I have been frustrated by the way that so much reporting has become propaganda in recent years. Propaganda is pernicious: it purports to be the exercise of free speech when in fact it is a vehicle that represses it. Through omission, distortion, and inaccuracy, “news” becomes the very opposite: ignorance. Yet false and misleading journalism is often quite difficult to identify, especially when we do not have firsthand knowledge of the subject matter. Usually we can see slant more clearly in the areas that we are familiar with – in my case it is reporting on the Catholic Church and other religious issues. Through my experience of poor reporting in this area, I propose 7 key indicators that indicate when a story we are hearing has been compromised. This is not an exhaustive list and I certainly encourage you (especially those involved in the profession of journalism) to add others that I have overlooked.
1. ONE SIDED SOURCES. I am amazed at how many stories from even some very reputable news organizations now do not even attempt to report both sides of an issue they are reporting. This, it seems to me, is free speech 101. And so if I hear or read a report that involves multiple parties or viewpoints, but in which only one is consulted by the reporter, I do two things: 1. Ask myself what people or perspectives are not being voiced in the article, and 2. Seek to find another article or source that gives voice to those people and perspectives.
Sometimes at the end of a report you read “representatives from _________ could not be reached for comment.” It is important to note that this could mean a variety of things. It could mean that the reporter made a half-hearted attempt via defunct email address 30 minutes before publishing because they really did not have any interest in reporting the other perspective. It could mean that the reporter is under the gun to get the story out and that the editors chose to let an irresponsible story out. It could mean that the organization or individual is intentionally stone-walling after multiple attempts over many days to reach out to them. A way to try to figure this out is to see if the organization or individual has spoken to journalists in other instances. If they have, it is more likely that the piece I am reading is slanted. Some reporters of integrity helpfully specify: “Despite multiple attempts, representatives from ________ could not be reached for comment.”
2. ANONYMOUS, VAGUE, OR DISTANT SOURCES. I have seen more and more of this. “A source close to the administration said” or “the Vatican says.” I find myself telling people that despite having lived in Rome for 5 years, I have never met the Vatican. When I read a vague source “The Vatican” or “The Diocese” or “The White House” or “IBM” I immediately get suspicious of the reporting. Who? Who exactly is the person that was consulted? Give me the name and their role in the issue being reported. For all I know “The Vatican” could turn out to be the cook for the Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy who has no clue about what is going on other than what he overhears during conversations at pranzo (lunch).
I understand that anonymous sources can sometimes be required for stories that involve whistle blowing or involve sensitive information. But in recent years the use of anonymous sources has significantly expanded in problematic ways. An anonymous source lacks accountability for what they say. If they give false or misleading information, there are no direct repercussions. This makes anonymous sources a very useful way for large organizations or powerful people to spread false narratives and information. If I read a report that has an anonymous source, I ask myself whether it is the kind of information that needs to be shared anonymously. Could this be a tactic an organization or person is using to get a questionable narrative out? Is there a reason to believe that the official sources are withholding information? What would their motive be?
And finally, distant sources are being used far more frequently today – “A source close to ______ said that they were informed of very high level discussions happening about ___” We’re in the realm of hearsay, which is very weak information. Including it in a report is the result of laziness on the part of the reporter, who does not want to spend the time tracking down a primary source, or pressure on the reporter to get a story out, or again, it could be the sign of a particular slant that is not interested in investigating the truth of a situation.
3. UNCRITICAL OR “SOFTBALL” QUESTIONS AND LACK OF FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS. Often I will watch or read a report and know that there are key questions or areas that are not being brought up by a reporter. Or sometimes I will hear an answer that is not an answer but a whole load of off topic talking points and there is no follow up, or an obvious follow up is lacking. Or again, sometimes you will see a reporter grant an interviewee's narrative at face value and then ask questions based on the way that the narrative shapes the information, rather than trying to keep their reporting narrative neutral. All of these omissions can be hard to pick up if you don’t have other information on the issue being discussed. But in general, if I see or read a report that does not ask any difficult questions and seems to adopt as fact the narrative of a single source, I get suspicious and seek other sources.
As we have seen from reports in recent months, it is becoming increasingly common for questions to be given to reporters, or for their access to be conditioned on them asking the "right" kind of questions. This is very difficult to uncover or know about, but if it is clear that there are elephants in the room that are not being discussed, controversial stances and actions that are not being questioned, and if the discussion remains on a superficial level of favorite foods, experiences, feelings, etc and never delves into the real meat and potatoes of what is going on - I get suspicious. We're not in heaven yet. There are serious things to talk about and most important decisions in society are not without controversy and disagreement.
