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A lot of people these days wonder what’s wrong with journalism.

How is it that people like Jayson Blair, for example, can report for outfits as prestigious as the New York Times and routinely turn in articles with fabricated quotes from people he never met and never interviewed?  He was only fired, after several years and six hundred articles, when enough errors piled up in his work that the Times‘ editorial board finally deigned to take notice.

Even then, they didn’t conduct a thorough check, but just thought he was being sloppy.  So he continued at the paper for another year, after “improving his performance.” Two of the paper’s top editors personally vouched for Blair, moving him to the national desk, where he was eventually put on the D.C. Sniper story.  But within a month, other reporters were calling him out on his same old routine, and other outfits began taking notice as well.  When the Times finally fired him, it was because their “inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth.”

“Truth”?  Modern journalism doesn’t recognize “truth” as a literal thing.

And that’s the problem.

If you attend college for courses in journalism these days, you’ll constantly be told that all news is subjective, that pure objectivity is impossible.  Therefore, all stories are inherently subjective to one degree or another.  Many, if not most, reporters take this as license to ignore objectivity as a myth—and in fact, I once got into a very long and heated discussion with a particular reporter whose mantra was exactly that.  He wrote up an article claiming a particular organization was a “homophobic hate group,” and when I pointed out that most of its membership were gay or bisexual, he immediately declared that the Nazis had had homosexuals in their ranks.  Thus, he argued, the overwhelmingly gay population of the group he was reporting on was no defense against his allegations.

GayHitlerbyIsmaelAlvarez

This was a mathematical failure on his part, the reason his subjectivity—which he swore to as a means of obtaining journalistic “truth”—was causing harm to others.

Why do I say “mathematical”?  Because the difference is between integers (objective facts) and variables (subjective opinions).  If you’re a reporter, and your job is supposedly to report the truth, then you are solving for an equation.  If at the end of the day you present a variable as your solution, but try to pass it off as a hard factual integer, you’re either fooling yourself or lying to your audience.

In the above example, the reporter was opining that the Nazi Party was accepting of homosexuality within its ranks, when in reality it was used as an official reason to purge even the highest-ranking Nazis.  An estimated 350,000 gays were murdered in concentration camps, pink triangles sewn to their clothes.

gayholocaust

When reminded of these facts, the reporter did not recant his position, but sent his lawyer to threaten me with a defamation lawsuit.  One short conversation later, she told him to correct his article … and he did.  Never heard from him again.

This is why the old Golden Rule of reporting used to be that opinions were the realm of editorial pieces, while investigative reporters were supposed to focus as closely as possible on the facts without inserting their personal views.

Let’s take a look at the equations involved.  Don’t worry, it’s actually pretty easy.

HomersMath

In a pure opinion piece, it’s simple: X = Story. “I think an asteroid will one day destroy the planet” is a story that might have facts behind it, or it might not.  You never have to solve for X, or whatever other variables you choose to include, because you’re making clear to your audience that it’s a matter of your personal subjective opinion.

In a purely factual piece, 2 + 2 = Story.  “NASA spotted an asteroid which will pass inside the moon’s orbit” has no opinions involved.  No one, not even the scientists interviewed, are being subjective about the data presented.  This sort of story, in and of itself, destroys the popular journalistic view that “objectivity is a myth”—because it simply isn’t.

But it’s the third equation which gave rise to that belief:  X + 2 = Story.

“A local shopkeeper allegedly saw a young black man fleeing the scene after yesterday’s shooting of a police officer.”  The paper’s interview of the shopkeeper is subjective on its face, whereas the fact of the shooting is not.  So long as the word “allegedly” is used and the reporter doesn’t try to insert their own view on what the facts are, this story is fine.

The problem is that many journalists no longer bother with fact-checking beyond consideration for whether or not someone can sue their outfit.  Sometimes, as with Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News Corp, not even then.  Objectivity gets thrown under the bus in favor of rushing articles to print or, more commonly, in the interest of being as salacious (and thus as marketable) as possible.  People can be, and have been, seriously harmed as a result, throughout the history of journalism.

