It Ain't Necessarily So: How the Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality

We show the news consumer how the magic trick, as it were, was done: how the lighting was placed, wehere were the mirrors, wires, and sturts, what sleight-of-hand was employed. Yet our purpose in demystifying the news is not cynical dismissal. Rather, we appreciate news as a manufactured, even theatrical, artifact, as much as it is an engagement with reality. Watching research results go through the prism of media and get thereby refracted into multiple colors and shadings is valuable. It doesn’t mean that the process is fraudulent or misleading. But it does reveal the action of the prism. —Murray, Schwartz and LichterIt Ain’t Necessarily So: How the Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

In my lit classes, I often have to remind students that Ophelia and Huckleberry Finn are not real people, and that we can talk ourselves blue in the face about what their “true” motives were or what they “would have done” in a literary work with a different ending.

This book is an attempt do something similar in the world of journalism. For understandable reasons, students want to get the “right” answer, especially when they are still getting used to the whole idea of a college education. It’s something that professional journalists face all the time.

In order to prepare students for this book, Friday afternoon I read them a series of jumbled facts, and asked them to turn them into a news story. I told them they could take every fact I said as if it had already been verified, I showed them the words as I read them, and I told them that they’d have ten minutes to write, and then I’d read through the whole thing again.

My students know that I can’t resist a good Star Trek reference. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the cadet Saavik reacts after a simulated mission results in the destruction of her ship.

Saavik: Permission to speak freely, sir?

Kirk: Granted.

Saavik: I do not believe this was a fair test of my command abilities.

Kirk: And why not?

Saavik: Because… there was no way to win.

Kirk: A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face. Has that never occurred to you?

Saavik: No sir, it has not.

Kirk: How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?

Saavik: As I indicated, Admiral, that thought had not occurred to me.

Kirk: Well, now you have something new to think about. Carry on.

I think most took Friday’s activity for what it was. Like any lab exercise, it was artificial, set up to re-create only one controlled segment of a complex system. Of course it wasn’t an ideal situation for them to write. Of course it wasn’t fair, if “fair” means “optimized so that students will get the highest possible grade.”

Since I’m not actually going to send them out on the street to report on crimes and accidents, I had to do something else to emulate the pressure of deadlines and the importance of filtering out correct but irrelevant facts.

And by the way, the article they submitted was worth a grand total of zero points — though I did ask them to blog their reaction to the lab. In this case, I’m more interested in their ability to analyze and understand the process, rather than their ability to create product. Today students are submitting pitches for a long feature article, and they’ll have over a month to work on it. The evaulation of “product” is part of the course, but after a series of reporting exercises that I think went over pretty well, I hope they’ll make the adjustment to “process” smoothly.