Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

News Reporting--Truth or Fiction?

When Erik the Red wanted to attract settlers to land in which he decided to settle, he named the island “Greenland,” hoping that the pleasant name would lure people to the rocky, cold island.

While in the year 982, there was no media akin to what we have today, he was successful in using this misinformation to convince people to join him.

Today we have an information-dispensing system with an extensive reach that constantly bombards us, often with dubious “facts” and conclusions, many of them no closer to reality than the name Erik the Red used.

The most recent example that comes to mind is the blizzard of historic portions that was to hit New York
City and surroundings this past January. For days, the news was filled with dreadful predictions of a classic nor-easter of unprecedented size.
Where's the blizzard?

Meanwhile, the European computer models predicted that the storm would center about 40 miles to the east, and while it would hit Long Island and New England, as many storms do, it would be a major storm, but not one to set records.

The entire city shut down. Subways stopped running. Major financial centers closed.

And when the storm hit New York, the snow was measured in inches, not feet.

As one person who was interviewed by TV news media said, “It’s called ‘winter.’ We get one every year.”
It got me to thinking about other recent media-whipped frenzies.

How about the University of Virginia suspending fraternity and sorority activities because of the uproar over an article published in Rolling Stone Magazine?

University of Virginia
When I read about the article, my first thought was that a writer got carried away with a story, and it played fast and free with the facts enough that it should probably have been labeled “fiction.”

It wasn’t long before a closer examination of the “facts” revealed major discrepancies. And an article that was heralded as striking a blow for taking sexual assaults on campus more seriously instead made a mockery of this crucial effort.

Then there was the media treatment of the incident where a black youth was shot to death in Ferguson by a police officer. Once again, a serious issue. But the first reports told of an innocent young man shot while raising his hands in surrender.

Riots ensued, once again heavily reported in the media.

As the facts came out, it was revealed that the young man had just been involved in a shoplifting and assault of a storekeeper. The positioning of his hands could not be determined, but it became apparent that he had been approaching the officer after he had been told to stop. The officer, with only a few seconds to make a decision, feared for his life and shot, as he had been trained to do.

Once again, addressing a serious social issue, the treatment of minorities by police, was seriously
compromised by half-truths and sensational reporting.

Perhaps the saddest incident in the wake of this was the death of two New York City police officers, who were ambushed. The officers, one of Hispanic extraction and the other Chinese, recognized the problems inherent in a white-only police force, and made the decision to be part of the solution by becoming minority police officers themselves. It cost them their lives.

Just last Wednesday, NBC news anchor Brian Williams conceded that he had, as he puts it, “made a
mistake” in reporting that he had been on board a helicopter hit by fire and forced down in Iraq.

What do you think about reporting presented as fact that is actually modified to sensationalize or to make the story “better?”

News reports--truth or fiction?


E. B. Davis said...

It's the flip side of Carla's blog about dramatization of facts in movies to the real deal's detriment. In news, if it is embellished, it's called yellow journalism. It's falsehood, which can't be tolerated. Blending news with marketing bastardizes the profession--but it's evidently done all the time. I think the networks know, but unless someone fesses up or gets caught, if no one knows, better ratings for them.

(BTW--not that I'm a snob, but Brian Williams doesn't hold a college degree--he's an announcer.)

When the riots occurred in Ferguson, I couldn't understand. I had caught an interview with Eric Holder. They weren't pursuing the case because there was no evidence of wrong doing on the part of the police. But then riots broke out. If Eric Holder said there wasn't evidence of wrong doing, then why riot? Am I obtuse?

Jim Jackson said...

I'm jaded enough to be of the camp that says it was also thus.

"It bleeds; it leads." People exaggerate their heroism (think Homer for a Greek perspective); political news outlets publish only events that support their perspective and to make sure you understand they slant their analysis. (Remember the Maine!)

The difference is that some organizations
now have national or even global reach, which makes them more dangerous.

