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Guest opinion: Facts, truth and journalism

Gene H. Dreher

In algebra class you learn that in the pristine world of mathematics, if you can find one exception to a “rule,” then the rule is false. Aristotle tried to sell the idea that the world is black and white. The real world doesn’t match either of those foolish assertions. We live in a statistical universe, perhaps a fractal universe. Things aren’t black or white, they run along a gray scale from obsidian to snowy. All rules are partially true and partially false, including this one.

People think “journalism” seeks to inform them. It doesn’t; at least at this point in 21st century America, it seeks to persuade. The result of this is that on any nontrivial issue, some facts are emphasized and some are omitted. Omission is the favorite trick of the “journalist.” From the journalistic point of view the reader (viewer) is on one side of a large board fence with reality on the other side and it is the task of the “journalist” to move the knothole so that it exposes the part of reality that the journalist desires to be exposed. For entertainment, this is fine.

In a democracy, however, where people are supposed to make decisions about issues, this is pure poison. One cannot make clear decisions without facts. When facts are suppressed, omitted or falsified, good people are tricked into false conclusions and bad decisions. This is Wormtongue’s trick to manipulate the king, or the plebiscite.

But the media does this all the time. Part of the problem comes from the filter that is currently built into the journalism degrees at the colleges. If you don’t belong to a certain political set, you will not succeed in your journalism classes. Part of it comes from the hard work and low pay that characterize the industry. You have to really be an ideologue to put up with that. And time pressure causes junk to be reprinted and published. Then there are institutions like Associated Press that take in stories from local sources and “edit” them until they match the standard narrative. The media is advocating, so the factual nature of the narrative is irrelevant, as long as there are some elements that are “true” a whole bunch of “false” can be shoveled out on the public.

Studies are performed by people who want to be paid for them and who may or may not have an ideological ax to grind. Regardless of the ax, the first thing you learn is that if you don’t tell the customer what he wants to hear, you won’t get any repeat business. Now some people are stiff-necked enough to tell the truth no matter what. But they are pretty rare. The others use a trick of emphasizing some part of a complex answer, or different parts depending on the audience. That way each one hears what they want to hear. Lawyers are professionally adept at this trick, as are political consultants and advertising gurus. The result is that even if the study is honestly done, if the results are in the least bit complex, different people can report different results.

In the case of natural gas development versus Bambi, anyone with an IQ larger than their hat size will guess that Bambi doesn’t like trucks, men and drilling rigs stomping around in his salad bar. It’s also pretty obvious that when the hubbub dies down, Bambi and friends will go back to munching and all of those other activities that characterize life in the wild. Nuances like timing, etc. are important. Unlike teens, deer have a fixed breeding period, so upending the salad bar during rut would be bad. But all of this reality gets lost in the simplicity of headlines and word counts.

Journalists, as a class, are not quantitative. Checkbook balancing is probably the state of the art. This gets us headlines and stories like “People who eat whatever have a 50 percent higher rate of heart disease.” Gasp, 50 percent is big. If you buy two Powerball tickets, you increase your odds of winning by 100 percent. That’s an even bigger number. But it’s meaningless unless you get the fact that the odds of you winning that Powerball jackpot are 1 in 175,223,510. So 2 in 175,223,510 is so microscopically small as to beneath notice. Think of all of the stories you’ve read. How many told you both parts of the facts? Almost none.

Corporate executives and smart corporations live and die on data. Journalists, not so much. We voters get the equivalent of some 13-year-old’s latest story presented as an important fact. Bureaucrats hate to provide data. It’s scary for them, because someone might analyze the data and figure out that they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing. So when journalists talk to bureaucrats it’s almost impossible to get real data. The unwilling talking to the unknowing.

We ought to have better. I’m not sure if we deserve better. We’ll get what we demand, and the standards are abysmally low. Not all journalists are bad people, but even good people who are untrained or in bad situations cannot produce good results. And there are some bad people in the business. “Advocate journalism” or “narrative journalism” are just other names for propaganda. I think that in a democracy, propaganda is an act of war. It’s not unusual, but not good.

And if it means anything, on my scale of journalistic excellence, I rate the Glenwood Springs Post Independent about 1 light year better than the Grand Junction Sentinel. But we have parsecs of improvement ahead of us.

Gene H. Dreher of Grand Junction frequently comments on PI stories.


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