Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon Terror Attack and the Newspaper Fallacy

What is Truth? Nikolai Ge (1890)

As news accounts come out over the next several days, it may be useful to heed this observation by Philip Jenkins, author of the outstanding book, Images of Terror:

In many ways, terrorism poses unusual difficulties for any kind of academic analysis. It differs from other problems in that the official agencies we depend on for information have a powerful vested interest in not revealing the full extent of the information available to them. In saying that, I am not arguing for a conspiratorial view of government behavior, but rather remarking on the nature of the law enforcement response to terrorism. Since so much official action involves clandestine methods or sources, even the most reputable and responsible agencies will on occasion present less than the full truth, or actively give false information in order to protect their methods or sources. Deception is a basic part of the territory, and it is naive to suppose otherwise. (pp. 5-6)


Jenkins also notes that in any terror investigation "several competing versions of reality" are available, and "bureaucratic agencies" must choose "to accept one rather than another" (pp.8-9). The implication is that objective, settled, agreed upon accounts that reveal the Truth about What Really Happened may be impossible to achieve. Further, not only does the general public rarely have access to a full and complete account of what happened and why, but even various insiders disagree about how to interpret agreed upon facts.

Consideration of what I once heard called "the Newspaper Fallacy" may be instructive at this point. If you have ever been a participant in an event covered by the news media, you have most likely have had this experience: You read the story about your Charity 5K run, neighbor's house burning down, Town Council Meeting, etc. and you marvel at just how wrong the reporter got the story. The same thing goes for any topic about which you have some level of expertise, be it treatment of combat-related PTSD or antique car restoration. You read the article again, and you note, with some unease, that you can't point to a single factual error in the story. So what went wrong? The reporter simply did not experience the event from your perspective, did not speak to the same people you did about the event or topic, and even if she did, she decided to emphasize a different segment of that person's observations than the ones you thought were important. You and the reporter both encountered the same reality, and you both walked away with it with very different experiences. Distortion doesn't necessarily involve error, incompetence, or malfeasance. What is shocking is that we generally believe in "objective" accounts when everything in reality is filtered through our individual subjectivity. (By the way, your account isn't "objective" either, in case that wasn't clear.)

But here's the Newspaper Fallacy: Even though we now know not to treat the newspaper account of the event with which we have personal experience as the objective truth of that event, we assume that every other article in that day's newspaper is an objective account of the truth regarding the event with which it is concerned. Stated slightly differently: We know that a news article is not a reliable source of information on topics with which we have some expertise; however, we assume that other news articles are reliable sources of information on topics with which we are relatively unfamiliar. What we should do instead is to treat every media report with the same skepticism that we treat accounts of events about which we have first hand knowledge or experience.


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