Wednesday, February 22, 2017

News? Caveat Emptor

Before I head off with the tribe in tow to visit the matriarch, my Mom, I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts regarding "news." Well, actually, not "news" but more accurately, information.

Those fellows in the opening painting (Frederic Remington's The Smoke Signal) are passing along information. While it might be new information to the folks receiving it, that is "news," it might also be expected information, not necessarily "news."

There are all sorts of information out there in the world. There is useful information, irrelevant information, interesting information, useless information, and perhaps, misleading information.

We get all of that in an average newscast, newspaper article, or web page dedicated to informing you about something. Now of course, that's just my opinion.

All of the information presented by folks looking to get some of your hard earned money has a slant. It's only natural. Everything a human hears, sees, tastes, touches, or experiences is unique to that individual. You might not like chocolate the same way I do (dark is my preference, white isn't so let's not go there, milk is better than no chocolate), in fact you may not like it at all.

I was a witness to a plane crash when I was young. I saw the aircraft roll onto its back then watched its shallow dive to the ground, where it seemed to explode twice. That puzzled me until the next day I talked to the girl up the street who saw the exact same event as I, but from a slightly different perspective. She saw an explosion in the air, then another down on the ground. I saw what I saw, that was my truth. Another observer saw something slightly different, that was her truth.

As reasonable individuals with no agenda to pursue, other than truth, we compared observations. Her report made perfect sense when combined with mine and I realized that she indeed had had a better view of events. We reached consensus on what we had seen. It also matched reports from other observers.

I have often wondered why, during the holiday season from Halloween to Christmas, newscasts always seemed to report on fires destroying homes and apartment buildings. The fires in which children die always seem to make more headlines than, let's say, an unoccupied business burning down during the night.

When I was a kid I reasoned that the fires were caused by faulty heaters, maybe even Christmas trees catching on fire due to faulty wiring. But I also knew that homes and other buildings burn down at other times of the year as well. Why weren't those reported in such great detail? While I assumed back then that the reporters were trying to elicit an emotional response, for whatever reason, I never had a satisfactory answer for that.

And just how was that news useful to me? If it was followed by safety tips or with the exact details of how the fire started and how it could be prevented that's one thing. But I don't recall hearing those follow up reports. Ever.

So I began to view "news" as just stuff that happened but had no bearing or relevance to my daily life.

When I was in the military, news of unrest overseas and possible hostilities were of interest. But then again, what purpose did that news serve? Did I need to do anything beyond those things my service already required of me? Did I have to pack differently depending on the circumstances? No. Not really. Uncle Sam always told us what we'd need and most times would provide that without me doing anything out of the ordinary. I just had to be ready.

So what use is the news? For one thing, it's slanted to push an agenda. As far as I can see there is no truly neutral news outlet. What does it benefit to know certain things unless there is something I can do about it?

Leading up to the election of last November I paid more attention to the news than I normally do. I found the coverage appalling. Out and out lies from nearly all outlets, misleading information, irrelevant information, useless information, and (no really) from time to time useful information. But perhaps useful only to me. For instance, discovering that a particular candidate supported something I was vehemently against would obviate the need for me to ever consider that candidate as one I could support.

But I had to be careful. Sometimes I would hear (or read) something from one source, then something quite different from another source. Not everything was (or is ever) cut and dried.

Information which is important to you should never come from just one source. It's like intelligence gathering. One source is usually insufficient for what is called "actionable intelligence," what the mainstream media likes to call "news you can use." In short, single source intelligence is usually not all that trustworthy. If that intelligence has been filtered, synopsised, summarized, or otherwise "boiled down," it may not be useful at all.

Which is pretty much what nearly all news outlets do. Not to mention the infernal tendency these days (in my opinion) to editorialize the news. Back in the day we were taught the following in doing reports for school:
  1. What happened?
  2. Who is involved?
  3. Where did it take place?
  4. When did it take place?
  5. Why did that happen?
  6. How did it happen?
The five Ws and one H as it's sometimes called (with a hat tip to reader Valory).

I feel that the "Why" of things is overly represented in today's so-called "reporting." Sometimes we just don't know, even perhaps can't ever know, why something happened. Many of us saw the space shuttle Challenger explode on live television. We could see with our own eyes what happened, we knew who was onboard, we knew where it was happening, and we knew the when. The how and the why, that took a long investigation. The how became crystal clear but the why may never truly be known. Greed? Incompetence? Sloth? All of the above?

Most news stories are like that. But the modern media would have us believe they know it all. More's the pity, far too many of us still trust them and believe them. I don't, not fully.

