The Shocking Truth

In the early 2000s, I took a second job teaching Biology on nights at weekends at the local community college. Teaching Biology means teaching evolution, because nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. It was then I realized just how awful science education is in this country — how we spend 95% of class time on atomic facts, treating science like the vocabulary of a foreign language students are doomed to forget once they stop using it; how here in the future we need a series of courses, reinforced routinely, not on the content of science but on the enterprise itself: what it is, what it isn’t, when it works, when it doesn’t, and so on.

My enthusiasm in class generated some interest in the students, and afterwards I put together a short scientific and critical thinking curriculum. One activity was a “cross-sectional news tasting.” For simplicity, we chose a seemingly apolitical topic — an active wildfire in the West — and read articles or watched segments from a diverse selection of news sources.

Students were surprised how different the coverage was. Each source more or less covered the basic facts. That is, it didn’t matter if you were reading The NY Times or watching Fox News — you got the gist. But after that, there were subtle shifts of focus.

The worst were “popular” news outlets like NBC and USA Today, which sensationalized everything and liked to ask melodramatic questions. “Will these firefighters survive a brutal fire season? Will they get the support from the community they so desperately need? Only time will tell. Reporting live from…” In other words, tune in tomorrow to catch the next exciting episode of “California Burning!”

Liberal sources tended to focus on the limitations of the civil infrastructure and the need for more resources (read: taxes). Conservative sources tended to focus on the bravery of the firefighters and how they faced bureaucratic hurdles even in the midst of a crisis. And all of them tended to frame those issues using particular personalities; that is, crafting a narrative around specific people involved in the event for the purposes of leaving the reader with a particular impression — which is different than just reporting atomic facts.

That’s not necessarily wrong of course, but it is very different than what the creators of the genre “News” tell you they are doing. And it is a genre, just like “History” or “Self-Help.”

On and off since then, I’ve made it a regular practice to read the headlines of The Wall Street Journal, The NY Times, CNN, and Fox News, and occasionally ABC News and The Economist as well. As a thrice-weekly activity, I can’t recommend it enough, especially since it takes almost no time. I’d tell you what I’ve learned over that time about the news and why things are the way they are, but the truth would shock and anger you.


One thought on “The Shocking Truth

  1. I would not be shocked Rick, nor would I experience more anger at the soap opera media than I have already.
    So, I would appreciate you saying what it is you’ve learned, if not in a follow-up post, comment reply or privately. I ask because I value your opinion.

    p.s. I’m a paying subscriber to The Washington Post and the NYT, both of which I read daily, I watch CNN, PBS and ‘Euronews’ as well as both national broadcasters of Canada (all on a near daily basis). Hence my doubts about the shock effect and a now well developed immunity to anger about news packaging.


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