“Foolish is the man who never reads a newspaper; even more foolish is the man who believes what he reads just because it is in the newspaper.”(August von Schlözer, German historian and journalist of the late 18th century)
There is justification for scepticism, especially when what is said involves vested interests. What happens then? Truth is sacrificed. As Arthur Ponsonby, English statesman, once noted: “When war is declared, Truth is the first casualty.” Yes, it is wise to examine the news with healthy scepticism.
The BBC Panorama programme ‘Undercover Nurse’ aired in July 2005, filmed conditions on an acute care ward at Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton. While acknowledging the deficiencies in care uncovered, legitimate questions may be asked of this style of investigation. Is this the best way to improve care services? Is this really in the public interest?
The Importance of keeping up with the News
The news media is vital today because it helps us keep up with what is going on in the world. Does this mean that we can believe everything we read in the newspapers or see on TV? No, even those in the media business express the need for caution. Of course, this principle applies to all public media, including the internet.
Everyone makes mistakes, even the most honest and skilled professionals. “In my three years as a free-lance fact-checker,” Ariel Hart wrote: “I have never checked a story that had no mistakes, whether five pages long or two paragraphs.” She cites such examples as “a year slightly off; old data; mis-spellings; widely reported information taken from secondary sources, but wrong.”
Journalists must contend with unreliable news sources. At times, hoaxes are fed to the press, and not always for 1st April. In 1999 a prankster planted a news story about “a cemetery amusement park,” backing it up with an eye-catching website of a fake development company and phone line, which was used to contact the ‘company spokesman’. The Associated Press service failed to detect the prank, whereupon many daily papers in the United States carried the story. (http://www.joeyskaggs.com) The secret of successful hoaxes is said to be “a provocative story with great visuals that’s outrageous yet plausible.”
Even well-intentioned journalists don’t always get the story right. “Journalists usually work at a quick pace,” explains one copywriter. “Newspapers are racing against one another. Each one wants to be the first to publish the news. For that reason many of us, although willing, do not have the time to write a well-researched article.”
Freedom of the Press 2003—A Global Survey of Media Independence rated 115 of 193 countries as either not free or only partly free. However, subtle manipulation of the news may occur even in countries that enjoy press freedom.
At times, some journalists are simply excluded from receiving important information, while others who toe the line receive exclusive interviews and invitations to accompany politicians on their travels. Political bias is common. Revenue from advertisers can also influence reporting. “The advertiser may threaten to withdraw profitable ads if the editor publishes anything negative about the advertiser,” a Polish journalist noted. And a copyreader at a Japanese newspaper cautioned, “Keep in mind that an objective news report is very difficult to achieve.”
‘Well, then,’ you may ask, ‘if professional journalists face such problems in producing credible copy, how is the reader to know what to believe?’
Getting the Balance
Therefore, a newspaper reader might ask himself such questions as: What is the background of the writer? What are his prejudices? Does the story cite hard facts that others can check? Who might have an interest in distorting the truth? Does the article have the ring of truth? The reader should have the opportunity to check different sources for verification. He may choose to discuss what he reads with others.
At the same time, don’t expect perfection, make allowances for their limitations. As we have seen, various factors prevent newspapers and television reports from being entirely objective. Still, they can help you to stay informed about what’s going on in the world.
Misrepresentation in the news is often the result of hasty reporting or misinformation. Sometimes, it seems, bad news sells. Yet, even well-intentioned stories can spread serious falsehoods. The financial markets appear particularly vulnerable in this regard. On the other hand, sometimes efforts to mis-inform are deliberate, as happened in Nazi Germany when lies were deliberately spread about people of certain races and religions.
Finally, consider a more recent example. There was a thinly veiled smear campaign launched not long ago during a human rights case in Moscow, Russia. “When three girls committed suicide in Moscow,” reported The Globe and Mail, Toronto, “the Russian media immediately suggested they were fanatical followers of a disapproved minority religion.”
Such news stories appeared on February 9, 1999, the day that a civil court resumed a trial aimed at banning the religion in the city of Moscow. Geoffrey York of The Globe and Mail Moscow Bureau reported: “Police later admitted the girls had nothing to do with the religious sect. But by then a Moscow television channel had already launched a new assault on the sect, telling viewers that the sect had collaborated with Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, ironically considering historical evidence that thousands of their members were victims of the Nazi death camps.”