Friday, October 4, 2013

Your Source for Daily, Creative, Intepretation

Source: Vancouver Sun: Ethics Czar Looking into Parliamentary Secretary's Letter to CRTC

Another day, another Conservative caucus member rushing to the dictionary to look up the meaning of the word "Ethics".

To put it in a nutshell, Saskatchewan MP (and Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs) David Anderson is being looked into by the ethics commissioner for sending a letter to the CRTC regarding Sun News' failed bid for mandatory coverage. Anderson is far from the first sitting Parliamentarian to get into trouble for sending a letter to the CRTC; as Jim Flaherty, Eve Adams, and Colin Carrie have all been rebuked by the ethics commissioner for sending letters to the CRTC in the past.

However, looking at Conservative moral failings isn't going to be the point of this post; rather, I want to examine something that Mr. Anderson mentions in his letter to the CRTC. The following is a quote from Mr. Anderson:

"Canadians deserve to be presented with a diversity of views when it comes to interpreting the news..."

I want you to re-read that sentence a few times and see if you can spot what has gotten me thinking. Have you found it?

Well, if not, never fear as I will mention it now. Something about the phrase "interpreting the news" just isn't sitting right with me. Call me naive, if you wish, but it was my understanding that the news was not interpretative. News was a report on daily events, something that happened that we can see or that reliable sources had seen.

But, we're assuming then, that news is not interpretative. Which begs the question, is news interpretative?

Well, if we take the original understanding of news as an event which as occurred that has been documented then the short answer would be no. After all, you can't really interpret an event. You can remark on an event, comment on an event, but you can't interpret it. It either happened or it didn't. There is no sort of middle of the road shade of grey.

What you can interpret, however, is cause.

For example, let's say the event was a car accident. Now, you can interpret what caused the event to happen. Was it driver error or driver fault, as in say a drunk driver. Was it a failure of safeguards, such as malfunctioning breaks on one car or traffic lights not working correctly?  If it was driver fault, which driver shoulders the most blame? If it was traffic lights, is the city at fault?

Those are all potential scenarios and comments that can be made and interpreted; but the event itself, remains the same: a car accident.

As such, I think it is safe to say that an event cannot be interpreted; which brings us to the next question, which may indeed be a more important one, should news sources be interpreting cause/reason for events?

This is a trickier question.

To keep with the accident motif, let's use the example of a plane crash as our event. Obviously, an event like that demands explanation. Potential airline travelers want to know what went wrong, and whether or not the same conditions could occur again. As such, there is a demand to know whether it was pilot error, technical malfunction, or just bad weather conditions that brought down a plane.

As such, news agencies have to explore these possibilities as a more complete picture of the event forms. In fact, some will argue (rightly, I think), that media scrutiny helps the process by keeping people informed and questioning, which in turn makes them demand answers. In this regard, news agencies must explore and interpret reason/cause for events.

However, this does not give media agencies carte blanche for interpretation, especially when we enter the political realm.

And this is where we start to come to the root of the problem with many of today's media agencies. There is a subtle difference between news and opinion, and it is a line which has been blurred for decades. One can point to the example of Walter Cronkite, who when observing the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, went on to say that the war could not be won through military victory and was effectively a stalemate.

While true, Cronkite's editorial was opinion, and perhaps this is where we start to see news merge with opinion and start on the dangerous path that it has led to today. Opinion and news are not equal to one another; and that is a fact. Though, people who often conflate opinion to news status may have some trouble with facts. When Cronkite saw the Tet Offensive, it was clear to him that the war in Vietnam could not be won through military force. Event interviews with some military brass on the ground in Vietnam ceded that fact to Cronkite. All the facts were showing that the war could not be fought to a victory, regardless of what the President and his pro-war team were saying.

So, we must ask: Was Cronkite in the right to report his opinion?

This is a truly sticky widget. After all, opinion is not fact. But when opinion is backed by fact, does it cease to become opinion and enter fact? That would depend, I would imagine, on the quality of the facts backing up the opinion; and whether those facts are truly facts or opinion masquerading as fact. However, even with facts on side, opinion ultimately is still opinion and there should be a clear distinction between the reporting of opinion and of fact; even if the two are coupled together.

As such, ultimately this is using hindsight, Cronkite was right to report his opinion but he should have made it clear that it was opinion, not news. He had the convenience of facts on his side, from reliable sources, and was doing what he thought was best to inform the American people.

Which brings us to another question: What is the primary purpose of news?

As touched on with our reference to Cronkite, news it can be argued exists primarily to inform citizens. Part of democracy is having an informed and educated electorate, so surely news must do its best to inform its citizens.

