Viewpoint: Look beyond the narrative to uncover the truth

Ask people – Americans, at least – and they’ll tell you their faith in traditional media is dwindling. And who could blame them?

Last month they saw Brian Williams, NBC’s famed, now-shamed anchor, lie about being aboard a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq. They’re also seeing Fox’s talking head Bill O’Reilly get accused of embellishing stories, after bragging for years about his reportorial exploits in conflict zones. If these talking heads can’t get their own stories right, how sure can one be that their stories about other people are right? 

The fact is that no one can ever be sure of anyone’s stories.

Though not all journalists are as creative as Williams and O’Reilly, the truth is of little practical use to them unless it’s disguised as a story. And when journalists hunt for narrative disguises it’s too easy for them to forget about what ought to be under the disguises: the ever-elusive truth. That’s because the truth itself is often boring and the delivery method is what makes it compelling. Snails alone aren’t too appetizing, for instance, but when they’re soaked in garlic-infused butter and covered with cheese people salivate. The reason for skepticism, then, is not the reporter himself, but the method of reporting, namely, the conveying of information in narratives.

Recently The Toronto Star ran an article that caused a backlash because some believed the narrative within buried the truth. The headline, and the article beneath it, suggested that the HPV vaccine Gardasil had a “dark side,” even though researchers have found the drug to be quite safe. Relying largely on anecdotes, and little on science, the article’s contents were so misleading that doctors and scientists blasted The Star for even letting it run. Eventually The Star took it down and publicly apologized for misrepresenting reality. But the damage may have already been done, for images and anecdotes leave a more lasting impression than do statistics.

“I don’t believe anyone who read it who is contemplating an HPV vaccine for themselves or their child is going to remember the short statements about vaccine safety,” writes Dr. Jen Gunter at a prominent Canadian media-criticism website. “No, they will remember the photograph of the anguished mother or the girl with the nasogastric tube.” 

Journalist Michael Lewis once wrote a gem of a story of how journalists learn to write stories. Containing a not-so-subtle argument, it ran in The New Republic in 1993. Entitled “J-School Confidential,” it disparaged university journalism-programs in a serious yet mocking tone, comparing Columbia University’s graduate program in journalism to bull excrement in one of the piece’s more narrative elements. Arguing that journalism schools complicate something that is so simple – observing, asking questions, and reading and writing about subjects other than journalism – Lewis pointed out that in the program’s principal text there was a mathematical formula that separated the constituents of a story: a story is equal to the truth plus some unknown element, indeed, some “missing ingredient.” 

But that formula doesn’t read right. 

The formula should have been described thusly: a story is equal to the truth minus some element, or elements. It can rarely, if ever, be the full truth. A narrative is, after all, a tiny box into which journalists have to fit the most appealing bits of a gigantic, intricate world, and so they can’t possibly extend their invitation to the whole truth and nothing else. 

So journalists run the risk of misrepresenting reality all the time.

The risk is amplified when a reporter’s knowledge of the subjects he’s covering – economics, politics, foreign affairs, science, et cetera – is less than elementary. It’s amplified when his sole claim to expertise is to be able to write a good read or speak a good script. How will he know what to omit, what to mention, and where to get his “expert” information in a world where there are more answers than there are questions? This shortage of expertise is a real problem in journalism today.
The solution to the problem, I suspect, is not so clear. Journalists aren’t supposed to be experts, and it’s hard to imagine their enjoying the expertise of, say, a model professor, but they also shouldn’t be intellectually vacant. The right balance between the two is difficult to unambiguously strike. To the question of what people should do in the meantime, however, there is an unambiguous answer: be wary of all that you read.