Have you ever read something in a newspaper or magazine about something which you happened to have firsthand knowledge of and realized that what was reported ranged from distorted to just plain wrong?
Then, have you shrugged with annoyance and simply turned the page and resumed reading about unfamiliar subjects and believed every word?
If you have not had similar experiences, you are probably someone who does not believe anything in the news. If that’s the case, perhaps you do not care and in a perverse sense you are lucky. But, you will be depriving yourself of interesting and important stuff.
In the law there is something called the ‘best evidence rule’ which requires a party in litigation to put forward the best evidence available. In life at large the best evidence of news etc. has come to mean well edited newspapers and other modern media.
Being a ‘curious George’ deep down, I am always open to and seeking new ideas, which I guess is the reason why suckers like me turn the page and go on believing even after experiencing disappointment in the quality of what I have just read on the previous page based on my own knowledge.
In such cases the suckers among us face a serious dilemma. Either we have to become ‘ doubting Thomas’’ and thus be deprived of a lot of genuine news, or, we have to grin and bear it and simply hope for the best and accept that not everything we have ‘learned’ is fully reliable.
What options do we and the news sources have to address this dilemma?
One option might be for news sources—without compromising their sources—to reveal more about the basis for what they report.
For example, if there is a report about a resignation of an official, it would help to know if the sources included both sides of the story.
Surprisingly, to beat the competition, frequently breaking news simply parrots a news release. And, then the back story [if there is one] rarely catches up. It would be helpful if a publishers’ standard could be established. Perhaps such a thing exists but it is invisible or simply hard to enforce. At least, they should say if they have not YET heard from both sides in the matter?
Another option would be for curious folks like me to teach ourselves to be more discriminating.
A third option would be to REQUIRE all news sources to make timely space available to any significant persons effected by the news to present their version of the stories—not just corrections but a different perspective.
News geniuses will most likely say these ideas are impossible, denigrate the reputations of the news intermediaries and even violate First Amendment rights. That being said, there is a good case to be made that such ideas would improve the right to free speech of parties whose speech is often muffled by the monopoly power of news purveyors.
For example, a long time ago I was contacted as a confirming source for a sensitive charge against a prominent politician after business hours by a reporter from the New York Times.
Before I was fully alert to what he was seeking, I vaguely remembered about what he wanted confirmed, and stupidly said I thought he might be right. Then I told him that since I did not have access until the next morning to the files which would confirm or refute, I would call him back then and NOT to quote me.
He said my first recollection was good enough for him because he was on deadline. I said that it was not good enough for me and in the strongest terms I demanded that he must wait.
The next morning his story was published below the fold on page one and my files revealed that what I had initially mis-recalled from the distant past was simply wrong. I called him immediately and chastised him. His response was that I had been ‘skinned back’ [an old CIA term for being ‘turned’] by one of the parties to the matter to change the facts. I had spoken to no one!
My name was in his short piece; I was embarrassed and I complained to a managing editor I knew quite well. Not long thereafter the young reporter left the Times. I still see his byline in lesser publications and do not believe anything he writes.
That kind of misreporting I fear happens too frequently. And, the turn the page and believe everything phenomenon continues to plague too many of us, even after we have learned better time and again.
We live in a time when the very future of journalism is at stake—which may account for some bending of rules; it is incumbent on all reporters to make sure they (a) get it right, (b) report both sides, and (c) be transparent about sources and gaps in their knowledge and the facts.
The issue really needs to be addressed by the right people. They know who they are.
They only have to come out of hiding.