Objective News Reporting

As long as we’re on the subject of subjective opinions and professional critics, let’s take a moment to look at objectivity as it applies to news reporting.

There’s no such thing.

Or, more correctly, it is so rare as not to be worth mentioning.

The power of the press is incalculably enormous. There are only a small handful of people in the entire country who learn about, say, foreign affairs, through their own direct experience.

Just about everything the rest of us know about the world outside our own tiny spheres comes to us through the eyes of media people who boil vast amounts of information down into little droplets for us to consume. The assumption is that the little droplets are accurately representative of the bigger picture.

So just about everything you know or believe about the world is based on what the media have chosen to tell you about it.

And out of everything that happens to the 5 billion people on the planet each day, you’re only going to hear 22 minutes of it between commercials.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. You can’t hear it all, and if it weren’t for the media, you wouldn’t hear much of anything. What you know about world affairs is really just an open book test on how well you listen to the news.

Sometimes they do it well. Sometimes they don’t.

You rarely know the difference.

Let’s say that Bugsby Yackenflaster is running for president. He gives a three-hour speech in Porpoise Spit, Kentucky, and it’s covered on the evening news (that’s the national news; you don’t watch local news anymore, remember?).

The evening news anchor spends three minutes on the story of this speech. That’s one-sixtieth the amount of time Yackenflaster took to actually deliver it.

The anchor can either a) summarize some of the major points of the speech, or b) broadcast some actual clips, or c) a combination of the two.

For example: "Yackenflaster spoke at length about his plans for a renewed economy, stressing the need for reduction in the national debt. Here’s part of what he had to say."

[Switch to Yackenflaster] "We’ve got to bite the bullet and make significant cuts in entitlements!"

Sound objective to you? Three hours of haranguing a crowd, and you figure this is all that was important?

Well, the news editor thought so. And whenever a news editor takes a story and feeds you only a tiny piece of it, he is exercising extraordinary subjectivity in determining what he’ll let you hear and see. Because he has just decided precisely what you’re going to think about that candidate and that speech, no matter what else the guy said.

During the 1996 US presidential election campaign, I was leery of Robert Dole because I thought he spent all his time criticizing President Clinton and not doing much of anything else. Every time Clinton made a decision on something, I saw Dole on television ripping it to shreds.

Then one day I happened to catch an impromptu interview with Newt Gingrich in which he said to a reporter (and I’m paraphrasing freely here): "You know, every time Bob Dole talks to a crowd for an hour, you guys show a ten second clip of him being negative. He could have spent nearly all of that hour talking about his vision, his plans, the positive things he wants to do, and the only thing that winds up on the news is this little tiny snippet where he looks like a sourpuss, just to prove whatever point you’re trying to make."

Now, I’m not a fan of Bob Dole’s. Or of Newt Gingrich’s. I’m not a fan of any politician’s, and haven’t been since Allard Lowenstein was shot and killed.

But The Newt was sure right on this one.

They did the same thing to Dan Quayle. It became a national pastime to catch Quayle being stupid, but he wasn’t stupid any more often than most people are: the media simply edited the man’s entire life down to five minutes filled with every stupid thing he’d done in the last four years. You hardly knew anything else about him.

A big one was when he misspelled ‘potato’ in front of a class full of kids doing a spelling bee. Never mind that Quayle knew damned well how to spell potato; the spelling bee test card he’d been given by the school with all the correct spellings had the wrong spelling printed on it.

Now, I know how to spell potato, too. But if those school officials had given me a card with an extra ‘e’ tacked onto the end, I might have done the same thing as Quayle because, well, in the heat of the moment I might not have been sure enough of myself.

And, after all, teachers are supposed to know how to spell words they test the kids with, right? Who the hell gets it wrong on a spelling bee flashcard!

But that little piece of the story got buried on the back pages of the same newspapers that blasted the vice president on page one, at least those papers that bothered to print it at all. Which were precious few.

Editing is, by its very nature, a subjective process. There’s no way to be completely objective in reporting the news. In the case of a speech, the only objective treatment is to print the entire transcript, word for word, with no commentary, but even that isn’t perfect: you don’t get the tone, inflections or emphases that the speaker used when he delivered it. A speech isn’t meant to be read, it’s meant to be heard.

What you hear on the news are called sound bites. These are the little itty pieces of much larger events that are supposed to give you a flavor of the whole thing without bothering you with the details.

More often than not, you’re not getting the flavor.

You’re getting the editor’s biases.

Here’s a little test you can do: Go to a session of your city council or any other kind of gathering that you know will be reported upon in the media.

As soon as the event is over, jot down what you thought were the most important points, the kinds of things you feel non-attendees should be told to bring them up to speed.

Then check out the coverage on television or in the newspaper, and compare it with your own.

If you can even recognize that you and the reporter were at the same event, you’re lucky.

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