Image via the Carolina Public Press.

Image via the Carolina Public Press.

TechRaptor‘s own Anthony Lee reported on how reporters at sites like Buzzfeed and Vice can turn hoaxes into witch-hunts by replacing unknown variables with their own specific accusations.  A more accurate view of the same story could be found in the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported that various people in the “Gamergate community” were enjoying a moment of schadenfreude at Veerender Jubbal’s expense and also quoted Mr. Jubbal as saying “Gamers are absolute garbage like I have been saying for a full year.” The paper further stated, “It was not clear if members of that community were implicated in creating or spreading the image [which defamed Mr. Jubbal].”

The Herald balked at leaping to conclusions, presenting both parties as having a long history of mutual antagonism but stopping short of pointing fingers.  By contrast, Buzzfeed and Vice gleefully plunged off the precipice into conspiracy territory, touting one party as innocent victim and the other as a menacing force out to destroy him.

If this tells us anything, it’s that a lot of journalists out there either think math is hard, or that it just gets in the way of conclusions they’ve already made.


Scott Malcomson

Staff Writer

Old enough to have watched the first moon landing live on TV, I've been gaming since the days of ApVenture and the Zork series. My last console was an Atari 2600, and my first PC was an Apple IIc (in glorious monochrome!). If you want to understand the kind of person I am, it might help a bit to play Ultima IV.



  • SomeCollegeStudent

    Fact checking and backing your claims with evidence was a basic lesson in every English class I took. How are these “journalists” passing school, let alone getting hired?

  • Zepherdog

    They get hired because they’re cheap, dumb and can sell a narrative.

  • Which is disgusting, but keeps fucking happening.

    My solution is simple: We get people to see this bullshit for what it is, bullshit. And we convince people that simply letting bullshit happen without opposing the people who push the bullshit onto us is no way to go forward.

    We convince people that it’s a worthy cause to push back against bullshit reporting, and that it’s worth their effort to support the outlets that check their god damned facts before they publish their shit.

    And we convince people that if all else fails, starting up your own outlet is the best course of action. Look at the success of TechRaptor, or One Angry Gamer, or DualShockers. None of them have the backing of a major news conglomerate, but they’re all doing pretty damn well I think.

  • Zepherdog

    Agreed, and I think we’re getting there at the moment, if Gamergate and everything that’s sparked is anything to go by.

  • Unfortunately I get the feeling GamerGate is increasingly tapering off. God damn pity that is.

    We can’t stop until that fucking narrative has been completely destroyed. There shouldn’t be anything left worth salvaging when we’re through.

  • Mathaes Loogmanheimer

    The answer is simple: the “Left” had a stranglehold on Universities and colleges for decades and this where most journalists come from.

  • One can be objective and still be either Right or Left. The problem has been the development of ivory-tower nonsense replacing concepts of objectivity as either silly or actively harmful to journalism. You hear it echoed in the scorn of fringe reporters all the time, where being edgy is valued far more highly than being accurate.

  • Robert Grosso

    Full objectivity is still an illusion, and no mathematical formula is going to prove that otherwise, but it is possible to separate opinion from fact rather easily.

    Good journalists do that all the time. Either by marking op-eds or editorials as what they are, or by reporting on what facts they are able to find. Even then it’s not even full-proof, as no one is omnipotent to know everything. We also have to consider personal bias when we report; again, something that is unfiltered sometimes.

    But it can be done. The real trick is to learn how to do it, that is something journalists are not taught, or at least, not caring enough because media has changed, and not for the better. I am trying to remember the name of it but there is a documentary ive seen talking about this…

  • Robert Grosso

    I believe that is called Yellow Journalism.

  • LenLovecraft

    The journalistic code of ethics exists for a reason and people really need to use it much much more! If they want to insert their opinions write it as an op-ed not as news. That’s horribly misleading especially when facts do not back their opinions up which I believe contributes to the ever diminishing trust people have towards journalism, and helps create sensationalist and yellow journalism. And this is a problem that goes way to the top. Thank you Scott for writing this, this was really insightful I just hope some writers at least try to be better.

