Monday, November 22, 2004

Judgment under fire

By now, pretty much everyone has heard the news from Fallujah, Iraq where a U.S. Marine was videotaped shooting an Iraqi in apparent cold blood.

As armchair pundits everywhere - most of whom have become combat experts because they spend countless hours watching talking heads argue on CNN and Fox News - debate the issue, the power of the web as a journalistic medium has emerged.

Say what you want about journalism, but to me it is all about context. If we can paint a contextual picture that helps everyday folks make sense of the jumbled world of news, we will have done our job. More importantly, we will have succeeded to an even greater degree if, in our drive to help our audience arrive at this nirvana-point of sense, we went a bit further and actually helped them improve their own decision-making capacity.

It's a direct offshoot of the Five W Questions - Who, What, Where, When, and Why. To that I've always added How. In answering them all, journalists shed light on issues that may not have been clear. They balance our understanding of these issues, and bring us to the point that we can fairly draw our own conclusions.

Such is the case with the shooting in Iraq. On the surface, it may look one way. In reality, to those living through the hell of combat against an enemy whose concept of the Geneva Convention was never quite fully formed, it may need to be analyzed from a thoroughly different perspective.

With this in mind, I read an incredibly powerful account of the events by the journalist who witnessed them in the first place, Kevin Sites. His missive, called What happened in the Fallujah mosque, was first published on his personal blog,, under the heading Open Letter to Devil Dogs of the 3.1. To its credit, MSNBC later picked it up and ran a link to it from the front page of its web site. It is an absolute must-read for anyone following this story.

The rest of his site contains more insight - through the eyes of a journalist with significant war zone experience - into what the environment is like, and how it shapes the decisions of those who are sent to fight there. It's compelling reading.

Similarly compelling is Rosie DiManno's column in last Wednesday's Toronto Star. The piece is entitled, Try to imagine the way U.S. Marine was thinking. As always, Ms. DiManno says it like it is and challenges us to avoid making the kind of snap judgments that those of us who live in armchairs seem content to make every day.

Incidentally, I've noticed this blog is resulting in some bizarre behavior within the Google search engine. For example, type the words "Rosie DiManno" into Google and guess which site comes up as #1? Yup, this one. It works whether or not the search terms are within quotations. I guess I'm an even bigger fan of her work than I originally thought - and even a search engine algorithm seems to agree. Fascinating stuff!


Jef said...

One thing I have noticed over the past year is that most people are basically lazy when it comes to analyzing information from TV, radio and Internet sources. They hear something or read something and believe it to be the Gospel truth without analyzing it. It's too much trouble to search out information even though it's at our fingertips with the Internet whenever we are ready. We want to be told what happened and how to think so we don't have to because we would rather do something else. It comes at a price.

I remember talking to a friend once when I was working on my Radio/TV Production degree and made the comment that a TV news crew can almost free or damn someone who has been accused of a crime by what information they choose to include in an interview. If they choose to shoot the interview from above or below the interviewee, it changes how the audience may interpret that data.

What is the best way to evaluate whether a news source is a fair and objective source? How do we begin to be more critical of what we hear without accepting everything we hear as exactly the way it is?

carmilevy said...

The mere act of including or excluding a given fact is enough to introduce bias into one's coverage. Even the order of presentation, or a subtle word choice, can often be sufficient to skew the story in a given direction.

How does a savvy media consumer see through the murk? Target multiple media, question everything, and refuse to accept the judgments of others until long after you've drawn your own conclusions based on your own multiple-source research.

Nothing irks me more than simpletons who accept as gospel the single-source story. They represent the ultimate in media-consumption laziness, and would hardly be interesting dinnertime conversation partners.

Over time, a proactive approach to consumption helps one build a fairly decent sixth sense for what's real and what isn't.