A rare good column on objectivity in journalism.

An opinion piece may be an odd place to find it, but The Squamish Chief has it here.


The notions are definitely old school, but correct: that punditry and commentators polluted journalism and then the lines were so blurred that opinion took over entirely.

But I would go further than that — objectivity in journalism is not the same as scientific objectivity in that it has never been empirically defined — so we don’t actually know very much about objective reporting.

The other problem is that journalism is more about stories and narratives than actual facts. When you spin narratives and then try to stick in facts to make it news, you cannot have empirically objective reporting. You shouldn’t be taking sides because you don’t attach facts to narrative, that, by its very essence, takes sides.

And if you use a patriarchal structure to tell stories, you are forcing readings to take you as they unerring reliable narrator.

Journalism is not about taking sides, giving gooey press coverage to certain people and groups. Just the facts. What’s going on? If you have usable facts, no one is going to get on you for being positive or negative with a story.

You can have facts that are important to various groups. You do not have to farm all over people to be relevant to them. Journalism is not the place for giving paper crowns or creating Great Men narratives. It is not about giving people a voice or lollipops. With social media, people can get their own voice out with ease.

But what they need are the facts to make sure the voice that carries knows what it is talking about.


Dear New York Times: Fuzzy profiles on Neo-Nazis? Really? Why the Gray Lady has just flipped her lid.

I am certain a lot of you have done some very important, creative, and constructive things in your life, but The New York Times won’t give you the time of day.


But that’s just because you aren’t a Neo-Nazi!

Their profile is so wrong in so many ways, and so many people with critical-thinking skills are alarmed.

As well as they should be.

I am not going to go into the specifics of the content of the article as there has already been a lot said. What I will discuss is (a) the structure of profiles, and (b) journalistic objectivity.

Profiles are not the best way of conveying information to people, but journalists love them. The use a lot of “colour”: that is, frilly and flowery details used to “humanize” subjects and put a “face” on people.

I never liked colour because it is too easy to exploit and manipulate through it. People such as Bernie Ebbers and Kenneth Lay got away with their chicanery because too many newspapers and magazines had fawning profiles on these men. It gives the false impression that you “know” a newsmaker, but, in fact, you don’t know them. You need facts, and profiles are not structured for actual useful information.

But journalists still stubbornly stick to doing them. In a way, it is cheap and easy soft news filler instead of hard news information about people. Do not tell me about the television shows a person watches: tell me who is this person.

The other issue is the inert substance known as journalistic objectivity, which still murkily defined as getting this mysterious Both Sides to every story.

Yes, we can make an argument that we need to know about Neo-Nazis (hold on, critical thinking people; let me finish my point), but the Times profile was not the way to do it.

I have written about the problems of journalistic objectivity for Skeptic magazine, but one professor I interviewed at the time had a very good point: should the press have covered the Unabomber is a “fair” way?

Well, gee, he did blow up and kill innocent people, but you know, he may have had a point to his argument, and you can’t fault him for his anti-consumerist lifestyle, and cell phones are kind of annoying.

You can show the world all kinds of people and are obligated to do so, but you do not do it through a soft lens, but one of truth and reality, and that’s where the Times went so horribly wrong.

News is all about telling the public about potential problems and new information they need to make informed decisions. It is not about humanizing anyone: it is about giving facts people can actually take to the bank. Is a storm coming? Is the economy rebounding? Is this tycoon making money by exploiting workers? Is this law harming people? Is the court system levelling a playing field or stacking things against the poor?

The Times profile was so softball it was shocking. Once upon a time people needed crack publicists, image consultants, and PR flaks to snag that kind of publicity.

And now, any Neo-Nazi can manage it all on his own, yet journalists are not changing their ways or challenging their own beliefs.

The damage has been done, and it is an outrage.

The Gray Lady has had a meltdown as she gave herself yet another black eye.

Memo to The National Post: Yes, you do have to rudely question “credible” authorities so you don’t appeal to them: Understanding how war propaganda hijacks critical thinking

Journalism has always had a horrendous time during war and civil unrest. I have always said that The Hague should be filled with countless pseudo “journalists” whose irresponsible ways directly caused the senseless and unnecessary murders of hundred of thousands of civilians as it whipped people up into an irrational frenzy. Bad journalism has lured, primed, groomed, and incited otherwise normal people to kill other innocent people all in the name of a good story. If left unchecked, reporters can be the worst bottom feeders you can imagine.

Public relation firms and lobby groups have gotten away with bloodshed because the press aids and abets them. It is not some sort of vast “conspiracy”: it is simply the oblivious nature of journalists who are self-obsessed, unschooled in information verification, and desperate for the next headline that make them prime pigeons for any propagandist who wishes to lie to a public, and get normally rational and peaceful people to advocate killing complete strangers in the name of morality.