By all means, watch/read the news, but don't believe everything you read, hear, or see in the media, any media. They're selling us a product, someone has to pay for all that effort and the people putting the reports together. As consumers we must always remember - caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

Anyhoo, that's my two cents.


  1. Years ago, and when I was in Nairobi, I realized just how saturated we in the west were to "news".

    I can remember opening the Nairobi newspaper and on the headlines were the soccer scores from Uganda.

    You are right in that most of the news does not affect us. A lot of it is just titillating. My particular favorite is a local news reporter shoving a microphone into the face of some bereived friend or family member and asking "how do you feel?"

    I don't believe that biased reporting is a recent phenomenon. Look at how William Randolph Hearst build his newspaper empire. He may have single-handedly started the Spanish American war.

    My only grievance is the sanctimonious attitude of so many of these editors in that they claim they are unbiased. Of course, as you said we are all biased.

    And we've got to read numerous sources before we can truly form and intelligent opinion.

    1. Hearst and "yellow journalism," it's still a thing.

      Sanctimonious describes a lot of editors, perhaps even the majority.

  2. I saw a helicopter crash, when I was 6. It was at the Barron County Fair, in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. It had been brought in on a flatbed, and put back together, and helicopter rides would be sold. The pilot flew out over Rice Lake on a test hop, and crashed. Right in front of me, and a couple of hundred feet away. It was a white Bell Model 47, like in M*A*S*H, with red stripes on the fuel tanks. Everything got really quiet right after it happened.

  3. In my life I have only read three news articles about a story which I could be considered an expert as they involved subjects and systems which I worked with intimately and daily. In all three cases the reporter misunderstood the answers to his/her questions and completely got the facts wrong and therefor the conclusions wrong. I keep this in mind when I read any news report.

  4. Such a good post. The media of course has it's biases, but they used to work within that known position by having both sides of the issue taken into account. Now, they've abdicated any responsibility to be fair and impartial. As for the fire stories- if it bleeds, it leads, and the bloodier the better. I've also found so much more reporting about how people feel- the reaction to a decision, never why the decision was made and the benefits that may come from it (the other side). They report on how angry people are, which fuels more anger. They also don't due their diligent research into a story- fewer sources, invalid sources, people on the street and their feelings, and they do it quickly. The bleeding leading has to be so fast because their competitive nature and media environment wants to be first, so they do less and give us more crap.

    1. Thanks Tuna, check out Shaun's link to Denzel telling it like it is.

      Be first, even if it's BS.

  5. First, I think that that was more like five cents worth. Next, as joeh said, reporters always get it wrong. When I was running a magazine, my publisher said much the same as joeh. I also goes with what Glenn Reynolds says. I also heard a reporter say, when he was told that he had misreported on a story, " They don't know and I don't care. " Yea, truth tellers.

    Paul L. Quandt

    1. Thanks Paul. They're story sellers, not truth tellers.

      Most of them seem to have only a rudimentary grasp of human nature and history as well.

  6. And a ruddy good twopence it was, mate! (A modern journalist would call that Australian despite the fact that it's a bloody mishmash).

    Let the chocolate wars begin!

    Really enjoyed Denzel Washington on fake news --

    Superb post!

    1. Thanks Shaun.

      I have a great deal of respect for Denzel Washington, as an actor and as a man.

  7. Two factors I see are one: the 24/7 news cycle. That's a lot of airtime to fill. If that newspaper in Nairobi had to provide content 24/7, they be scrambling for anything to fill it. Hence a bus crash in Tennessee, which once wouldn't have been of interest to anyone outside the state or the families of the victims, may lead the national news if there's good enough video. Which brings us to the next point: Two: Would you have ever heard of Harambe the gorilla, if there weren't video of that kid in the gorilla cage? If there's no picture, it didn't happen. This is a variation of "If it bleeds, it leads".
    One day I watched a car swerve off the freeway, plunge down an embankment and literally burst into a huge ball of flame. A news helicopter went by shortly after that and I called the local news station to see if it was because of that spectacular wreck. Of course, it was only spectacular to me because I'd seen it. Without video, it was a non-story. "Somebody you don't know or care about wrecked his car on the freeway today, according to eyewitnesses!" (Pictures at eleven!)

    1. Yup, 24/7 is a lot of air time. I think you've hit the nail on the head Proof.

      Indeed, pictures, or it didn't happen.

  8. I first learned of how the media "works" when it was reported I and about 400 others had rioted at the beach on Washington's Birthday in 1961.
    Ironically, we didn't even see the cops and no arrests were made

  9. International news used to matter to me. When I stopped deploying with security teams I pretty much stopped watching. All news now is partisan and mostly lies and/or feelings.


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