News is about Questioning and Verifying: Learning to see beyond the magic show

People often wonder how I can be both passionate and frustrated when talking about the problems in journalism and what it needs to revitalize itself. I answer it is why I am both passionate and frustrated that answers their question: it is like being a stage magician who knows all the tricks of the trade, but when you explain to people how those illusions are created, they dismiss you as being a moron because they saw the man in the tuxedo cut a woman in half and then put her back together. You can point out the rigged box and the science behind why you can’t just hacksaw someone like that all you want, they give you a smug little look as they think you are some sort of paranoid conspiracy theorist because you question what is unfurling right before your eyes and yet they never wonder what life on the stage is really like.


Journalism is not a simple or transparent machine. You have to be right inside that machine to know how it works. There are lots of little feints and ruses journalists use to present a version of reality to their audience. For example, print reporters love to use “colour” in their stories to humanize and shade a narrative. Depending on the role of a newsmaker or subject of a story (hero, villain, victim), the colour and the shading will be very specific.

Or, what facts get included or excluded in a story will also alter the perception of reality. If I tell you a woman was mugged on a street corner in broad dalylight as she went to pick up her daughter from daycare, there will be outrage as the nice little Victorian flower was trampled on by a horrible person. But if I tell you she was mugged because the robber saw she was selling drugs on that same street corner, the sympathy turns cold. If I then told you the “mugger” was the brother of one of her regulars who overdosed and died and the thief made an attempt at vigilante justice and gave the entire sum to his widowed sister-in-law who was fighting cancer, well, your sympathies may very well turn to the mugger himself.

As a journalist, I had to make decisions on what to include or exclude in a story. I have interviewed people who were in jail, but not all of them deserved to be there because their life was a prolonged tragedy and they made misguided decisions that boxed them in right into prison. They were released and never broke the law again because they never were a danger to society. But some of those people were that malicious and earned that sentence. Often, if I try to include both kinds of people in the same article because they all ended up in jail for the same underlying reason, an editor will cut out all those who were less sympathetic in order to focus on the sympathetic ones.

That’s not a minor omission: it may seem the author was making a case that all people who are in jail shouldn’t be there, but that’s ignoring the ones who should be there. The original message may have been, it is a case-by-case consideration, and we must always look at each person before we make that ideological call, but the final copy may completely ignore that subtle, but important message. That omission skews a perspective, and makes it less reasonable — and the journalist has no idea what the final article will look like until she receives the published hard copy.

You may have a journalist who is ideologically balanced, but if an editor is more partisan, the final product is not going to fully conform to a reporter’s original intent.

But news producers aren’t the only ones up on stage at that magic show. Public relations firms, publicists, and image consultants try to manage that show from behind the curtain — and their reach can go beyond traditional media.

When I was just starting out in the late 1990s, I snagged a job interview at one of the most well-known public relations firms in the world. The interview was in Toronto, and I wanted to see what firms were looking for. I did not expect to get a lot of information, but that day, I got more than a bargained for.

The woman who interviewed me went the most the standard gamut of what you’d expect — save for two things. There seemed to be some really big to-do that I had to wear pantyhose at the office, even if I wore pants to work. I am certain men did not have the same obligation at the workplace, but that wasn’t what caught my attention.

It was her computer screen.

She told me she was monitoring a online forum on behalf of a client, but as I scanned the screen, I noticed she was doing a lot more than that — she was posting under a handle other than her own name, and from what limited information I could see, she never disclosed to any of the posters that she was not just some person who enjoyed conversing in chat rooms — she was being paid to skew a perspective on behalf of a paying client.

And from that day on, I was always vigilant when it came to political discussions on forums. I may participate once in a while, but when people on forums want to destroy, mock, or belittle someone with a different point of view, I always recall my old interview, and remember that most likely, that person may very well be paid to try to discredit and shame an opposing point of view.

They are mere agitators, and those operatives work from both the Left and the Right. They may have silly handles and even a following, but their intents are Machiavellian all the way.

It is easy to get caught up in a magic act. It is fun fantasy, but the truth and reality seem mundane in comparison…until you realize there is a darker intent: that the show, is, in fact a “sell” meant to put you in a certain frame of mind so you do not consider facts, logic, or emotional literacy — the three absolutle essential biggies when trying to make decisions on how you should live your life.

But you have to remember it is smoke and mirrors. News is processed truth and not a primary source of information. There has been tweaking, enhancing, tipping, and tucking.

With social media, the problems that plagued journalism plague it, but only more so.

It is not a foregone conclusion; it is simply because when it comes to the  atom of truth we call a fact, we have absolutely no respect for it. People want to be enraged, smug, and even hurtful to others they have decreed to be inferior to them.

Magic shows are all about simple deflection from facts. It is about pretending to defy truth and reality, but the magician is merely playing optical games with us.

But to get to the truth, we have to go beyond the masks and feints to see what is being hidden from us — and why.