And this is where we run into the problem of opinion and interpretation again.

Let's take the recent example of the Government Shutdown in the USA.

Most mainstream news sources are putting the blame for the shutdown on the House Republicans for refusing to accept a 'clean' budget bill and their demand to defund the Affordable Health Care Act aka "Obamacare". Whereas, Fox News is firmly laying the blame on the President and his inability to compromise with House Republicans.

This is where we start to see the cracks behind the surface of news. We have one event, but two different explanations for its occurrence. Obviously, both cannot be right. The blame either rests with the House Republicans, or with the President, but it can't come from both and maintain the stories both sides are currently presenting.

How does this inform the electorate?

In short, it doesn't. Rather, it confuses, muddles, and deceives. Practically, every opposite you can think of for inform is achieved by this.

What this means, more depressingly, is that one side is actively lying to the electorate. More so, they're lying for their own goal. Whether their goal is to rally people against a certain political party, or to destroy the legacy of a political figure, or what have you, one side is presenting an interpretation of the event that benefits them over the truth.

Mark Twain once said "Never let truth stand in the way of a good story", and it would seem that many news sources are taking this idea to heart. Rather than present facts and events, they would rather report opinion.

Now, that begs this question: Is there room for opinion in news?

After all, Cronkite did it. Edward R. Murrow certainly did it, and they are considered paragons of virtue in news media. Certainly, opinion does have a role to play in news. The problem, is when editorial is presented as news.

Political pundits certainly get away with murder on this front, as they often present opinion as fact and are rarely called out on uttering complete falsehoods in the media. There is a reason why in print journalism, like newspapers, editorials are located in their own section away from the other news.

This isn't just to make them easier to find for readers, but to also note that editorials are separate than news.

This blog, is separate from news. After all, it's my thoughts and opinions on events that are presented. And yes, I write things from a perspective as a left-wing person. You won't find me endorsing many, if any, right-wing ideals because I simply don't support them. Just like you won't find a right-wing person endorsing left-wing ideals.

That's the point. Every human being on this planet, regardless of whether they're willing to admit it or not, has their own bias. That means when someone tells you something, they're telling you it from their perspective and their experience.

The same is true for news. Whether it's the bias of the newscaster, the newsroom staff, the news executives, or what have you; there is a certain bias behind the reporting of the event. Let's go back to the Government Shutdown.

Left-wing biases will tell you it's the Republicans fault. Right-wing biases will blame Obama. You'll also notice, that I've intentionally avoided saying which side is right and wrong in this debate. Obviously, due to my own biases,  I think you know which side I think is in the wrong. But that isn't the point here.

Rather, the point is the remind us all that news and opinion contain biases. Very rarely will you find an unbiased news coverage. Let's go back to the example of the car accident.

A newscaster who has issue with his or her city council might play up an angle that malfunctioning traffic lights contributed to the accident, provided one or two 'eyewitnesses' can make the claim. Whereas a newscaster with no issue with city management, may completely ignore the spotty witnesses and focus more on driver error.

Again, one event, but two different causes/reasons/interpretations.

Ultimately, you can't eliminate bias from news. It is possible to decrease bias to a minimum; but that leads to fractured reporting and single source information sources. (Look at Fox News; not many Fox News viewers get their news from other sources, or even multiple sources. They rely completely on Fox.)

And that might be more dangerous in the long run; to create a divide in your citizens where both sides are completely indoctrinated by a single media source and a single bias. Which is why it is important for citizens to seek out multiple news sources; when you understand that news has a bias, you can start to interpret truth by reading what is being reported about the same event from other sources. Compare them; see what one side reports and what one side doesn't. Not only will it give you a better understanding of the event, it will likely allow you to glimpse some real truth beyond just what is being reported.

If anything, it will at least give you a better understanding of spotting and comprehending biases.

So, let's sum up what we've learned.

News exists to inform the citizens, which is a vital role in the health of a democracy. News is a reporting of events, which cannot be interpreted; however, the cause/reason for an event can be interpretative but interpretation should be coupled with fact. Opinion is not news and should not be reported as news, even when facts prove that opinion correct. Opinion must always be opinion and clearly identified as such. Ultimately, news will have a bias and will report on events from this biased perspective.

Which brings me to a simple fact that we all need to learn, and that should be taught in schools but seems to be missing from the curriculum. It's slightly modified from George Carlin, in order to be more adaptable to people not just children, but the point still stands.

It's not enough to know how to read, you have to be taught to question what you read; to question everything. Question everything you read, everything you hear, and question authority.

It's a simple enough concept, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will catch on.

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