Similar to all genres of writing, journalism is less about enunciating unadulterated facts than laborious communication to public of various messages, reshaping a language that engages readers. A relatable and intriguing story is among the most effective tool in order to achieve that. However, this pattern opens loopholes that are inherently in conflict with the journalistic professionalism that requires a high level of objectivity and accuracy.
Facts are what actually happened; together they constitute truth, a comprehensive organism containing many players interlocking with one another. Events taking place are substantial by nature and contain no value judgment. In contrast, a value judgment is almost intrinsic to stories. From the selection of newsworthy stories, to the editing process accentuating some details while leaving out others, to the final publication that serves as statements, ideological concerns are carried out throughout the editorial process. Good stories are often those so carefully constructed and well framed in certain narrative patterns that stimulate complicity with readers. With this approach, it is hardly possible to be vaccinated against the culpability of biased stereotypes and conventional thought patterns.
In 2014, Matti Friedmat, a former American Press (AP) reporter wrote in the Atlantic about how an “informal alliance” among western news agencies, the UN, and NGOs, contributes to the flawed reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This “alliance” is constituted as a result of shared resource, both financially and information wise, strengthened by a particular social milieu dominated by the “progressive” zeitgeist, an ideology shared disproportionately among journalists. This further perpetuates their vulnerability to imitation, constructing a very popular yet problematic pattern of media reporting on the conflict.
The lack of distance between journalists and these groups dents the journalistic professionalism. The alliance provides journalists not only with “sources and friendships” but also “a ready-made framework for their reporting”. As a result, the complex events are distilled and warped into a simple narrative “in which there is a bad guy who doesn’t want peace and a good guy who does”. “Nearly all of the information you need, that is, in most cases, information critical of Israel, is not only easily accessible but has already been reported for you by Israeli journalists or compiled by NGOs,” as Friedmat writes.
The systemic conventional narratives that are in many ways prone to skewed perspectives take deep roots in the establishment. Any rebel who attempts to challenge the system from within is frowned upon, or worse, denigrated. In response to Friedmat’s account on AP’s biased coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, AP denounced his arguments as that “filled with distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies”.
Last May, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist best known for his reports on My Lai Massacre and its cover-up in 1969, and US military's mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, published an investigative report on London Review of Book, delineating the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in a manner that goes completely afoul of the official version of the story. He argued that the Pakistani government had always known Bin Laden’s whereabouts and kept him under house arrest with support from Saudi Arabia. Pakistan was also informed about the assassinating operation and cleared the surrounding airspace so that it could take place. And it was not White House’s intention to divulge information on this raid until a helicopter crashed by accident.
The controversy stirred by his story led to some very acrimonious comments, calling his investigative reportage as “fiction” and “succumbing to the temptation of sensationalism”. During the debate heated by the conflicting accounts of the event, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy report on the case study of the media coverage on the death of Osama bin Laden. In the article, the author and columnist Jonathan Mahler raises questions on the media’s approach, and attempts to illustrate how the constructed narratives initiated by the government and later followed by the media, make the story of a supposedly covert raid by a secret special-operations unit whose details won’t even be disclosed any time soon, so vivid and so convincing that it became accepted truth.
The monotonous narratives and thought patterns overlook the reality that goes beyond the expectation. Take the example of the prevalent misbelief regarding the rise of ISIS, as early as 2012a report by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency, predicted that the Islamic militants group could “declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.” The report was unfortunately disregarded by the White House because “it didn’t meet the narrative,” said Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who ran the defense agency at the time. William McCants of the Brookings Institution and a leading expert on the Islamic State explained the US officials’ indifference toward the rise of ISIS to the New York Times that, “there was a strong belief that brutal insurgencies fail”, and that “the concept was that if you just leave the Islamic State alone, it would destroy itself, and so you didn’t need to do much.” The rest is history.
When the facts are by nature hard to attain and tricky to assemble, a systematically constructed narrative can be seen as a mark of absolute power, and is very likely to dilute the possibility of conveying the truth. Holding the resource to create awareness and influence public opinion, media should capitalize on their power to rectify this situation instead of reinforce it. Journalists should report with the awareness of the potential challenge of a reality, which they not own and control, and write in a language that permits and even encourages communications and dialogues even if that goes beyond their comfort zones.
To argue for diverse narratives is not to be mistaken as to advocate for obscuring the truth. The word “media” derives from the word “medium”, which refers to a means of communication transmission. As in practice, the transmission of facts and opinions can be hardly neutral and free from the interference of ideologies and learned bias. More diverse narratives would expose the general public to a wider range of perspectives and interpretations of what happened, keeping them better informed. With diverse sources to help individual readers stay critical, independent, and most importantly free, they would become more equipped to understand the world as it is, and the public would be less likely to be subdued under the dictating and popular viewpoints.
Written by Sofie Chen and published on 19-January-2016