Sensationalism and the Bias of Story
Is there such a thing as unbiased reporting? Thatís a rhetorical question. Of course there isnít. By simply choosing to select any information at all as worthy of reporting, we immediately are saying something about it. Bias is like temperature, in theory you can always make it lower, but youíll never actually hit absolute zero.
Iím thinking about this because thereís been a bit of a kerfuffle recently about an article from New York Times writer John M. Groder. Taking a Tesla Roadster out for a test drive to test out a new series of charging stations between New York and Boston, he wrote of an underwhelming experience that ended with the stalled car being loaded onto a flatbed truck. Elon Musk, Teslaís chief executive accused Groder of lying, first in an interview, then in more detail, citing ďblack boxĒ data on the trip, after which Groder defended his article and denied the charges.
A cursory examination of some of Groderís past writing doesnít reveal any particular grudge either against electric vehicles in general, or Tesla, in particular. But there are other kinds of bias writers have to be wary of. Thereís a kind of storytellerís bias that is very human. You know, you edit, omit, add details, play fast and loose with ďscreen time.Ē Have you ever recounted a conversation and added in clever responses that you didn’t actually say at the time, only to say, “well, no, I didn’t actually say that”? And sometimes a story takes on a life of its own, a moral to the tale begins to emerge, and if we let it, the ending starts to write itself.
We perform this revisionism whether weíre trying to come up with an excuse for being late or simply trying to entertain our audience, but weíre storytellers, all of us, and itís a natural tendency that journalists have to wrestle to the ground in order to do their jobs. A high-priced, brand new sports car stalled on the side of the road during its inaugural show-off test drive? Thatís tough to beat for dramatic irony, but neither does it mean it didnít happen.
Both sides in this little sniping session have carefully documented a plethora of points where they think one or the other has sought to deceive or mislead. But in all this hashing out of cruising speeds and battery charging times, whatís being missed is how much of this comes down to perception and interpretation.
Our very imperfect memories, our unconscious tendency to exaggerate flaws, particularly in retrospect and the effect our emotions have on what we actually perceive in the moment itself, our unconscious desire to be in the right Ė all these perceptual human weaknesses and more mean that even a truthful report can be full of inaccuracies. I hasten to add that this applies just as much to the irritated car executive interpreting the sensor data as the writer experiencing a disappointing ride. The only difference is we accuse writers of sensationalism while we call businesspeople spin-doctors.
I happen to think the development of gas-free vehicles is an important thing, and I want them to get as much news coverage as possible. I don’t want them to get slammed in the press, but if Groder’s experience, as he recounted it, is genuine, that’s what he needs to write. Because cover-ups and slanted consumer reporting tends to come out at some point, and then it does more damage. Failing to report on legitimate short-comings might well be more damaging, in the end.
Was this experience genuine? At this point, Iím going to battle against my own inner storyteller, remind myself that what Iím writing right now is a heterogeneous mix of opinion (editorializing) and fact-based reporting, but what it definitely isnít is fiction, and I canít necessarily write whatever ending I want.
Thus, there wonít be a dramatic reveal of a guilty party. There wonít be a smarmy ďI knew it all along.Ē I actually didnít and still donít know what exactly happened, and wonít pretend my speculations are fact. You can create a narrative for anything, but writing down a tidy ending doesnít make it true. Instead I’ll say that readers and writers both need to beware of getting too caught up in a good story, lest we miss the real world in all its pointless, confusing glory.
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