Pitfalls of text book journalism (American style)

Source your stories and give both sides of the story. This is an old dictum of journalism. However, this would not remove bias from news stories. In most cases, there would be more than two sides to a story. Sometimes, only one side would be dominant. The other side will be virtually unperceivable.

This is what happened to American journalism and the public who were made to believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attack of the World Trade Centre. If the majority of the American public believed that Hussein had links with al Qaeda, it was not mainly because of the war mongering or opinioncasts of Fox News or others. It was because the other side was virtually absent from news reports. Most of the stories on Iraq were sourced from U. S. Administration, which suggested that Saddam was aiming weapons of mass destruction at Americans. The other side-- that Iraq just did not have the capability to be of any threat to the U. S., was simply absent.

Truth:
However, there is no guarantee that truth will emerge if the other side is present. When I was a junior reporter, I used to cover the College Union elections of the Kerala University. The main contenders in the elections were the Students Federation of India (SFI) and Kerala Students Union (KSU). As the elections were supposed to be non-political, the affiliated colleges never mentioned the name of the students organisations in the results. After each election, both the organisations would claim that they had won majorities in most of the colleges. As it was not easy to verify this claim immediately, all newspapers carried the claims of both the organisations. The readers were left guessing.

During one of these elections, I arranged contacts to get a clear picture of the results from every district before the deadline. By late evening I could conclude that the SFI had won the majority of seats. I reported the finding from Trivandrum along with the usual claim (statement) from the SFI that they had won. However, the next morning I found that my newspaper preferred to be on the safe side with both sides of the story. My intro was cut and the story was converted into one with a heading to the effect that both sides claimed victory. The KSU leaders had gone to Ernakulam, the district where they had won the majority of seats, and held a press conference there to make their claims. This was a clever move. They could sound convincing in Ernakulam as the KSU had won in most of the colleges in and around Ernakulam.

Both the stories landed at the desk shortly before deadline. And the desk thought it fit not to depend upon the finding of their junior reporter. Often, there is a tendency to treat such findings as reporter's opinion and shun them. Actually, I could ascertain the truth because I contacted multiple sources including smaller students' organisations and principals. But the both sides principle prevented it from reaching the readers. (When there are multiple sources, it is impossible to quote all of them and write a readable story of reasonable length.)

Opinion:
A newspaper organisation that cares for the facts it gathers and treats them as sacred would not be tarnished by its opinion (though extreme forms of opinion would affect circulation). It would be ideal to separate news from opinion. However, most readers are capable of distinguishing between news and views. Their capability need not be underestimated. So, mixing news and views is less of a crime than erring on facts. (It is also notable early Indian journalism did not shun opinion in its news columns. The ideas changed after the profession came under American influence.) If facts are presented correctly, you cannot have an argument that negates them.

Camouflaging opinion:
It is also well known that reporters camouflage their own opinion in news stories. They may begin by saying that "people say", "environmentalists say". What they state at times may be their personal opinion. But, if a reporter is experienced and professional, it can also be an attempt to balance the story. Sometimes, the reporters may know that that the view exists or is to emerge. Persons holding those views may not be easily reachable or may be silent.

American reporters, who could have sensed the real purpose of Pentagon's accusations against Iraq, could have spoken about scepticism in some quarters about Pentagon's claims about the existance of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq though those sceptics would have been hard to find in that country before the war!

Penpal

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