Journalism is vital to a free society; so, too, is criticism of the media. And yet SethBlogs doesn’t see as much oversight of the media’s methods as there is for other vital societal resources. SethBlogs suspects that this oversight oversight provokes a lazy complacency among our favourite journalistic representatives.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:
II: EXTRA SENORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF EMOTION) (you are here)
I’ve been criticized, in my non-blogging life, for ranting at journalists who attribute particular emotions to people they cover. Consider the following fictional coverage of Jane Newsmaker’s comments on Barry Badguy’s criminal sentencing:
JANE NEWSMAKER: I’m disgusted that Barry Badguy didn’t get more time in jail.
JOHN REPORTER: Newsmaker was angry that Badguy didn’t get more time in jail.
SETHBLOGS: What?! How does Reporter know whether Newsmaker was genuinely angry or not?
CRITIC OF SETHBLOGS: Well, Newsmaker looks pretty angry.
SETHBLOGS: Yes, but it’s perfectly conceivable that Newsmaker’s not actually emotionally involved in the case, but is presenting so for a political purpose.
CRITIC OF SETHBLOGS: No, from a reporter’s perspective, it’s reasonable to describe an angry-looking person as angry.
I have been baffled more than once to find that smart people are not always convinced by my perfectly logical rant on this point, so I was delighted to hear from CBC radio, yesterday, proof in an example.
As you probably know, there is speculation (based on an apparently leaked draft of a report by Canadian Auditor General, Sheila Fraser) that the Conservative government of Canada have been up to some inappropriate financial dealings:
MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: The Conservatives have been spraying money around like drunken sailors in Tony Clement’s riding…
CBC COMMENTATOR: Ignatieff was clearly shocked [by the controversy].
Shocked?! I have no idea whether or not the leader of the Canadian Liberal party is indeed startled by the controversial happenings in Tony Clement’s Huntsville riding, but I can see plenty of reason why it would benefit him to be perceived as shocked. After all, to be seen as a leader with integrity is a highly coveted position in a political campaign and so—if one politician is caught in a controversy—it looks good on their rivals to be so far above the alleged misconduct that they are dismayed by it.
In support of that very point, the possible Conservative villain Clement, himself, accused his critics of using the controversy to score unearned political points. He claims that the final report by the Auditor General will exonerate him, but he says because his rivals know that Sheila Fraser won’t reveal those details until after the election, his enemies are merely feigning rage about what she’ll eventually say.
I hope Clement is wrong about the Liberals’ intentions, but his counter-criticism is now part of this political dispute. For the CBC reporter to state outrightly that Ignatieff “was shocked” is to take a position on the debate. It is to suggest that, in fact, Ignatieff is speaking from his heart on this issue. I’m not saying that he’s not, but a reporter should not make a claim in any direction on what is motivating any political leader. Leave the opinion-making to editorialists (and bloggers, of course :)).
I doubt the CBC journalist made this inappropriate psychological claim with any intention to bias his audience. Instead, I think he is merely guilty of lazy journalism probably as a result of the common trend amongst reporters to describe their subjects with the emotions they perceive in them. It is simple and effective to characterize someone who is yelling as “angry,” since it seems so clear that they are piping mad. And what’s the harm? some would argue. In many cases, such attributing of emotion to newsmakers appears innocuous. For instance, when a widower responds to his wife’s death, it seems so right to note that he is grieving.
Nevertheless, the fact is reporters never know with certainty what any newsmaker is thinking and in turn they do not know whether or not a person may be presenting an emotion (that they don’t actually have) for a political purpose. For instance:
WIDOWER: I loved my wife dearly. I will spend the rest of my life trying to track down her killer.
REPORTER: The football star was devastated by his wife’s death.
Unfortunately, the possible truth of the matter is that the widower was,the killer. Once this fact is suspected, the lazy reporter will have a lot of explaining to do:
SETHBLOGS: What made you so sure the athlete was devastated? Did you really just take his word for it?
To avoid such an embarrassing fate, my suggestion is simply that reporters stick to the facts:
CORRECTED REPORTER: The teary-eyed football star vowed to find his wife’s killer.
In that case, if it turns out that the widower is the killer, the reporter would no longer need to recant his testimony because everything he said was true (there was indeed tears in the famous athlete’s eyes and he did promise to find the killer). All that journalists need to do is make a habit of always reporting only what they can verify about their newsmakers and they’ll never have to worry about accidentally making outrageously false claims.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:
II: EXTRA SENORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF EMOTION) (you were just here)