Thursday, December 3, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

One of the most important things you can teach a child is how to read critically. That many adults I know can't do this is disheartening, but it doesn't diminish its importance as a skill. Kids are bombarded with opinions from television [1], books [2], and their parents [3].

The most insidious of these however, are news sources. Kids are taught from a young age that newspapers and news anchors are sources of fact, with opinions clearly marked as such (but backed up with supporting facts).

The world described in the above paragraph has not been my experience.

I don't know if things have really changed or if I've only slowly come to pay attention, but news articles today increasingly remind me of opinion pieces sprinkled liberally with "facts" designed to sway a reader's thinking, rather than the reporting of Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

All people have biases. Reporters are people. Therefore all reporters have biases. My understanding of the job of a journalist is to present the facts by doing one's best to set aside those biases. I don't see a lot of that lately. Instead, I see "news" pieces riddled with language meant to tell the reader how to feel about the piece's subject.

This isn't exactly news, of course. But now the slippery slope of opinion journalism masquerading as news has given way to an avalanche of activist news in which the writer attempts to steer the reader around to the correct way of thinking ("correct" being equivalent to how the writer thinks) about a news story. It's all about ideology now.

Take this piece [4] in which a Pulitzer Prize winner effectively makes up a backstory in order to paint a picture. That the actual facts paint the exact opposite picture is of no consequence; there is a battle to be won! In this case, the battle is over healthcare. But that's not the only battle being fought in print.

That many readers are okay with this sort of manipulation (as evidenced by the comments section of the article, in which the defense amounts to claiming the author is creating an archehtypical case study in support of government healthcare) is sad; you'd hope that people would value truth over the lie. (Of course, it also begs the question: if the made up version of events in the story are so typical, why couldn't the author have found a story which didn't require making up facts to fit the narrative?)

The fact that the linked article is an opinion piece only reinforces my point: straight opinion backed with supporting facts is not enough any more; the reader must be swayed at all costs. If that means making things up, inventing backstory where none exists (or is the opposite of reality), so be it. Being "right" on the issue is more important than truth.

If opinion journalism has slid so far down that inventing facts is okay, how far down has straight news sunk? The answer should be "not at all", but if straight news contains more and more opinion, and opinion can use falsehoods to make its point...

I intend to teach Macy to read the news with a critical eye. The days of taking a news anchor or Pulitzer Prize winner at his word are over.

[1] "Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs are an important part of a balanced breakfast!"
[2] "Republicans are evil!"
[3] "That plaid jumper makes you look so grown up!"
[4] Yeah, I know. Extreme right-wing pundit alert. It was the best article that both sourced the original article and had first-person accounts of the investigation into the patient's actual circumstances.

No comments:

Post a Comment