Southwrite

Telling stories

How do I know if you mean what you say when you say what you mean?

Posted by southwrite on October 12, 2009

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 “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride

As writers we use words to describe events, convey ideas and – we hope – provide a glimpse of the truth. Words are our stock in trade and the tools that allow us to provide readers with glimpses of other realities.

But how effective are we in describing what we believe to be “reality?” And, what is our responsibility to ensure that we’re really telling the truth in our work? Most of us may not spend a lot of time musing about “truth” because we believe we’re usually doing a good job of being accurate and getting the facts straight. Yet, if we’re doing any kind of journalistic writing (whether for newspapers, magazines or trade journals) we need to be aware that our readers approach our work with more than a little skepticism.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported recently that its surveys show the public’s belief in accuracy of news stories has hit the lowest level in more than two decades.  Only 29% of Americans say that the media generally get the facts straight, while 63% say that news stories are “often inaccurate.”

That dismal showing should concern all of us – not just full time newspaper editors and reporters. The loss of the faith obviously has many reasons ranging from partisan perceptions of bias to well published scandals such as those involving Jason Blair and Stephen Glass.

Many people also have a hard time distinguishing between, say, Fox News straight news programs and its endless array of talking politicals heads. No one should confuse Glenn Beck with a journalist. In fact the network even directs its reporters to avoid appearing on the opinion shows. That hasn’t stopped the White House from attacking the network for bias.

Reporters are all too aware of how hard it is to capture an idea or even an event in words. Words become only an approximation of reality, but never reality itself. Writers of all kinds are limited by their own knowledge and access to sources of information. Even when they witness the event itself, they may only see part of what is actually happening.

And, the part that makes its way into the story may not be the part that critical – and highly biased – readers want to see. Both the political left and right believe the media isn’t telling the truth and is – fairly or unfairly – biased in favor of the “other side.” This partisan vise demonstrates that the middle of the road is sometimes the most dangerous place to be. Yet, for journalists who want to tell the truth there really is no other place to be.

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