One interesting thing I’ve learned about children relatively recently is that you can make them stop doing something by either telling them to stop or you can go one step further and say “Stop, because…”.
The reasoning behind this is that once children understand why something should or shouldn’t happen they are more likely to make a good decision. Don’t touch that hot iron, it hurts. Don’t stand on the wall, you might fall.
This approach is criticised by some adults because, they say, why do you waste time explaining something to a child? Just tell them to stop doing it.
I suspect one of those adults is US President Donald Trump. The phrase “FAKE NEWS” has been tweeted by him (yes, usually in loud capital letters) dozens of times, each time with the implicit admonition that you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers.
He doesn’t explain what he means, but he has a point. Although journalistic ethics have at their core an idea of “truthfulness”, it is obvious you can be telling the truth and still be accused of telling a lie. Some American newspapers like The Washington Post or The New York Times clearly side with the Democrats, the party opposing Trump’s Republicans. Other media outlets like TV’s Fox News or news magazine Breitbart side with the Republicans.
Take for example the recent news about Donald Trump Jr effectively admitting that he was in communication with the Russians during his father’s election campaign last year despite months of denials from his father and the White House: Whereas The New York Times (whose reporters did much of the work to break the story about possible Russian influence on the US election) had the headline “Rancor in West Wing over Russia reports”, the right-wing Breitbart.com had a report on the front page with Donald Trump commending his son, saying “I applaud his transparency”.
Both headlines are true but clearly show different angles. Is it a good thing to have different angles? Sure. But the problem is, lament sociologists, that most people get their news from a bubble. They only read the stuff they agree with.
There is a great value in reading stuff that you disagree with. It gives perspective, which deepens understanding. So why is it easy to dismiss stories written by “others”?
What is remarkable is that this bubble is experienced by those in the media themselves. An essay by journalist Sean Trende deftly illustrates this by describing what happened when Britain chose to vote to leave the European Union.
Although polling data showed that the 2016 Brexit referendum was too close to call, much of the press in Britain sided with “remain”. Trende attributes this to an “echo chamber” environment populated by the analysts and reporters themselves, who felt that leaving was an unthinkable option, and this biased their reporting.
For example, a column in the Economist magazine used the truism that when a vote is close, undecideds will lean towards the status quo, and thus they felt the remain camp would benefit. But in hindsight, perhaps many Britons saw Europe as encroaching on their rights and that a leave vote would keep things as they are – ie, preserving the status quo. It was a valid counter argument that not many had considered.
So apart from the political bias of established news agencies, we also have the personal, perhaps unconscious, bias of the journalists. Compounding this is perhaps another kind of bias, often described as a “chilling effect”: censorship.
It’s the fear of being censored or reprimanded for what you write. The reason why this column is about journalistic integrity from the viewpoint of US and British politics is because it’s a subject that’s not easy to broach in Malaysia.
Although I initially began by wanting to write things that were contradictory to common belief (hence this column’s name), I realised that there was also opportunity to clarify difficult ideas or complex stories. Although there is a risk that I might miss the nuance, I felt that at least I could provide readers with a jumping off point from which they could explore the topic in more detail on their own.
But with the shadow of general elections looming, some topics are off the table. Which is a real shame, because these topics have garnered much gossip and misunderstanding. I am itching to write about them, not to judge or to sway, but to present facts and add more perspective.
And as mentioned before, more perspective means better understanding.
There is a great value in reading stuff that you disagree with. It gives perspective, which deepens understanding. So why is it easy to dismiss stories written by ‘others’?
The one great thing that Trump’s regular “fake news” diatribes have done is that they have pushed media outlets to take more responsibility for editorial decisions. Already, three journalists from broadcaster CNN who were reporting on Trump-Russia links have resigned after it was determined that an article they published relied on only one anonymous source.
In the fallout, there was discussion about what constituted fair and factual reporting, and thankfully it wasn’t just “no”, but “no, because…”.
What responsible journalists do is impressive. They dig through dirt to reveal what was once obfuscated.
There are those that frown when stones are overturned to reveal an uncomfortable underbelly.
They say that the public is messing with cornerstones and foundations of governments and the country, and that pulling on the wrong one could bring the whole house down.
But if the bedrock that we build our nation on is so rocky and fragile, then perhaps we should worry about that more than about those who pick at it to uncover the truth.
I understand that some in power believe that the Malaysian public is not yet mature enough to handle the doublespeak that emerges from controversial stories. The American public, too, get obviously confused by what they see and read. But if what we find is complex and easily misunderstood, it should be a signal to work at it, not shield us from the confusing truth by just saying “no”.
Because even children deserve to be told the reasons.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.