If you fall for fake news you are being careless, but news is often an intepretation…

Fake news is in the news now. I’ve been reading about fake news but I am not sure that I understand what I have been reading. Apparently, the thought is that a lot of voters may have been influenced by purposely misleading news sites on the internet that masquerade as legitimate news sites.

Why people would believe everything they read is a mystery to me. I mean you can’t. If you believe what you read on a fake news site then would you not also believe what you read on a legitimate one? And this even if they seem to contradict each other? There is a break in logic there.

Of course there are people who believe that what is normally considered legitimate is not really. They believe it is all a conspiracy to disseminate propaganda. Some people even believe there is one secret cabal that spews out propaganda under the label of legitimate news.

And this gets complicated. I mean even I believe that, say, the New York Times, which I read a lot, while presenting what passes for legitimate and objective news reports, nonetheless probably let’s a little liberal bias into it all by selection of stories and positioning and by loading stories with information that might seem to discredit those who do not adhere to its opinion page policies.

I don’t consider Fox News totally legitimate. It seems to be a mouthpiece for the political right. However it does put on a show as being objective and may be to a degree (can you even be objective by degree?). I don’t watch it much, mostly just when I am stuck somewhere and it is blaring at me.

(I’m adding this after originally publishing this post an hour or so previous. Just chanced to see an interview on Fox News. The person speaks and offers a view on a controversial subject. The Fox interviewer responds “sure, good point, well put”. Couldn’t he just let the person’s words speak for themselves? Sure sounds as if he were taking sides — and this was not necessarily a right or left thing — Just does not sound like objective or professional journalism to me.)

I love public television and especially public radio (PBS and NPR respectively). I consider them to be the most complete and objective, but even there the hint of liberal bias shows up.

Of course my take on that is that it is hard for anyone who has been exposed to different cultures and types of thinking not to be somewhat liberal in their attitudes (not impossible but difficult).

There is being conservative as being careful and as not deviating from what seems to work. I can buy into that. But there is also conservative as in preserving the status quo while denying others because you fare well under the status quo. That is not as appealing to me, although I as anyone else would not necessarily want to ruin a good thing for myself. But my conscience and human compassion also tells me to think of others. I also know that if the needs of those others are not met there can be trouble on the horizon.

(And if the narrative we are hearing is correct there was a backlash of sorts from the white working class, once okay with the status quo but not when it began to shift and change in their lives. I think there is more to it, but that is for a future post maybe.)

But now I have wandered off my original subject. Fake news.

One thing, I don’t think I am liable to fall for fake news. I try to make sure what the source really is. I mean if the source mislabels itself, well then, yeah, I might temporarily be taken in. But If I see it does not seem to match at all what other sources I am seeing indicate, then I would know something has to be up.

I suspect the people most likely to fall for fake news are those who prefer only to read things that coincide and validate their own beliefs and appeal to their prejudices and suspicions.

But I see it this way: if you have always driven one make and model of car and have liked it and go to buy a new one but read that the newer models have something wrong with them do you disregard that information because it goes against your past experience and beliefs?

And beyond the problem or phenomenon of fake news I think there may be a misunderstanding about news reporting methodology.

Well, before I get into that, I have to note, as I have so many times previously in my posts, these days what passes as journalism, especially on the airwaves, and I guess in the printed words on our computer screens too, is a hybrid composed of entertainment and opinion and some factual material.

In a previous post I made reference to a journalism text book of which I said I did not recall the name and that I thought had a slightly misleading title anyway. Well I don’t have the book in front of me but I think it was “Interpretive Reporting”, by Curtis D. MacDougall, Robert D.  Reid.

(Still not sure that was the book but I think it was.)

I bought a copy of that text in I think 1972 or 73 when I took my introductory course into journalism. I could have saved the money. I later discovered my dad had the same book, and he went to college in the 1930s.

What I mean by misleading is that when you read “interpretive” you might get the idea that someone goes out and then comes back and writes a story not from the straight facts but from something conjured up in his mind — an interpretation. But no. Without referring back to that text, which I noted is not in front of me, I would say that legitimate reporting is not transcription. For instance, If I covered a meeting of the county board of supervisors (and I did that so much) I did not simply come back to the office and produce a transcript of every word said. For starters that would not be possible for so many reasons. Not enough space and I don’t take shorthand and who would read all that anyway? Also, a written transcript or a voice recording would leave a lot of gaps. Anyone who has ever sat through a long meeting knows that people begin talking without a complete introduction of subject and make references that only those familiar with the background would understand. In short it would be meaningless. So, there has to be some understanding of the subject matter and some amount of background has to be supplied for the reader.

Now all of this does not necessarily apply to spot news stories such as a house burning down or a traffic mishap or plane crash. There it is more a matter of straight-up facts (of course you can get the facts wrong or come to false conclusions on the causes). But I am addressing reporting on things that have more to do with policy and the process of making policy.

More than once when I was a reporter I heard someone say after reading a story that the reporter (and sometimes it was me) must have attended a different meeting. And of course I was accused from time to time of misquoting someone. To protect myself from that I took to using a tape recorder. And one time, I think before I began using my own tape recorder, I sat through a recording of a meeting done by a secretary for the board of supervisors. I did this to find a quote of which I was accused of getting wrong. But alas, I quoted word for word. And this was the case, as I recall, in other instances where I was accused of misquoting. But I will say that even I could be guilty of misquoting or misleading if I was not careful. And someone with malice could selectively quote to indicate something that is not honest because it is out of context, you know, quote the portion of someone’s utterances that seem to indicate one point of view while leaving out others that show the opposite or fill things in better. For sure I had no malice.

And I may have used this before in a previous post (a long time ago), but once I covered a meeting of the county board in which my then dentist spoke. He was objecting to a plan to allow mobile homes next to his country property. I quoted his exact words (but of course not every word he said, just a line). The editor decided to use the thought in the headline. I don’t recall the exact words but something about the good doctor not wanting trailers next to his property.

The doctor accused me of misquoting him. He also subsequently looked at my accumulated bill for services at his office and asked me to make increased monthly payments (I had no dental plan at the time). And I think he held a grudge against me from then on. Probably fortunate for me I moved elsewhere and had to change dentists (I will say that other dentists upon looking in my mouth said he had done excellent work). And I did often wonder if I could have toned the story down a bit by not using that quote. But he definitely was on record as opposing the mobile homes. And really, if it would lessen his own property value, who could blame him?

(And if I was his press secretary I could have said you know sir I think that will not sound right. I don’t think you meant that people who would live next to you are trailer trash. Could you give me another quote? And then I would really be guilty of dishonest reporting.)

But my whole point is that two well-meaning people can see and hear the same things and come away with different stories. We all know the thing on eye-witnesses not always being reliable.

You have to be honest going in. And readers and listeners have to be honest to themselves and compare stories and not believe everything they see and read and be able to sort through things.

p.s.

There is also the concept among some in journalism that one should just tell it like it is and not wind up wasting space to balance a story with obvious inaccuracies or false interpretations in the name of fairness to both sides. But that puts the journalist up as the only one who can discern truth. I don’t think so. But I do see the point that too much attempt at balance as if a news story was some kind of mathematical equation could be counterproductive to the truth.

 

 

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