“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” has been variously attributed (Twain? Hemingway?), but it accurately describes the dilemma of reading about current events, especially during wartime.
Apparently artists have been among army camp followers ever since cave walls served as the Neolithic hunter-gatherer’s news feed, pictured at left (click image to read article).
Napoleon’s motives for carrying a printing press on campaign may have included not only a need to control scuttlebutt amongst the troops, but also to help manage the spin that local rags might have put on his image.
The American Civil War was documented extensively in battlefield reporting art, but it was also the conflict during which photojournalism got its start: even the battlefield artist had his picture taken. (Click on images to enlarge.)
The advent of battlefield photography did not mean the end of fanciful reporting, because enterprising photographers routinely rearranged corpses to fit the “facts” of the scene they wished to portray, as in the photo on the right, above.
As illiteracy declined, fewer people relied on pictures to get the news, although the proliferation of radio broadcasts brought back the town crier, and gathering round the wireless set became a new tribal campfire; while the television’s cathode ray tube returned the depiction of current events to the cave wall.
The co-opting of the television screen by the personal computer, its tablet tots and smartphone spawn, has made inroads on paper-based reporting, and the addition of blogging makes Everyman a journalist. No longer does recycling the news mean wrapping fish in it, or turning it into a papier-mâché piñata.
But nailing down the facts remains as elusive as nailing Jell-o to a tree. That’s why the sage advice of Adler and Van Doren in How to Read a Book still holds true for the careful reader of current events, whether in real-time or when researching the reportage of the past.
My outline of their “How to Read History” chapter continues, in the subtopic:
How to Read About Current Events
- Analytical reading skills always apply, although not all reading requires the same analytical ability.
- Not every rule of reading may be used, but the four questions must be asked about current events writing:
- What is it about as a whole?
- What is being said, and how?
- Is it true, wholly or partially?
- So, what?
- Current events writing includes newspapers, magazines, books.
- History is continually in the making.
- We are obligated to try to understand the world in which we live.
- The task is to know what’s happening now.
- How do we get news?
- How do we know that news is true?
- We can’t always be sure we have the facts (whether past or present).
- Despite our best efforts, by ourselves, we can’t find out everything that’s happening everywhere.
- What we can know depends on reporters.
- The ideal reporter would accurately reflect reality, or let it shine through his report without distortion.
- The real reporter has a human mind that reflects reality poorly and actively filters its reception.
- Filtering for truth is proper, but reporters can make mistakes.
- What is most important to know about current events reporting:
- Who is writing the report?
- What kind of mind does he have?
- “Filter-reporters” can be grouped according to the answers to these questions:
- What does the author want to prove?
- All current events books have “an agenda.”
- Whom does he want to convince?
- Those who are insiders?
- Those who can expedite a solution?
- For the general reader?
- If you’re not in the audience, you may not want to read it.
- What special knowledge does he assume?
- Knowledge means many things: opinion and prejudice apply.
- Many authors only write for those who agree, and if you don’t, you’ll just be irritated.
- Try to see the doctrines felt as facts that the author-reporter filters, as well as your own filtered notions.
- What special language does he use?
- Vocabulary is of special importance to magazines and newspapers, but also current events books.
- Some words provoke particular responses.
- Recognize inflammatory language and control your response.
- Does he really know what he is talking about?
- Does the reporter know the facts?
- Is he privy to secret thoughts and decisions of others?
- Does he know what he needs to be fair and balanced?
- Bias and spin affect both reporters and readers.
- A reporter may or not be aware that he is uninformed, which is hazardous for readers.
- Even if a reporter does not intend to influence your understanding, his sources may be thus motivated.
- What does the author want to prove?
CAVEAT LECTOR: Let the reader beware!