Truth or titillation

Many of us who write for a living or work in radio and television, too often forget that our own biases frequently colour our reporting.

A good example of that type of bias appeared a couple of years ago during an interview with Stephen Harper. A reporter for a network edited a No answer in place of a Yes answer, making the PM look foolish.

No doubt the reporter didn’t like the Prime Minister and would argue that this distorted approach to editing presented a clearer picture of the PM’s true position. 

Sometimes things appear in the media that distort the truth even though they have nothing to do with the personal biases of reporters or editors. All branches of the media need to present stories and pictures that grab attention. Therefore, they typically stress the extremes.

If something frightfully evil, embarrassing to a famous person, shocking to our sensibilities or ridiculous in the extreme happens, it will likely get the central headline or front page picture.

At times, good things happen that also get first mention in the media. But it seems most of us want to hear the bad news, or the media believe we prefer titillation to truth. We have seen good examples of this in the news coming out of Haiti.

Hundreds, indeed thousands of people, both Haitians and outsiders, have risked their lives giving assistance to the injured and dying. Yet one newspaper featured a picture of a mob attacking a man caught looting. They had dragged the naked man to the street with a rope and then proceeded to beat him to death with a plank.

That picture seemed to trump all other information coming out of Haiti. No picture appeared with it to remind us that hundreds of other Haitians were digging bare-handed to rescue trapped people. The picture sent a message to gullible Canadians that Haitians are evil people, that they deserve both God’s vengeance and the wrath of the mob. It plants in susceptible minds the thought that the Haitians deserve everything they get.

Another example comes to mind. The same newspaper showed a picture of Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, dancing at the wedding to his fifth wife. Dressed as a Zulu warrior and with his face contorted with excitement, it left the reader with questions: “Multiple marriages or polygamy? Dancing in public half naked? What kind of a nut have the South Africans put in charge of their country?”

Okay, I have trouble with polygamy, and I understand Mr. Zuma’s polygamous marriage has upset many South Africans, regardless of their racial and cultural background.

The majority of us who live in Canada would have trouble with polygamy and agree that such a practice by a head of state reflects on his nation in a negative way.

However the rest of the story shouldn’t bother us. If a Canadian can march in a band wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes or dress in traditional First Nations’ finery and dance to the beat of a drum, why shouldn’t a South African Zulu honour his cultural traditions?

As consumers of media, we need to recognize the industry has a built-in tendency to emphasize the extreme.

We also need to make sure that our own personal biases do not further distort the truth.


Ray Wiseman