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Events, Stories, and Journalistic Ethics

One reason we never know what is going on.

by Barnabas
October 14, 2003

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Events, Stories, and Journalistic Ethics_Barnabas-One Reason We Never Know What is Going On On Hardball last Sunday afternoon Joe Klein of Time said, with casual dismissiveness, “We don’t know whether it happened or whether it was just a story in the New York Times.” Maybe Klein’s shot was aimed especially at the Times, but it might in truth have been aimed at any journalistic piece — including mine, or his.

Of course something happened, but the story does not necessarily tell us what it was. This doesn’t mean that reporters intend to deceive; they are generally obedient to the rule of telling the “who, what, when, and where” of an event. But on another level they understand the subjectivity of their telling; they call their reports “stories.” These stories are not fictional tales, but they are literary constructs under an author’s control. In the process of telling, it’s the writer who ranks the importance of who, what, when, and where. When an event is turned into stories by different writers, an infinite number of variations are possible — in how much weight may be given to each fact, and in what order.

Since the journalist is not an historian, because history is an exercise in hindsight from a more distant future, lesser values tend to govern how news stories are written. On the PBS newsmagazine "NOW" (October 10) Bill Moyers made the usual assumption that the governing value in journalism is the political or social bias of the owners of the “Media,” as they seek to control public opinion. But Moyers’ guest John Ridley, a novelist and frequent writer for the “Media,” didn’t see it that way. The governing value in journalism (at least, journalism for profit) in his experience is ratings and circulation. Of course the reporters cooperate. A free press depends on free enterprise. They have to sell their stuff to stay in business.

This means that if it’s more interesting this week for the President to be a hero, they are going to write about him as a hero. If it’s more interesting for him to be a bum, he will be a bum. He will be what fits the story as they are writing it, no matter how the event actually played out in real time. His role is not that of President, but of a character in the journalist’s story.
So this column is something of a caveat — “Reader, beware.” My existence as Barnabas depends on the media because I am committed to pointing out ethical conundrums and absurdities in the News. But I don’t know what’s going on; I only know what the Media tell me. From week to week I go along with the fiction that the news is reporting what really happened, though I know that what I am getting is a story.

It is not always a tall story, but it’s always a story. To do any good, it has to be a true story.

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