4. LEADING QUESTIONS. This one drives me nuts and is incredibly common. It is a pernicious and common assault on the freedom of speech in our society today. A leading question stifles free speech by wording a question in such a way that the response is corralled in the direction favored by the reporter. So for example, a reporter might ask me “What do you think that the Catholic Church can do to address its discrimination toward women and help them attain an equal status in the church?” So this is a leading question – it is an attempt to force me to accept the narrative that the Catholic Church is discriminatory toward women and then respond within the context of that narrative. If I refuse the narrative of the question I look combative and have to answer with a negative and defensive response, which is less likely to be favorably heard. Or I can try to recite some talking point that is positive but doesn’t really address the question.
Instead of this kind of leading question, the reporter could have asked the question in a way that left me free to share my perspective and view: “How does the Catholic Church view the role of women in society and in the Church?” And a reasonable follow up might be “How would you respond to the criticism of those who say that the Church is discriminatory?” This line of questioning, unlike the former, is not an attempt to stifle the free speech of the person being interviewed. It is so important that we pay very close attention not just to the answers in a news story, but especially to the questions. If I hear a bunch of leading questions, I move on – the interviewer isn’t interested in what the person or organization has to say. He or she is a propagandist, not a reporter.
5. CORNERING “YES OR NO” QUESTIONS. I have seen this most aggressive kind of questioning in recent days, which is perhaps the greatest reason for my deciding to write this piece. “Tell me, yes or no, do you support equal rights for women in the Catholic Church?” This question represents an assault on the free speech of the interviewee. It is a blatant trap, much like the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees “Should Jews pay the temple tax or not?” The question takes a complex and multifaceted issue, and by twisting it into a simple “yes” or “no” attempts to generate a response that will corner the person being questioned and force them to voice a position that is a caricature of what they truly believe. These are incredibly difficult questions to navigate, because in responding to them it almost always sounds like you are trying to dodge the question or that you are not being truthful. “Well, we need to talk about what you mean by equality and discrimination.” Great…. That’s going to play out well in the news… The question is blatantly unfair. When the microphone is wielded like a club, it is no wonder that the person being interviewed becomes hostile. No ethical or moral journalist should ever ask a question that corners the person they are interviewing.
6. WITHHOLDING OF CONTEXT OR OTHER CRITICAL INFORMATION. This is fairly straightforward, but how often I hear a story where critical contextual information, which would completely change the perspective of the story, is left out. In reporting, what is often most important is not what is said, but what is not said. An ethical journalist has the obligation not simply to report the facts of a given situation, but also the context that provides for an accurate interpretation of those facts. To say “Diocese of Portland to Close 20 Churches” and not report that in the same period of time 20 other churches will be opened is poor journalism. One thing I have noticed in recent years is that often in a slanted piece the context for the facts is placed in the last sentence of the piece and is not reflected in the headline. For example: “Number of Catholics in Maine has dropped by 50% since 1970” reads the headline. The article consists of a bunch of leading questions to parishioners and priests as to why the Church is dying out. The last sentence: “In the last 10 years, however, the Church has seen a 10% increase in the number of Catholics and this year a record number of people asked to enter the Church.” Great journalism...
7. SPECULATION AND FALSE INFERENCES. Again, this seems on the rise in recent years. How often you hear reporters openly speculate on very thin presuppositions or one-sided information. “_______ heard that it was being suggested in some high level discussions that _______ wanted ______ to happen. Such a decision could impact _________ and would mean that ____________ slowly shrivels up and dies and dooms the human race.” What you have here is a very poor source followed by at least three inferences that are being made without any examination of the logic behind them. How often I see sentences like this in modern “news” articles. It is poor, poor journalism. Responsible journalists report the facts and only infer repercussions that logically follow with a high degree of certainty. Otherwise they become no better than fear mongers, conspiracy theorists, or utopian dreamers, risking their credibility and the credibility of the entire profession.
Journalism is a critical and delicate art and service to any society. It is on the front lines of social forces that protect freedom of speech. Through accurate and ethical reporting a people are given the information that they need to make decisions and choices that will have profound consequences for them and for society as a whole.
Yet, as I have tried to show above, the pen can be used to undermine freedom of speech, when it disregards or distorts the truth and becomes an instrument of a one-sided narrative, propaganda, and ultimately tyranny. It is critical that a free people be able to identify the signs of propaganda and hold the media accountable to journalistic integrity.