How to Benefit From the Newspaper
“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.
IN ONE survey several thousand people in Britain and France were asked how much trust they placed in each of 13 institutions. The press came in last, even after politics and big business. In the United States, most readers still say they believe their newspaper. But surveys by the Pew Research Center show that the percentage of believers has declined.
There is often justification for skepticism, especially when what is said involves the national interests of the country in which a newspaper is printed. What happens then? Truth is often sacrificed. As Arthur Ponsonby, an English statesman of the 20th century, once noted: “When war is declared, Truth is the first casualty.”
Even when war hasn’t been declared, it is wise to examine the news with healthy skepticism. If you exercise appropriate caution, the newspaper can generally satisfy your appetite for the news that you need.
Understand the Challenges
Everybody makes mistakes, even the most honest and skilled professionals. “In my three years as a free-lance fact-checker,” Ariel Hart wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “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; misspellings; widely reported information taken from secondary sources, but wrong.”
Journalists must contend with unreliable news sources. At times, hoaxes are fed to the press. In 1999 a prankster planted a fake news story about “a cemetery amusement park,” backing it up with an eye-catching Web site of a phony development company and a phone line for interviews, which the deceiver used to pose as a company spokesman. The Associated Press wire service failed to detect the ruse, whereupon many daily papers in the United States carried the story. 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 a writer in Poland. “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, are not able to write a well-researched article.”
Pressures to Conform
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 freedom of the press.
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. 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?’
A Balanced View Is Needed
Clearly, discernment is needed. The reader needs to examine carefully what is written to see if it has the ring of truth. He wisely, as it were, tests and chooses what is right. Similarly, a newspaper reader may 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? Wisely, the reader may check different sources for verification. He may also discuss what he reads with others. At the same time, don’t expect perfection. As we have seen, various factors prevent newspapers from being entirely objective. Still, they can help you to stay informed about what’s going on in the world. Your newspaper can help you do so, even while you make allowances for its limitations.
WHEN THE PRESS REFLECTS BIAS
Misrepresentation in the news is often the result of hasty reporting or misinformation. Yet, such well-intentioned stories can quickly spread serious falsehoods. On the other hand, sometimes efforts to misinform are deliberate, as was true in Nazi Germany when lies were spread about people of certain races and religions.
Consider the effect of 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 newspaper of Toronto, Canada, “the Russian media immediately suggested they were fanatical followers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Such news stories appeared on February 9, 1999, the day that a civil court resumed a trial aimed at banning Jehovah’s Witnesses 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 Jehovah’s Witnesses had collaborated with Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany—despite historical evidence that thousands of their members were victims of the Nazi death camps.”
As a result, in the minds of many of the misinformed and possibly fearful public, Jehovah’s Witnesses were either a suicidal cult or Nazi collaborators!
g05 10/22 How to Benefit From the Newspaper
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