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Posts Tagged ‘facts’

Journalism is in the midst of a slow-motion crisis.

When I was in journalism school, students learned how to write using the “inverted pyramid” approach. The inverted pyramid is a style of writing that dates back to the days when paper real estate — in a print newspaper — was limited. Editors who wished to make room for breaking stories needed the option to lop the bottom of the story off with minimal risk of omitting critical details. The inverted pyramid calls for the most vital aspects of a story to appear at the top. This allows editors more flexibility while recognizing the fact that not all readers make the page jump to continue reading an article that concludes elsewhere. As a result, it was important then — as it is now — to lead with the most relevant details. A properly crafted story lede (introduction) encapsulates the basics: Who?, What?, When?, Where? and Why?.

In the Digital Era print real estate isn’t the limiting factor it once was. But there are indications the digital medium has shortened readers’ attention spans. It is of vital importance, as a result, to impart key facts “up top” — if only because web viewers are likely to skim content and move on.

Something, however, has changed in the way a lot of news organizations craft and promote stories. Call it sloppiness — lax editing — or journalistic “spin”. Some of the most controversial stories to appear in mainstream media are prefaced by misleading headlines on social media — titles that don’t square with a complete read of the content. Misleading headlines on social media posts are far from the only problem, however. Take, as an example, two contradictory narratives: Person/institution “X” and person/institution “Y” disagree over who did what or why. What should a responsible journalist do with this unwieldy story line? The answer is to disclose the ambiguity very early on  — to make clear to readers that a situation is in flux and/or that key aspects of the story are in dispute.

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Some years after the G. W. Bush administration’s entry into the Iraq war, American news outlets admitted to dropping the ball. Mainstream media acknowledged they did too little to question the purported evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whereas challenges to the Bush administration’s assertion that Iraq and the 9/11 tragedy were linked aired only belatedly. Over a decade later, the U.S. media has again dropped the ball. This time, though, the actors are different: Ukraine vs. Russia.

To hear mainstream U.S. media tell it, one could be forgiven for the belief that any and all claims of a Neo Nazi presence in Ukraine are propagandist fragments of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imagination. The tragic shoot-down of Malaysian flight MH 17 — on the anniversary of World War I — has only added to the pressure that the West intervene. Still, media fails to recognize its role in perpetuating conflict.

Shortly before the U.S. began trotting out the interim Ukrainian prime minister following the overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected president earlier this year, The Guardian published profiles of Ukrainian parliament members. Putin, it turns out, was not lying. Historically, elements within the region sympathized with fascist Germany and some fought on Hitler’s side during World War II, prompting animosities that exist to this day.

Why does this matter? Because failure to appreciate our present — and to grasp our past — may doom us to repeat history.

In an apparent effort to turn down the heat, journalist and Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication dean, DeWayne Wickham, argues in a March USA Today piece that U.S. hegemony in the creation of Panama and Russia’s hegemony with respect to Ukraine are not terribly different.

Judging from the response the piece drew, Wickham’s point was lost on many readers. Accusations mounted: Wickham had attempted to excuse Putin’s audacity in Crimea. Wickham had cited an passé example, irrelevant because the creation of Panama took place over 100 years ago.

It’s all too easy to dismiss the events of the past — or, conversely, latch onto the tragedy of the moment (flight MH 17) — to justify an existing conclusion. But this time getting the facts right matters because the wrong response may very well provoke another Great War.

Wickham concludes that neither the U.S. or Russia has the moral high ground within a historic context. So what’s the point in comparing U.S. and Russian hegemony if it is not for the purpose of excusing anyone? Perhaps this: As Americans better appreciate our role in history, it becomes apparent that escalating international tensions often travel a well-worn path. If keeping history alive to tell the tale of hubris past gives pause to the drums of war, so be it. The alternative is to take two, three, four, even five geopolitical wrongs and to make-believe might makes right.

Haven’t we been down this road before?

 

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