Can You Trust the News You Get?
ON May 10, 1927, a special edition of the French newspaper La Presse reported that the first successful nonstop flight across the Atlantic was made by two French aviators, Nungesser and Coli. The first page featured pictures of the two fliers as well as details about their arrival in New York. But this story was a fabrication. Actually, the aircraft had been lost, and the fliers killed.
Yet, false news reports are more common than perhaps most people suspect. In 1983 intimate notes, supposedly Hitler’s, were published in important weekly magazines, especially in France and Western Germany. They turned out to be fakes.
Similarly, in 1980 a story about a young drug addict was published in the Washington Post. The account won the author a Pulitzer prize, the highest award for a journalist in the United States. But later the story was revealed to be fictitious, a fabrication. Under pressure from investigators, the author submitted her resignation, saying: “I apologize to my newspaper, my profession, the Pulitzer board and all seekers of the truth.”
Yet, news fabrications, or false reports, are not the only obstacles to arriving at the truth regarding what is happening in the world.
News Selection and Presentation
Journalists and editors often select news that fascinates the public but that may not be of real significance. Priority is given to what is sensational or eye-catching so as to increase circulation and ratings. Stars of the entertainment and sports worlds are featured, regardless of what kind of role models they provide for the young. So if one of them takes a lover, marries, or dies, it often makes the news.
Television news generally features subjects that have visual appeal. The head of a major television broadcasting firm, as reported in TV Guide magazine, “declared he wanted ‘moments’ on the broadcasts—gut-wrenching, sensational moments to lure the viewer in every story.” Indeed, attracting viewers is usually of greater concern than is educating the public.
The way events are portrayed may fail to provide the whole picture. As an example, a weekly supplement to the French daily Le Monde told of “three television sets exploding [in France] in just fifteen days.” Although this was presented as something unusual, the number of explosions of television sets for that 15-day period was actually smaller than normal.
Also, important news may sometimes be presented in a biased way. Parade Magazine reports that officials and politicians often “channel their deceptions through the media, distorting the news in order to influence your thinking. They deal in selective facts instead of the whole truth.”
This bothers many news commentators. French Encyclopædia Universalis states: “Since the end of the 1980’s, the important media, and especially television, have been condemned on all sides, by professionals and laymen, by the man on the street, and by public figures, for what is said and what is left unsaid, for the way it is said and for various insinuations.”
Free interchange of news on a worldwide scale is also a problem and was the subject of a heated debate at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Developing countries complained that they were only mentioned in the news when catastrophes or serious political problems occurred. After saying that certain Western press agencies carry much more news about countries in the Northern Hemisphere than about those in the Southern Hemisphere, an article in the French daily Le Monde added: “This has given rise to a serious imbalance affecting public opinion in industrialized countries as much as in developing countries.”
The pressure that advertisers exert on news editors further affects the news the public receives. In the 1940’s a U.S. magazine lost advertisements from piano manufacturers when it published an article showing the advantages of using the guitar to accompany singing. An editorial was later published in the magazine in high praise of the piano! Thus, the relative scarcity of articles exposing the dangers of smoking should not be surprising in view of the number of magazines for which cigarette ads are a major source of revenue.
Another pressure area involves the readers or viewers themselves. Raymond Castans, former director of a popular French radio station, explained that listeners were mostly conservative, so care had to be exercised not to upset them. Is it therefore surprising that in a country where a certain religion is predominant, unsavory facts about it have been hushed up or toned down?
Pressures are also brought to bear by extremist groups or individuals who feel that not enough attention is given to their opinions in the media. A few years ago, the terrorists who kidnapped Aldo Moro, ex-prime minister of Italy, insisted that their claims be given full coverage on television, by radio, and in Italian newspapers. Similarly, terrorists who hijack planes and take hostages make TV headlines and thus obtain the publicity they seek.
Newsmen are sometimes accused of being conformist, of perpetuating established systems and opinions. But can we expect that an industry seeking to gain a maximum of readers or listeners would propagate ideas and views contrary to those of the majority of the people they serve?
A related problem is that in many countries rising costs have caused daily papers to merge, thus forming literal “press empires” in the hands of small groups or even one person. If the number of owners continues to decrease, this will limit the variety of published opinions.
Influence on the Public
There is no question that the news media have also contributed to the molding of social values. This is done by presenting as acceptable, moral standards and life-styles that would have been rejected only a few years ago.
For example, in the early 1980’s, a middle-aged man, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, had a discussion on homosexuality with his father, who then lived not far from San Francisco, California. Earlier in his life, the father had conveyed to his son his view that homosexual behavior was shocking. But then, decades later, influenced by the news media, the elderly father defended homosexuality as an acceptable alternative life-style.
The Encyclopedia of Sociology (French) asserts: “Radio and television may very well . . . inculcate new ideas, encourage innovatory or troublemaking trends. Because of a taste for sensational news, such media boost them from the start and exaggerate their importance.”
If we do not want our values to be molded by the media, what can we do? We should follow the wise counsel found in the Bible. This is because its standards and principles remain valid for any society at any time in history. Moreover, they help us understand how important it is to be fashioned by God’s standards and not by popular ideas of the modern world.—Isaiah 48:17; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:22-24.
In addition, the Scriptures explain an important aspect of the news that generally escapes the media. Let us examine this aspect in the next article.
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The extremist movements get the publicity they want