Saturday, September 13, 2008
Journalism: To Inform, Persuade or Entertain?
"Extra, extra! Read all about it!!
When I was going through the Methods of Instruction Course preparing to join DEA's Office of Training at Quantico, Virginia in 1989, I learned that virtually all public speaking can be broken down into three purposes: to inform (facts), to persuade (opinion), and to entertain. That is also very true in writing. Any reader should consider the purpose of the writing; is it to inform, persuade or entertain? Call it critical reading, if you will.
For example, let's take our daily newspapers. If you are reading the front page with the news of the past 24 hours, theoretically, the purpose is to inform. For example, the headline might read: Congressman Deadweed died yesterday at the age of 98. The ball scores would be another example: (Cubs lose 4-2). Entertainment would be something like the cartoons. Another example of writing for entertainment might be a novel. Usually, we don't learn anything from novels; we just read them for relaxation or pleasure.
a- Senator Jake Snake is a jerk-fact or opinion?
This is opinion-even if you agree with the statement.
b- Senator Ebeneezer accused Senator Snake of being a jerk-fact or opinion?
This is a fact. Ebeneezer actually called Snake a jerk.
What the reader should always ask him/herself is this: Is this fact or opinion? Or is it a mixture of both? For example, let's go back to the newspaper. Below is my own adaptation of a comparison of two mythical articles from two mythical newspapers. This is not my own invention. I took it out of an English Language for Foreign Students textbook years ago. Unfortunately, I don't recall the book or the author, but suffice to say, the original text was written by another.
For purposes of this exercise, you should assume all the statements reported below are true.
Article in St Louis Times dated June 4, 2002
The city announced today that construction will begin next year on a new high school in West Peoria. The new school will accommodate 1700 new students and alleviate overcrowding at neighboring schools. To build the school, the city has acquired 30 acres of land. City officials say that the new school will also bring in about 200 new jobs.
Article in St Louis Herald dated June 4, 2002
The city announced today that construction will begin next year on a new high school in West St Louis. Students in the new school will be transferred from other schools around the St Louis area. To build the school, approximately 200 homes and businesses in a 30 acre area will have to be cleared or relocated. The city rejected suggestions that the school be built in the Snakehead Hts area of St Louis, which is currently uninhabited.
Again, assume that everything stated is factual. Which newspaper is in favor of the school, and which is opposed? Or are they both neutral?
The answer, of course, is obvious. My next question is this: Look familiar? Is it unusual for two competing newspapers in the same city with opposing editorial and political opinions to report the same story but with a different slant? Is this slanted reporting? On another level, can a TV or radio reporter giving the news employ similar tactics? Of course, they can, plus they have the advantage of using tone of voice and facial expression to send a message.
Let's be honest: Journalists are skilled writers, who have a good command of their language. They are fully capable of writing things which are perfectly true, but designed to leave the reader with a certain impression. What that results in is editorial writing on the front page.
In addition, headlines often do not match the text below. Why do writers and newspapers do this? They do it because they know that many readers browsing new stands only see the headline and don't bother to read the text. They may not even buy the paper. Example? How about Us Magazine's cover story on Sarah Palin entitled: Babies, Lies and Scandal?
The point is this: Our news media has an agenda. For most of the media establishment, that agenda is liberal. For a smaller part of the media, the agenda is conservative. What is important is for the news consumer is to carefully examine the reporting that he or she is getting and ask; fact or opinion? Fortunately, newspapers have a designated editorial section reserved for opinions. The bad news is that opinions can also find their way onto the pages reserved for facts.