Thursday, March 24, 2005

A dangerous word: "is."

In our local BloggerCon-by-the-bar the other night we began a discussion of credibility, "objectivity" (a word so loaded it requires quotes), and truth. After rooting around a bit I've decided to write a little series on blog believability and responsibility -- and to start with the use of the "being verb." Oops: Comments were turned off by accident (I don't always look at the bottom of my screen). Sorry, I really look forward to hearing what you think!

From Wikipedia:
Dr. David Bourland coined the term E-Prime ... to refer to the English language modified by prohibiting the use of the verb to be. "E-Prime arose from Alfred Korzybski's ... observation that English speakers most often use 'to be' to express dogmatic beliefs or assumptions or to avoid expressing opinions and feelings as such."

Thinking about "what is" called up a Five-minute University memory of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. All I remember from that book is the verb "grok" and the Fair Witness, who when asked: "What color is that house on the hill?" looked and replied: "It is white on this side."

I googled Heinlein and "Fair Witness" and found Paul Harris. The YellowTimes links do not work, so I've linked to the Google caches. Realize that although he is focused on mainstream media, it all applies to blogs, too!

Excerpted from Whose version of truth does the media report? by Paul Harris, August 29, 2002:
Most editors will assert that their publications do, or at least try to do, a good job of presenting impartial news. And they will tell you they want readers to make up their own minds about news items. Frankly, that is just fatuous. ... someone - whether with good or ill intention - decides what people will read and how it will be presented to them.

If newspapers were ... non-biased ... we would be seeing reporting from vastly different perspectives than we do. ... in North America, where are the reports from Southeast Asia News? Or Africa Today? Or Pravda? Or any other of a host of news services? Print those articles, which will be clearly different from what we usually see, and then let your readers make up their own minds.
I read local newspapers in Spanish which often report news unavailable in mainstream media, and discuss world reaction to US events and policy, and then ask: "Why is this information (or why are these viewpoints) not available in the Anglo media?" Anyway, to continue:
... when a newspaper reports about some conflict and the story of the day is about huge deaths on one side or the other, they influence their readers immensely by choosing, or not, the word "massacre." ... When four Canadian soldiers were killed [in Afghanistan by] American bombing. Canadian papers reported it as "a tragedy," but the Americans reported it as "collateral damage."

I will not submit for publishing something that really belongs on a bumper-sticker on the back of somebody's SUV.

Editors often brag that what is printed in their newspapers is the "truth." Whose truth? Truth is a very movable and very ephemeral thing. [Church of the Nativity situation] For one side, the truth is that these people occupied the Church and held priests captive against their will. For the other side, these people were trapped inside the Church and under siege with the priests free to come and go as they wished. Are either of these "true"?

[Sometimes] "truth" is apparently beyond debate - like gravity, for instance. Not only is it a good idea, it's actually a law. It's so important they don't even shut it off on the weekends. But since physicists are constantly seeking ways to overcome it, the day may come when it won't be true any longer. Truth is not static.

... by reading most daily papers, how many readers would know that there are over 50 armed conflicts occurring in the world even as I type this? Why have most journals not thought to help their readers care?
A follow-up article, also from the YellowTimes: Bafflegab: Separating the message from the delivery infrastructure by Paul Harris, September 29, 2002. Excerpts:
Media often creates social truisms merely by perpetuating the same errors over and over. ... Everyone knows [the Titanic] sank on its maiden voyage. The press ... always references that it sank on its maiden voyage. Well, actually, it sank on its third voyage. ... But forever after, we will believe it sank on its maiden voyage, because that's what we are repeatedly told.

... review the coverage of the September 11 attacks. News media invariably described them as cruel, horrific, heinous, and so on because they were deliberately shaping the views of their audience. Now there isn't much doubt that most people would have agreed, but the job of the media is to report the facts and let the facts do their own talking. The editorialized adjectives were unnecessary to the reporting of the story.

Remember, December 7, 1941 was a "day of infamy" for the Americans; it was a great victory for the Japanese. It all depends how you say it and who is saying it.

... Reporters know that they must play a game if they ever expect to get their stories, to get access to the politicians and decision makers, and to be allowed into the "inner circle" of informed people.

To non-critical readers, texts provide facts. To the critical reader, the text provides one portrayal of the facts: how the writer interpreted the subject matter.

You must learn to examine the evidence provided by the writer, and to determine if evidence has been omitted and why. You must learn to weigh the influences of bias and motivation as well as recognizing your own assumptions, prejudices, and biases.
We might think about emulating the Soviet citizens who combed the obviously-biased state newspapers for clues to what might actually be happening. Everyone struggled to decode the news, knowing that nothing was as it might seem. Photographs were examined with magnifying glasses to determine who had been airbrushed out of existence.

You can't count on anyone to deliver what is. Everybody with a pen or a keyboard chooses what part of the elephant to show you. The Soviet tricks are still in service - in fact, I myself just air-brushed out most of the paragraphs from each of these lengthy Harris articles. You don't know what I left out unless you go read the originals. To be continued...

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