The difference between journalism and evidence
In my last post I noted that ABC news had edited a soundbite from DeeDee’s interview with Benjamin Crump “in a way some commentators may find questionable.” My somewhat vague and obtuse language there indicates that I am not prepared to condemn ABC for making a vague reference to who started the altercation between GZ and TM sound more damning of Mr. Zimmerman. Nor do I think anyone should have been fired over the NBC story that edited out dispatcher Sean’s request for Zimmerman to describe the person he found suspicious before he said “and he’s black.” Nor did any news agency go over some un-crossable line ending their soundbites of Zimmerman’s police call to end at, “Are you following him?” “Yeah.” leaving the impression that Zimmerman pursued Martin directly until he caught up with then young man, when in fact the very next thing that happened is that Zimmerman lost contact with Martin, and thus was no longer following him.
Each of these instances are ‘sketchy’, to use the vernacular of the day, and would be serious breaching of ethics, I would assume, if presented in court without explanation. If I were Mr. Zimmerman, or his attorney, I would be unhappy about all of them. We could certainly debate the proposition that journalists shouldn’t do things like this, or at least not when covering trials. But I doubt we’d get very far, because we would have a very hard time distinguishing inappropriate ‘things like this’ from the things journalists do all the time. every day.
Journalism, by which here I mean ‘reporting,’ is one of the most mystified activities in public life. People think, they know how it works, but they don’t. Though the line between ‘reporting’ and ‘commentary’ has all but been obliterated on cable news channels, we may still hold to some conceptual distinction, that it is possible to separate these things, or to label this bit of verbiage as one and a different bit of verbiage as another. All in all, this mixing on the cable channels isn’t necessarily a horrible thing, because it can help us realize that we never understood the nature of ‘reporting’ anyway.
The journalism establishment, going back about a century to the point where the New York Times displaced the sensationalist papers of Hearst and Pulitzer, has long raised the banners of ‘objectivity,’ ‘fairness,’ ‘balance,’ and similar sorts of hooey. And so journalists really have only themselves to blame for the fact that the public does not understand what they do, and holds them to standards they can never meet. The doctrine of objective journalism, the facts and nothing but the facts, rose in Western culture about the same time as the doctrine of scientific objectivity and detachment, and people sometimes get he two confused. Reporting is not science, and oh yeah, those ‘objective and detached’ scientists created nuclear, chemical and biological warfare.
I have never been a professional reporter myself, but I have a PhD from a school of journalism and am pretty well read in the extensive sociology of news. I know what reporters do, what they have to do. Their job can best be described as “Provide information about the subject your editor has assigned you in a way that will make it both quickly comprehensible, and dramatic enough to cut through the noise field of postindustrial everyday life so it will get your reader’s attention.” A political agenda one way or the other is the farthest thing from a reporter’s mind. Just filling the news hole on deadline is job 1. Job 2 is making it ‘sexy’ (dog bites man isn’t even fishwrap, man bites dog is news). Job 3 is making it make some kind of sense, more or less. And to do all this, you have a few hours at best, before the next broadcast or the next web edition goes up. So the everyday bias of all reporting is toward the neatly intertwined ends of simplification and sensation. It grans eyeballs, and it’s easy to understand.
So you’ve noticed that real life is more complicated than anything you ever see on the news. Do you know what happens when you try to deal with that complexity? You go that way just a little and you wind up on PBS with 1/10th the audience you had before. The viewer s are in a hurry. They’re just skimming. If they can’t pick up what you’re saying, their eyes glaze over and they don’t even hear you at all!
