Journalism: truth vs the big story

Journalists miss the truth, too often, because they seduce themselves into writing the story that readers want to read.

Journalism is about truth, right? The whole point of it is to report what’s going on in the world, and if we make stuff up, it rather defeats the object.

In the internet age, truth has gained a new importance. So much of what we read is suspect, that journalists are looking afresh at sourcing, independence, transparency. To stand above the static of more than a trillion pages of information, journalists must (simply must) be credible.

So journalism is about truth. And yet, if I tell you I am badly in need of a haircut, it’s true, but it’s not really journalism, is it? The number of things that are true is enormous. The number of things that anyone would care to read about is smaller.

The truth is in here somewhere
The truth is in here somewhere

Selecting and prioritising information is also a vital part of the journalist’s job. Never more so. Using the web is like being invited into a giant warehouse full of identical boxes and being told that what we need is in there somewhere. (Thankfully, Google does a pretty good job of checking out the contents of all the boxes). Some journalists seem (to stretch the analogy beyond its limits) to work flat out filling boxes with random stuff, just to make it more difficult to find anything useful.

It is simplistic to say that we prioritise the most important information. In fact, good journalists are looking for the biggest story. Herein lies the danger because stories don’t have to be true.

What makes a big story

New and factual (it’s news)
Human element (how much will our audience care?)
Scale and impact (how many died (for example) +
what effect does that have on our audience?)
Triggers a strong emotional response
Visual (good pictures but also stories that, in the telling, are easy to visualise)
Quirky, surprising, downright weird

In practice, there is another, subtler element at play. We all deal with the randomness of life by trying to force things into categories or shapes. Sometimes information falls into a pattern and we think: “yes, I get that”. It makes the world easier to deal with (particularly if the news is bad).

The tragedy at Ft Hood, Texas, is a good example of the phenomenon. Right from the start, the authorities were anxious to dampen speculation surrounding the fact that the shooter was a Muslim. Why did they do that? Because there is an instinctive, almost primeval, urge to fit the facts to a story. A big story. If he was a warrior for the forces of terrorism living secretly among us, that is a huge story that fits the big facts. And it is a story that is easy to retell.

But if he was a confused man, frightened of going back to war, that is a more muddled, smaller story. It does not seem to fit with the outrage of what he did. It is more difficult to see how the facts might lead to the consequences.

At the time of writing the story, it is impossible to know the truth. It could be either of these scenarios or something else entirely. However, it is already possible to see the first story forming in the pages of newspapers and on the web. There will be people who believe it, even if it turns out not to be true. The story fits the scale of the events too well to resist.

Brave journalists will, of course, go after the truth despite the enormous pressure to tell the story their readers want to read. Others will succumb and the truth will dissolve into a collective false memory.

The conflicting draws of truth and the story are understandable in reporting big, complex events. But too often, journalists are distracted from the truth in day-to-day reporting. That damages credibility.

For example, your readers may very well think that the diet of children today is so bad, it is surprising they don’t get scurvy.

Does the story get precedence over the truth?
Does the story get precedence over the truth?

Everyone knows about scurvy because there is a story connected with it. It is caused by lack of vitamin C and is associated with the exploits of great explorers like Captain Cook. Any modern story including the word scurvy brings with it associations of dramatic deeds, romance, the smell of salt air. At a push, a writer could use one of those special words guaranteed to get a response from any audience: pirates.

So when the Mail discovered that cases of childhood scurvy were on the increase, they may well have felt they had the dream story. Sick children, pirates, adventure. And above all, it fits with their readers’ preconceptions.

But is it true?

There has been an increase in the number of children admitted to hospital with scurvy but:

  • The increase is from 61 to 94 over three years. The numbers are so small (relative to the total number of sick children) that it is dangerous to draw conclusions.
  • The Mail says straight out that it is due to poor diet, but there is no evidence for that. If you read past the bit about the pirates, the Mail quotes Ursula Arens of the British Dietetic Association — the only person they talked to who is qualified to comment. She said: it was not possible to say how the children were getting scurvy: whether it was from a poor diet, or as a by-product of other diseases such as cancer.
  • I am indebted to EvidenceMatters who points out that the figures could be explained by the increased survival rate of children with cancer or short gut syndrome. Scurvy can be a side effect of these diseases, and if fewer children die from them, then more will exhibit symptoms of scurvy.

So what would you do? Run a complex story about inconclusive stats or a more definite one about pirates and child poverty?

There is a third option. Resist the urge of the great story altogether. Because the truth is there wasn’t much of a story in the first place.