Monday, January 20

Reading the news in general

Flickr / gramicidin

Last week, I talked about the news that Kim Jong Un’s uncle had been fed to starving dogs as punishment for his alleged treason. The report, as we know, turned out to be nothing more than a piece of fanciful fiction. Ridiculous though it may seem in retrospect, few people had trouble believing it when it broke on the major news networks.

Today, when you ask a Journalism major to define the discipline, chances are he or she will rattle off a few choice phrases from “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. It’s subtitled “What the newspeople should know and the public should expect.” I like that because it underscores the fact that the discipline of journalism is a two-way street. I read the book for my Journalism 101 course, but really, it is as relevant to the average news consumer as to the freshman Journalism major.

Kovach and Rosenstiel define journalism is a discipline of verification, and the first litmus test of a credible report is independent corroboration. Ask yourself: does the report prove that the allegations have been separately confirmed by two or more people? Or, even better, is the story based on documentary evidence? Pieces of paper lie far less frequently than people.

Where are you getting your news from? Generally speaking, you can trust the Philippine Daily Inquirer to be careful in vetting the reports that come across their wires; a blog run by a pseudonymous solo reporter, not so much. (Take note, of course, that a news report isn’t credible solely because a mainstream outlet published it. Case in point: the Kim Jong Un starving dogs story.)

Thankfully, there is a solution to the problem of factual accuracy in reporting, and it’s built into the discipline. When Newspaper A comes out with a report that is later proven incorrect by Newspaper B, the former’s credibility with its audience is injured, and the latter’s, bolstered. Thus, news outlets have every incentive to make sure they get their facts straight, and to police each other’s reports. It’s through this mechanism that the truth almost always finds its way to the surface.

Newsreaders, however, have more to be vigilant about than just the accuracy of the facts in news reportage. The duty of journalism, after all, is not merely to repeat facts, but to present the truth. I’ve always liked my Journalism professor’s simple but clear explanation: it’s a fact that Gloria Arroyo was proclaimed winner of the 2004 Presidential elections, but the truth is that the polls were riddled with accusations of irregularities.

This leads me to my next protip: for potentially controversial stories, read multiple sources. The more you do this, the more you’ll learn just how powerful the journalist’s job of angling a story is. Let’s turn to a recent news item, the recently released Pulse Asia survey, for a demonstration.

I googled “latest aquino ratings pulse asia” and got a bunch of headlines from different news sites.’s story was “Aquino approval rating dips in new poll.” It’s simple enough, and it doesn’t sound like any special treatment was given to its angle. Rappler’s was “Aquino ratings drop in Luzon;” still fairly straightforward, while focusing on one particular aspect of the survey. Manila Standard Today’s story was headlined: “Binay tops Aquino in survey trust ratings.” This is true, as well, and is particularly interesting because it tells us more about the political landscape. The President and the Vice President are not party-mates; Binay is almost sure to make a run for the top post in 2016. GMA News Online had a similar headline: “More Pinoys approved, trusted VP Binay than PNoy in Q4 of 2013 – Pulse Asia.” And ANC led with another angle: “PNoy's ratings remain high despite 'Yolanda' - Pulse Asia.”

A same story can be spun a thousand different ways. Stories on trust ratings, which come out every so often (and, in the Philippines, from at least two different polling outfits), may be relatively benign, but see what you’ll find when you google more controversial stories like the pork barrel scam. For kicks, I would also suggest googling coverage of militant protest actions to see how they’re treated by the media.

There’s also the very interesting question of why these angles differ the way they do. Sometimes, it’s merely a question of the most interesting, attention-catching, quirkiest way to lead a story. Other times, the reporter may be beholden to a certain person or office. Or, the owners of a newspaper may slightly nudge its editors, who may then soften stinging angles so as not to offend powers that be.

Reporting the news is tough work, so read it the way it deserves to be read.

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