And then there’s the fact that media technologies really do mediate. They are not magic windows onto remote realities. You, the viewer, are NOT there. Though, as I said, I’ve never been a reporter, I do have a good deal of experience making documentary films, which is a similar venture in that our goal is to go out into the real world, and record some kind of audio and video ‘actualities’ (things that happen outside of the filmmakers’ arranging to have them happen) that can be used to tell some kind of ‘truth’ about the world. Upon embarking on one’s first serious such attempt, the beginning documentarian is typically brutally struck by the inadequacy of the medium to convey the reality actual experienced by a human witness to events in a real place in real time. You come back to edit lab with your footage of something you actually saw that was compelling in some way or another. You watch the footage. It seems flat. it’s NOT speaking for itself. Your first instinct is to cut it in a fairly strict chronological order, trying to preserve as much of the ‘reality’ of the event as possible. You realize this makes the result worse. It fails to communicate the reality you experienced. So you look at your resources and ask, “OK how do I communicate what’s really important here, using these pieces?” And you start cutting out parts, shifting things around a little, and things butt up together in a way they didn’t in reality, but in a way that EXPRESSES what was important about what did really happen. This is bascially how every documentary filmmaker from Robert Flaherty on has worked.
Now news is a little different. In my experience ‘reporters’ are less sophisticated about the medium, less conscious of the fact they’re “lying to tell the truth”. They also don’t have the same ‘on the ground’ relation to ‘reality’ as documentarians do. They may not have been on the scene at all, or only briefly. But the problem they face is the same. They have to make a call about “what do people really need to know about this thing?” and then they have to present their material in a way that the audience ‘gets’ that important thing. And working under the time pressures they face, and the limited exposure to events they have, their best most honest guesses about “what’s really important? what do people really need to know?” are wrong at least to some degree fairly often.
So, I would assume then, that when NBC made that audio edit that got people fired, the person who created the ‘package’ was trying to get to the heart of the matter, and had determined by listening to the call in it’s entirety that race seemed to be a factor in Zimmerman’s suspicion and pursuit of Martin. Cutting in a more ‘accurate’ unedited soundbite could actually be considered MORE un-ethical because it would confuse the audience and give the impression that the reporter had determined race played no role in Zimmerman’s actions. The same goes for the edit in DeeDee’s remarks. If the editor leaves in the vague reference to the fight starting in a soundbite that is acting, in the context of the news package, as a synecdoche for DeeDee’s statement as a whole, the arguably the story misrepresents the overall statement by accurately presenting the specific phrase un-editied.
The thing is, journalists are TELLING STORIES not OFFERING EVIDENCE. Fox News’ “We report. You decide.” is actually a far more pernicious lie than “Fair and Balanced” because the fundamental fact of journalism is that the journalist must decide what to report and how. What details exactly? In what order? And in the soundbite driven world of the constantly refreshing here-today-gone-this-afternoon news cycle, the stories have a powerful bias towards the simple-minded and away from complexity. Which means that reporters, however sophisticated an analysis they may be capable of generating, develop habits-of-mind toward simple-mindedness. But even more nuanced stories are about painting a bigger picture, not nitpicking details.
If this sounds like I’m giving ‘the media’ a pass, I’m not really. By my own concept of what journalistic practices ought to be, I think once MSNBC decided to cover the Martin case, they should have tasked a good investigative reporter to review the physical evidence, and any minimally competent researcher would have recognized that the way “Are you following him? Yeah!” was being used was misleading and prejudicial.
But my point in this post is about how we should treat media reports, either as amateur/semi-pro or whatever sleuths trying to figure out the Martin/Zimmerman case, or just as citizens trying to become informed. It is incumbent on us to understand how reporting works, to realize that we are being told stories, not presented with evidence, to take the news for what it’s worth – which is not nothing, even if it isn’t what we think it is.
Specifically, whenever you encounter any type of soundbite you must understand that it has been taken out of context. The reporter probably has chosen it because the reporter believes the selected part is an accurate trope for the whole, but the reporter may well be wrong. In addition to the edit pulling it out of context, the soundbite may well be edited internally with elements deleted or re-arranged. This alone does not make it dishonest or false. It is, rather, a human interpretation of the significance of events and statements, which is all the media can offer. You are NOT there. You are NOT seeing things and hearing things for yourself. Somebody has selected some pictures and some words to present to you, out of an infinite field of facts, because that somebody believes those pictures and words will tell you what THEY think is important. That’s the only thing they can do. You just need to realize it is what it is, and treat it as such.