Finding the Truth

i282600889608309542._szw1280h1280_There was a time when I thoroughly enjoyed perusing the the newspaper each morning. I was originally a Houston Post fan and the daily delivery that outlined local, national, and international events was my eye on the world along with a subscription to Newsweek.  Alas, The Houston Post eventually closed its doors so I switched to The Houston Chronicle but I was never as fond of the columnists and editorial writers of that paper. Eventually I grew weary of seeing so many grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors inside its pages and I let my subscription lapse. When I see copies of it on the news stand today I realize that it is a shell of its former self. I fear that it is slowly dying and that worries me. A city the size of Houston should have a vibrant local newspaper and it doesn’t. Over time Newsweek became so pathetic that it went out of business. The last few copies of that once robust magazine were thin and cheap looking and the articles all had a sameness about them. It seemed as though a single journalist had penned every story, all of which had a definite liberal political bent. 

 

These days its difficult to find print journalism that is consistently honest and unbiased. Like so many I have turned to the Internet for most of my news but I am fully aware that I must analyze everything that I read and take care not to jump to conclusions. Much that I encounter has a definite slant and stories are often written as truth before all of the details have been collected. The news that is available is filled with contradictions and it takes a great deal of thought to consider its value. It’s a whole new world of journalism and I’ve grown quite cynical in my judgement of much that I read.

Nonetheless, I spend a considerable amount of time each morning perusing various news services now that I am retired and have the time to do so. One of the things that I have learned is that so many reporters are desperately searching for that one sensational story that may garner them a Pulitzer Prize or, at the very least, attention. The competition for the big scoop is nothing new but what is different is the tendency of journalists to do sloppy work. Fact checking is all too often secondary to being the first to run a big story. Thus we have far too many instances of headlines that later need to be retracted. The biggest problem with that is that readers may see the flawed original piece but never get wind of the declaration of the truth. The false news is left dangling in people’s minds while the reality only reaches a more limited number of people.

Oddly I’m more likely to find honest information about what is actually happening in the world from the BBC. I often learn about things relevant to our nation that are somehow not on the radar of our own country’s news sources. This morning was a perfect example of that. While most of the news here in the United States centered on the escaped convicts from New York state and the Texas pool party gone bad, the lead story from the BBC was about life in Mosul under ISIS rule.

Using video that had been smuggled out of that city the BBC told a tale of horror for those who are attempting to live under the caliphate that ISIS has imposed. Women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe in black. Their faces must be veiled and if even their hands are showing they will be punished along with their husbands and the shopkeepers who serve them. Shiite, Kurdish, and Christian minority homes and possessions are confiscated and the people are killed or imprisoned. Every citizen must contribute twenty five percent of earnings to ISIS. Unemployment is rampant and the poor must depend on the grace of God and the kindness of neighbors. Pollution hangs heavily in the air and some of the most common services are no longer available. There is constant surveillance on the activities of the citizens. Most people live in fear of being caught doing something of which ISIS disapproves. Those who steal lose a hand. Male adulterers are thrown from buildings. Female adulterers are stoned. The citizenry is forced to watch the executions. Many schools are now closed and the children in those that are still open are exposed to massive propaganda assaults that sometimes even turn them against their own parents. All in all daily life has been disrupted and those who chose to stay rather than flee are now in a continual state of fear.

The article that I read was matter of fact and only referred to the information outlined in the videos. There was no discussion of who is to blame for the current state of affairs nor opinions regarding what the rest of the world needs to do to stop ISIS. Instead it was left to the reader to decide how to react. Far too much of the reporting here in our country on the other hand turns into a debate about who created the ISIS mess rather than a discussion of what is actually happening. Reporters attempt to influence our responses rather than leaving the conclusions to us. In other words, so much of the news that we get is tainted with half truths, personal opinions, and highly selective details unlike the BBC piece which showed the video without commentary one way or another.

A report last week indicated that the majority of Americans now gather their news either on Facebook or Twitter. Obviously such a method opens us to the slippery slope of seeing only one side of reality. A perfect example is a cartoon that was heavily shared after the floods in Texas. In one panel there was a cowboy boasting that he wanted the federal government to stay out of our state business. In the next panel the soggy cowboy was begging for help after the floods. Other articles piggybacked on this idea and spoke of how Texans like Ted Cruz refused to vote for aid for hurricane Sandy victims but now he was all for the government helping the people of Texas. The trouble with all of the clamor and indignation is that it was based on half truths.

It seems that Senator Cruz did not vote against the aid bill for Sandy because he did not want to help the people devastated by that hurricane but because a number of Congressmen had attached pork barrel additions to the legislation that had nothing to do with helping the people of New York and New Jersey. He wanted the American people to realize the kind of graft that often goes along with what should have been only a way of helping those who suffered from a natural disaster. It was not the aid that he was against, it was the shameless use of the emergency to get money for totally unrelated causes that only benefited certain lawmakers.

I had to admit that I was one of those people who was profoundly disgusted with Senator Cruz until I read the full story of his opposition to funding. I haven’t changed my feelings of dislike for him or for his methods but I now realize that there was indeed a method to his madness. I doubt that many people who still think that his motivation for resisting the passage of the bill was mean and selfish will ever know the real story behind his stubbornness. That is a big problem with the way that so much reporting is now done.

As an introduction to statistics I used to have my students read accounts of a particular historical event from many different points of view and even from a first person versus third person vantage point. They would note the inconsistencies in the stories and discuss how personal opinion so often colored the way an individual reported the way things were. Once they realized that we often insert our personal thinking into even our rational attempts to be fair we would tackle the idea of using statistics to mislead. They became quite adept at noting how even numbers might be used in different ways or contexts to influence thinking.

It’s now up to each of us to question everything that we read. If a quotation seems a bit shocking then we need to find out how it sounded in context. If something is written as fact we need to check the sources of the information and determine if they are reliable before we accept that the details are entirely true. We should look at all stories from differing points of view, even those that seem disagreeable. I suspect that if we begin to be more demanding in our consideration of the veracity of the news then our journalists will be forced to clean up their acts. We have far too many showmen these days and not nearly enough reporters devoted to finding the truth.

 

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