Anyone who says there are “two sides to every story” is vastly understating the case.
There are almost always far more than two interpretations of an event or series of events, as a local municipal leader recently affirmed to me with her observation that there are “three sides” to every story.
One outgrowth of that reality is that it takes time to incorporate those sides in a story. But over my nearly four decades in the media, there has been a troubling shift in too many corners of the media to sacrifice fairness, accuracy and thoroughness on the altar of being first with some “scoop” that is more spin than solid, sufficiently vetted news.
Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author, nails it in the introduction to his memoir, Reporter: “The newspapers of today far too often rush into print with stories that are essentially little more than tips, or hints of something toxic or criminal. For lack of time, money, or skilled staff, we are besieged with `he said, she said’ stories in which the reporter is little more than a parrot.”
And social media has long been an accelerant on this problem. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and so forth are too often the impetus for media’s tendency to commit hasty, sloppy and irresponsible rushes to judgment.
Getting the Facts vs. Being Fast
As with so much in life, one can add details later once a firmer grasp is achieved of those quaint things known as “facts.” But once unfair, inaccurate and/or misleading information is in the public sphere, it’s all but impossible to reel it back in. What would never have made it into print years ago is now a first-draft atrocity. Sure, later “final” versions are helpful, but by then the slap-dash process has done damage and those unfair and/or inaccurate first drafts have staying power.
During my time as a local public office-holder, having borne the brunt of cynical distortions and outright falsehoods, I know firsthand the danger posed by lazy media outlets all too eager to lap up narratives that align with their biases. (A thought: if more reporters endured such an experience, perhaps we’d see improvement in this area of media malpractice.) One disappointing chapter in my own saga was a Chicago radio reporter airing a story without bothering to contact me. By the time he did so, my input was never broadcast, though the station inserted my response to their online write-up.
When Bias Has Crept into My Reporting
I don’t come at this topic from some holier-than-thou ivory tower. Through my own journalism work, I have surely stumbled in myriad ways. It wasn’t frequent nor, do I think, was it to any great degree. And never was it what I set out to do, though bias crept into my reporting more than I would have liked.
This was especially true during my career’s earlier stages. Journalism is like any other profession–if we are conscientious and care enough, we get better over time. Now, when I “commit random acts of journalism”–whether covering the Oak Park Village Manager search in suburban Chicago or writing a feature about an Elmhurst man’s efforts to raise money for tornado victims in Tennessee–I strive to be mindful of the pitfalls and obstacles created by whatever biases lurk inside me.
Nobody is beyond this problem. You, me, each and every one of us has blind spots. We don’t know what we don’t know. We operate within an accumulation of personal likes and dislikes. It never fully disappears, but we can get better with persistent self-reflection, openness to feedback, and a spirit of humility.
Beware the `David vs. Goliath’ Trap
The ways that bias can manifest are bountiful, but you should be especially on the look-out for the overused “David vs. Goliath” theme.
Perhaps more than any other temptation, reporters are prone to foisting this construct on situations that are far too complex and nuanced. Reporters, especially experienced ones, know in their gut that they take short cuts when they take this simpler, quicker, cliched path. Reporters know when they discard details that don’t line up with the strained narrative of a villain abusing victims. Life is usually more complicated than that, and so are the stories that flow out of day-to-day life.
For those among you who are reporters, does any of this ring true as you reflect on your own work? It should—after all, this immensely important and vastly underappreciated pursuit called journalism is far from easy. But its value grows the more we resist taking the easy way out with short-cuts and other substandard paths to print.