Most news is best digested well after the fact, which is why I don't watch TV news or read a newspaper. I prefer alternative, nuanced and more informative sources of information.

~ Jim

Warren Bull said...

Often "breaking news" is neither just breaking nor new news. When author Stephen E. Ambrose was found to be plagiarizing others work in his book, there was also news about Doris Kearns Goodwin
plagiarizing another person's work. However, unlike Ambrose, her plagiarizing was accidental. She announced her error, apologized and compensated the person who work she had used. It all happened SEVEN YEARS before Ambrose' plagiarism was discovered.

KM Rockwood said...

E.B., I think you're right that it happens all the time. The mighty dollar rules--if the dramatized weather report gets more people to sit through the ads than if they gave a realistic picture, that's the way it will be presented.

Sometimes the media feds on itself.

KM Rockwood said...

Jim, you have a point. Nothing is unbiased, no matter how hard someone may try (but I get the feeling that some people aren't even trying.)

To a certain extent, time will tell. Although it's the victor who writes the history.

KM Rockwood said...

Warren, a few cliches come to mind. Like "There's nothing new under the sun." And "What goes around comes around." Not to mention "The more it changes, the more it remains the same."

Shari Randall said...

Since I live in Virginia, I can't escape hearing about the UVA mess. Rolling Stone's shoddy editorial decision has set back any progress made in lessening the campus culture of sexual assault. Rolling Stone's actions made a bad situation even worse.

Kait said...

Many years ago I lived in New York City and one of my great pleasures was comparing news stories among the various newspapers. For example, I remember one story of fatalities in a fire. A tragic event to be sure. The NY Times reported three dead, the Post five and the Daily News six with photos of the bodies being carried out.Same fire, same story, same town. How many died - no idea. If a story interests me, I will read about it in multiple outlets and then decide which story best represents the facts.

In support of Brian Williams - I recently read an article that discussed how emotionally charged events can become misimprinted in the memory. Thus, whereas Brian Williams was the chopper behind the one that was shot down, the emotional impact of the event coupled with there but for grace go I, eventually transferred to his memory as it happened to me. I think there might be some credence to the theory.

Gloria Alden said...

I think a lot has to do with the fact that now new is 24/7 and commercial TV or radio stations rely on commercials for their money so without waiting to verify the facts, they publish the news. Nightly news has become another program to entertain. It's another reason why "Breaking News" that filled the air ways with the danger of EBOLA in our country blew everything out of proportion. And that's why my main source of news is NPR. What I read in the newspaper is often a validation of what I've already heard on NPR.

As for Brian Williams, who I've never watched, I agree with Kait. Three or four or more people can witness an event and come up with a totally difference perception of it. Even members of a family who have had a tragedy in their family have different memories.

Kara Cerise said...

I've been thinking about yellow journalism lately while working on a story set in the late 1800s. Some of the newspapers then were equivalent to the tabloids of today. When I read the source material it's difficult to know what to believe. Also, I see this sensationalized and inaccurate news (probably accidentally) repeated in future articles through the 1900s. It seems to spread and take on a life of its own.

KM Rockwood said...

Shari, I agree that such mis-reporting serves to set causes back, not move them forward or even get people to think about them.

KM Rockwood said...

Kait, I've noticed that whenever I've witnessed something and then later read the news account of it. I find it hard to believe the reporter and I are talking about the same thing.

I agree that being emotionally involved can distort your memory. But then to present it as "news" is a little extreme.

KM Rockwood said...

Gloria, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. (Too bad juries often aren't aware of that.)

I think you're right--the news outlets are so anxious to present things quickly that they don't take the time to verify.

The ebola scare is another example of media drama which distorted facts.

KM Rockwood said...

Kara, Jim pretty much summed it up when he said "it was always thus." I can't imagine the 1880's were much better. While stories couldn't spread quite so quickly and easily as they can today, people lacked the facilities to do much checking themselves, and often only heard part of the story.