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.

Try this:

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.


Lance Christian Johnson said...

Good post. I have to wonder though - why do so many Americans insist that Obama is a Muslim? I got into a debate on Facebook with somebody who said that Obama wrote about how he was raised as a Muslim in his book. She also had just found out that he didn't in fact swear his oath on the Koran, but on the Bible.

Where the heck are they getting this from?

Personally, I think that the media is much more concerned with entertaining and persuading. Informing seems to be really low on the list of priorities.

Gary Fouse said...


It was Keith Ellison (D-MN) who swore on the Koran, not Obama.
Forget the entertaining-it is persuading that is going on here.

As for Obama being a Muslim-we all need to get off that.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

It's crazy to me that there are people out there who still seem to think that.

I was aware of Ellison (although I didn't remember his name). I saw an interview with him where he explained why he took the oath on the Koran, and I thought that it was pretty logical. If he swore on the Bible, it would have been an empty gesture. (And I wonder how many politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have made similar empty gestures.)

Personally, I think that if Obama is hiding some truths about his faith, it's that he's more of an agnostic than anything. I don't really have any hard evidence to prove that though, it's just a gut feeling based on other things I've heard him say. In other words, don't quote me on that.

Gary Fouse said...

If there are any secrets about Obama's faith, they were probably revealed by j Wright. It is called Black Liberation Theology.

Bryan said...

What do you suggest people do, Gary? Only get their media from sources with a conservative bias? The issue of liberal/conservative bias is really irrelevant. I agree with Lance that the media is just more sensationalistic than anything and often does a poor job of reporting the facts.

You should check out a book called "Manufacturing Consent" by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, since you seem to be very interested in the media. The book deals with how the media are a tool for propaganda to carry out thought control in democratic societies. There is a film version also available on YouTube if you look it up.

Gary Fouse said...


I always advocate that people be exposed to all sides then decide. As for Noam Chomsky, I had to read his stuff on linguistics when I was going for my masters. he may be the foremost linguist in America, but when it comes to anything else, I consider him to be a pompous, arrogant, anti-American idiot. And if his thesis that the media is a tool of the government, then that would proove my point.

How does that work for ya?

Bryan said...

You seem kind of hostile. It was only a suggestion.

Why do you feel Chomsky is pompous and arrogant? He always seems very humble to me whenever I've watched videos of him.

Anti-American? If by "America" you mean the government, then yes I suppose he is. But as for America the country, he definitely is not. I've often heard him praise our country for being the freest society in the world and so on. America does not equal the government. We should ALWAYS question and criticize the government.

Plus he is well-known enough to where I'm sure he could move to any other country he wanted and get a job teaching there.

Gary Fouse said...


Nothing personal, I just don't like Chomsky. I do think he is anti-American because he is always blaming America first, as the saying goes. I also think he is pompous and arrogant based on listening to him being interviewed on the radio.

Bryan said...

I believe (and Chomsky probably believes similarly) that as citizens of this society, we ought to always look to our own country first when deciding where to place blame for something, since our government is supposed to be acting on our behalf. I am not saying blame should always be placed 100% on the U.S. for everything every time, just saying that it should be the first on our list when deciding. Taking responsibility for our problems seems like the mature thing to do. Blaming everyone but ourselves seems to me to be rather childish and arrogant.

Gary Fouse said...


Of course the us has made many mistakes over its history. We have also done a lot of great things too. In fact, were it not for the us, virtually no country on the face of the earth would be living in freedom today.

It seems evryone wants to blame the us for all the problems in the world, but who do they turn to when they need help? Us.