The coverage of the Covington Catholic (Kentucky) High School incident during this year’s March for Life may have shown journalism at its worst. Depending on your bias, you could find a version of the event to confirm it.
In this age of 24/7 news and instantaneous coverage of events, journalists and the media that employ them have incentives to be first with a piece of news. If they get it wrong, many don’t engage in introspection; they simply move on.
Partly this is a result of two conflicting definitions of what constitutes journalism — writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation and writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest. The second definition, which seems to be the one followed today, has no emphasis on facts without attempted interpretation.
Interpretation moves an article from reporting to opinion without acknowledging it.
The pejorative Fake News is not new but today, more journalists appear to follow Mark Twain’s counsel; “get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”
That this is taking place so frequently can be attributed to the 24/7 news cycle and the explosion of sources of media. Seventy years ago, George Orwell wrote “1984.” Almost 60 years ago, Daniel Boorstin, historian and former librarian of the Library of Congress, wrote “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America.” One insightful observation by Boorstin was, “By harboring … and enlarging our extravagant expectations, we create the demand for the illusions with which we deceive ourselves. And which we pay others to make to deceive us.”
This was not a new finding. Boorstin points out that P.T. “Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much he public enjoyed being deceived.”
Unfortunately, Boorstin offers no quick fix. “There is no formula for mass disenchantment. … Each of us must disenchant himself, must moderate his expectations, must prepare himself to receive messages coming in from the outside.”
The lessons that not only journalists should take from the Covington Catholic incident and similar ones is one that I learned from a former colleague, Phil Goulding, who wrote a book “Confirm or Deny” after his tenure as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. That lesson is “first reports are always wrong — or so often wrong that they always must be considered suspect.” He amended that later to say third reports should be taken with a grain of salt. At least that is my recollection.
The volume of what is described as news is so great and comes at us so rapidly that all of us would be better served by starting with the view that I am not convinced and then look for information to confirm or deny. This can be accomplished by not being a slave to a single or small set of sources and by recognizing the dangers of confirmation bias — tendency to not view information objectively.
An article in Psychology Today made this observation, “Confirmation bias occurs when people would like a certain idea/concept to be true. … They are motivated by wishful thinking. … Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.”
The bottom line for readers and listeners is to avoid jumping to conclusions. For journalists, it is to focus on getting it right rather than fast.