  • Galbador

    Journalism and information news is nowadays pretty poisonous and misleading, yet people swallow it like it is food. If one is not open-minded and follows the herd without thinking, this can turn into a dangerous weapon. I know, that sounds like a mad man with his tin-foild hat on his head, but how close are we from this sort of scenario? If we allow those people tell us what is right and wrong, then I see a dark future full of brainwashing and misguiding.

  • Zepherdog

    Gamergate is not in it’s best shape but it’s still going strong; A lot of people have moved on to other things but it’s been a spark that set a lot of other anti-PC, anti-bullshit movements and reactions.

    As for killing the narrative, well, there will always be vile, despicable people behind the scenes pushing the next big scare in order to profit from it, but at least now we have set a precedent that helps points at these bigots and reveals them for what they are.

  • Zepherdog

    This is funny because Kotaku’s logo is yellow.

    That is a joke, just like Kotaku.

  • Mr.Towel

    Well, what started this terrible school of thought at the universities (specially in journalism) was the Deconstructionist Movement, the core of separation between Reality and Text. This is the academical source of all the bullshit, and I have to say, it is very “lefty” leaning…

  • calbeck357

    Perhaps the divide is more basic: Liberalism traditionally prizes Radical lines of thought, as these tend to stretch the human imagination and lines of inquiry. Conservatism, by contrast, is very focused on the idea that staying within certain boundaries makes for an overall safer society.

    Thus, Liberals habitually break the rules and Conservatives habitually enforce them… so when you have a set of rules regarding how to demarcate objectivity from subjectivity, Conservatives endorse that while Liberals seek ways to refute it.

    The problems come in when extremist lines of thought in either direction become widely adopted, becoming rules which their promoters try to enforce on everyone.

    (Disclosure: Scott Malcomson here, I’m just posting from different media so I’m not under my TR account at the moment)

  • True objectivity is a goal that cannot be reached by anyone. However, it’s not reaching the goal that’s important – it’s the effort to strive for it.

  • calbeck357

    At a minimum, we can think of it as looking through a window. If we convince ourselves it can never be PERFECTLY clear (because there will always be at least a slight reflection even in the absence of dirt), then we can cop the attitude of never cleaning it at all. Over time, enough gunk builds that it is impossible to see anything beyond the window; anything you think is out there resides in your imagination.

    Therefore, trying to keep the window as clean as possible (even if you can never achieve utter perfection) is the best solution.

  • Mr.Towel

    Thank you for giving attention to my post, I wasn’t expecting that 🙂

    Indeed, I agree. That is one way to separate Right and Left, actually, it’s a pretty good one that I’ve never seen till now, it’s interesting. For the West at least.

    The definition I know is that of Tradition vs Alternative. Whenever the Political Right exists in a society they will enforce more Traditional values and views for that society, and the Political Left will enforce Alternative values and views for that society. That would explain why some proposals are seems as left leaning in one society when the same proposal seem right leaning to another society, because said proposal might have a traditional history in one society but be a completely new idea at some other society. This issue happens a lot when you’re study modern islamic societies or countries which endured totalitarian regimes for too long.

  • Hey are you the same “Real Libertarian” from Know Your Meme?

    Would you mind telling them that the American Tanker has been on the side of #GamerGate since the beginning? Just don’t use Twitter or Plebbit, and I was permabanned from KYM WAY before #GG was ever a thing. That’s why you wouldn’t have ever heard from me during all this.

  • Pony hate.

    I’m not joking. I got so carried away raging against MLP that mods decided to perma me.

    EDIT: I think I found the post that got me perma”d. I think.

    But remember that that post was just the last piece of a long history of anti-pony RAGE.

  • TheScienceEnthusiast1130

    XD

  • TheScienceEnthusiast1130

    The left-right paradigm is imaginary, as ALL political parties hate video games

  • TheScienceEnthusiast1130

    “a dark future full of brainwashing and misguiding”

    It already initiated itself in 2016 AD.

  • Galbador

    Sadly… welcome to Brazil -_-;