these laws are not easy to enforce. Most policing in the industry is self-generated and self-implemented, and standards vary widely. When Stephen Colbert began his classic show on Comedy Central, The Colbert Report, where he played the part of a highly biased journalist, he introduced during the first episode a new word, “truthiness,” that has entered the lexicon. It means something that is not, um, actually true, but is presented as such.

Even the most respected journalists and news organizations have long been known to be prone to bias or misjudgment. They might not report inaccurate facts, but some have been guilty of selective reporting, presenting facts with an angle that will best reflects their editorial position.  I remember that as young teenager I reported to my parents a statistic I had recently learned. When they questioned it I protested, “It’s true—I read it in Time magazine!” and they both laughed. Though they did not explain it at the time, I came to understand that this publication was well known to have a strong conservative bias, despite its imprimatur of probity and rigorous reporting.

The emergence of the Internet, as well as of cable news, has exacerbated this problem. While notoriously inaccurate reporting, like the “yellow journalism” that was commonplace in the early twentieth century, is now uncommon, its descendants have never disappeared. Publications like The National Enquirer have been around for decades at supermarket checkout lines, pushing stories about aliens, JFK conspiracies, and two-headed creatures, but they were widely seen as appealing to the “fringe.”

In 2017, however, we are living through a time when America is deeply divided and both sides regard each other as being manipulated by “fake news.” The dangers in this are manifold. If there is no generally agreed upon consensus about basic facts, what good is information that is presented as truth? How do we determine what is true and who can be trusted?

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  • Cheryl Kniffen September 14, 2017 at 8:29 am

    Thank you for writing this story. I am hoping that we all learn from this “bystander effect”, and when we see something, we do something! In light of what one young student did to protect others yesterday at his school Washington state- he choose not be a “bystander””, in doing so- he lost his life to protect others. We also saw so much heroism with all the storms- humanity for a brief moment in time seemed unified. The Netflix piece was most helpful in getting the true story out.