August 4, 2022
A review of Veils of Distortion: How the News Media Warps our Minds, by John Zada.
This book is yet another introspection in response to the Internet’s fragmentation of media, the undermining of mainstream news journalism, and the degradation of civic debate.
The message from Toronto-based journalist John Zada, who spent several years working for cable TV news outlets at the CBC and Al-Jazeera, is this: mainstream news journalism is messed up.
It is true that the strident defense of journalism you will find on MediaPolicy.ca has to contend with some inconvenient poll numbers marking a frayed trust in media and even a possible decline in news consumption.
Zada’s brief, readable and inexpensive book covers journalism’s shortcomings, both known and many. He also prescribes newsroom solutions for journalists and media literacy for citizens.
What makes his professional mea culpa different are intriguing observations about storytellers and story listeners that might help us better understand the increasingly bloody-minded civic discussion in the modern world.
Journalism, like any attempt to describe what is happening in our world, is a map of reality, not reality itself. Zada sums it up this way:
“Twentieth century Polish-American scholar Alfred Korzybski championed the idea…that humans do not experience objective reality. He claimed that what we know and see of the external world is that which has reached us after being filtered by the brain. “The world is not an illusion, it is an abstraction,” Korzybski once wrote.
“His most famous and oft-quoted maxim “the map is not the territory”….[meant] our mental abstractions and representations of a terrain, no matter how detailed or well constructed, do not resemble the real thing. Rather our maps our grossly inaccurate. They are at best metaphors….
“This map-terrain relation applies to the news…[a] crude “map” that depicts the event-scape of the world.”
If journalism is the map’s cartographer, Zada finds journalism wanting: hence the book title’s harsh accusations of distortion and mind warping.
The first distortion is journalism doing a bad job of news curation by fixating on alarming news of what just happened and almost totally ignoring the mundane long-term improvements in the human condition.
Another veil of distortion is the sensationalism that exaggerates the world as being in constant turmoil or slavishly competes for a mass audience drawn to “infotainment.” The media’s early addiction to reporting on Donald Trump grew his popularity, says Zada, and that illustrates the distorting power of journalism.
Some of the other sins of journalism include uncritical reporting on contentious or speculative scientific studies. Or journalists being manipulated by their news-subjects: commercial interests, celebrities, or governments.
We’ve heard these criticisms of journalism for decades and opinions are going to vary on whether they represent imperfections or fundamental flaws.
As a life-long admirer of journalists, I will go with imperfections.
But another veil of distortion —and here the curiosity of your inner nerd may be piqued— is that of news storytelling itself.
Learning by storytelling is as old as time and primal, as any parent of a small child will know intuitively. “The human mind evolved to become a story processor,” says Zada. “The news both reflects and caters to our sense of mythos and desire for universal narrative archetypes.”
Good story telling requires dramatis personae: heroes, victims and villains as protagonists engaged in contests of will or power.
Good story telling demands human agency: intentional events marked by actions that ring with moral (or immoral) clarity.
Good story telling exploits the human susceptibility to what behavioral scientists call the “narrative fallacy,” our story listening instinct to stitch together facts into an emotionally satisfying narrative even at the cost of eliminating more fulsome but less dramatic explanations of what is happening in the world.
As story listeners we love to simplify, to make the abstract into the familiar, and to comprehend events that conform to our assumptions about the world.
In political reporting this kind of storytelling skews towards assigning blame to archetypal villains. It has an easy affinity with populist politics that pose a binary struggle of the powerful against the powerless.
Is it any accident that one of the proud monikers of the journalism profession is “holding the powerful to account” ?
It even seems that journalists are aware of the seductive power of storytelling and mitigate it with “both sides” reporting which presents news as an inconclusive battle of protagonists where no one is quite sure of who is the hero, villain or victim.
Now Zada is not calling for an end to storytelling any more than he is suggesting our brains should have evolved differently.
He does however issue a call to newsrooms and journalists to take a step back, be cognizant of narrative fallacy, and insist on higher standards.
He endorses “service journalism,” meaning editors should curate in favour of news that informs rather than entertains. That approach works in tandem with solutions-oriented journalism: coverage of more than dramatic differences of opinion, but also of a possible solution.
He recommends more diversity in the newsroom, not just in better representation of equity seeking groups, but in terms of life experience.
All of this is necessary if news reporting is going to remain credible and relevant to an increasingly disaffected audience.
News readers need to do our part too, says Zada, and he pleads for better media literacy: a healthy skepticism towards our news sources and an acknowledgement of the beguilements of narrative.
Zada does not engage in how we are going to pay for all of this better journalism (we seem to have a problem paying for what we already have) but that is a problem for another day.