Streams

On Making It Up In The Media

Friday, March 29, 2013

The other day I heard a remarkable conversation between Lawrence Weschler, the journalist and author, and Bob Garfield, host of WNYC's On the Media. The topic was accuracy and honesty, truth and fiction, in reporting. Weschler remarked that when he was working on a story, he never recorded interviews and rarely made verbatim notes, and yet he'd never once been accused of misquoting or in any way misrepresenting a source. "I write what people remember having said."

The thing is, what a person remembers having said may have little to do with the verbatim. But it has everything to do with what they meant. To render faithfully what a person means, where they stand on an issue, what is at stake for them, you don't need to record their speech. You need to understand them.

Journalistic orthodoxy, I regret, is governed by a different, more entomological, or better yet, anthropological conception, according to which "understanding" is a matter of interpretation. If you write what they meant, rather than what they literally said, then you are writing what you think they said. Which is just to say that you are making it up.

I'm on Weschler's side, but I hope it is clear that the stakes are much higher than journalism. We are talking about truth.

If you are interested in what a person said, then you need to understand him or her, and you can't understand a person if you take the detached attitude of the anthropologist. From the detached viewpoint, no one says anything. There's just marks and noises. You can record marks and noises all you want, but you won't get at any truth that way. Just lots of marks and noises.

The matter doesn't confine itself to quotation and representing what someone said. It extends all the way to how we think, and talk, about events, controversies and the topics of the day.

In the last few years, for example, there's been lots of discussion about whether fairness, or freedom from bias, requires that you always report both sides of an issue. If you are doing a story on climate change, to give the familiar example, do you need, in the interests of fairness, to include the viewpoint of the climate change skeptics?

Fairness and freedom from bias do require that one is sensitive to the different sides of an issue. And contrary to the claims of the dogmatic, there are always many different sides to an issue.

But the nub is, you can't even know what the issues are, if you insist on taking up the journalistic orthodoxy of detachment.

So, for example, in my judgment, it's right to be committed to reporting different sides of the issue on climate change. But it's unreasonable to think that means equal time to the climate skeptic.

But it's not an accidental unreasonableness. It is an unreasonableness born of the ideology of the anthropological approach, according to which you are supposed to report an issue, or identify a problem, with no direct knowledge or perception of it, just as you are supposed to report what someone says with no direct understand of their words.

Weschler's approach, and mine, is grounded on the undeniable fact that we live in the world, have knowledge of it and have the right to tell stories. And on the fact that, well, there is no other way.


You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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