Before getting to the offending article in question, let me discuss the problems journalists have when covering wars and why they are so problematic:

  1. Journalists, by default, operate on a binary level. If there is a “good guy”, there must, by default be a “bad guy.” The good guy must be presented as faultless and pure as driven snow, according to the journalistic narrative, and the bad guy has to be demonized to be some sort of psycho-sicko without a single redeeming quality. This dynamic is often on the money on one-on-one circumstances (such as looking at child molesters and their victims), but once we start making those assumptions to collectives, all bets are off. But journalists cannot help themselves, especially during times of war — or politics: they sucker people in by generating stories with familiar narratives, even if the truth of a chaotic and prolonged situation is more complex than that.
  2. Reporters also conveniently ignore outside “help” warring factions employ (often with stolen blood money) to bolster their case. They act as if public relations firms and lobby groups do not exist. Oh, they do. And journalists very well know which ones are paid to enhance the optics, considering these firms send them press releases and video news releases. Remember Nayirah? Most likely not — or you weren’t even born yet. But suffice to say this so-called testimony justified a war that killed scores of innocent Iraqi civilians, even though what she said was not the truth — and journalists ran with it despite it being released by a firm known to take up such cases. Reporters are not babes in the woods when it comes to the ways of PR, and war-mongers often use multiple firms at a single time to push their agenda, and you can bet they are not going to give any unflattering information about their clients to the press, or allow a narrative where an opponent may have valid points. No, no, no.
  3. Then there is their blind adherence to “authorities.” It is pathological, and a topic I have written on here. Journalists love groups, experts, and groups of experts, and treat their word as divine, when nothing could be further from the truth. Authorities told reporters that Richard Jewell was likely a bomber, that Private Jessica Lynch escaped a war zone like Rambo, and that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction ready to blow up blonde, blue eyed babies with gummy smiles. They also sang the praises of Bernie Ebbers and Kenneth Lay. I have written extensively on these hoaxes in my first book…but don’t think those were the only cases. For decades, “credible” authorities also told reporters that women were inferior to men, that homosexuality was a mental illness, that Aboriginal Canadians should be kidnapped from their homes, converted to a more “acceptable religion” and be held captive in residential schools, and that various ethnic groups were people in need of Eurocentric meddling.
  4. War time and civil unrest is rife with propaganda on all sides. People lie and lie frequently because (a) they are in survival mode, and whatever gets the job done fast looks like a good idea, and (b) people are competitive and want to win at any cost. The problem is reporters are historically illiterate, do not know the language or its nuances, and are not familiar with the culture of the other sides. And now they are parachuted in expected to find truth in an anarchy of lies. They don’t think about all the foreign mercenaries who parachute in to grab power. They don’t consider the prisons where that area’s most dangerous predators are now abandoned and those thugs are running loose on the street. They also don’t disclose  that professional propagandists have literally (yes, literally) set up tents in the war zones to give overwhelmed news producers processed news for their stories.
  5. In times of war, it is too easy to get into mama bear-protective mode and get offended by people asking rude questions, such as wondering if there might be some lies coming out of a chaotic and violent situation. All of a sudden, skeptics are cast into stupid, evil, and crazy troublemakers who dare question unverified information and rumours. Well, no one said polite people have an inkling of what it means to find the truth. As someone who worked as a journalist, people who suffered a tragedy (a real one) still lied to my face and covered up even minor lapses in judgement — and often, that lie and/or cover-up buried a very important truth essential to understand what really happened. Something bad may have happened — and genuinely happened to a person, but even genuine victims may be conniving, and as a truth-gatherer, you have to find that truth to see reality, even if you have to be rude about it. Otherwise, you are contaminating information that can lead to unforeseen and terrible consequences later on. If we had more nuanced understanding of conflict, then we will not give one side a free pass and then come up with a solution that cannot work because it was made to fix a different reality other than the one presented. Humanity has to learn how to assess without being judgemental or trying to milk a narrative, and we can’t do that if journalists keep shaming people who are skeptical and demand more facts. Once upon a time, questioning a Catholic priest’s morality could ruin your life, but eventually, the truth came out about children whose lives were forever ruined by those in power molesting and terrorizing them. That bygone era’s massive journalistic failure must always be in the forefront of every reporter’s mind (and heart) whenever covering any story. There are no sacred cows.

So what does this all mean?

Well, if it isn’t obvious, the short answer is that every story must be weighed individually, without assumptions or passively looking at authorities to do all of our thinking for us as we take their word as God. A good news report (let’s get away from the concept of “story”) tells us what has happened — not who to blame, who to pity, and how to feel about it. It hunts for specifics — and then tries to corroborate every single fact, letting news consumers know what they can take to the bank — and what still needs verifying. So while it is well and good that a reporter has three experts and organizations to tell him that X happened, he still hunts down as much as he can to make certain X really did happen, and happened the way those authorities said it did, because very often, you have several experts singing the same song, only for people to discover later on that they all relied on the same primary source for their information.

Which brings us to the shoddy reportage of The National Post. 

According to this article, there is a clueless professor who has the gall to question the reports of rape coming out of troubled Myanmar — as if propaganda of this variety never happened. Worse, this lone wolf is challenging the narrative of several “credible” organizations.

Well, how politically incorrect.

War propaganda has been something I have been studying and researching since I was a psych undergrad in the early 1990s. I was taken by how many hoaxes and propaganda revolved around rape. In a time of anarchy, that kind of abuse would be used, as well as every other kind, but as a piece of propaganda, it served a very real purpose: get the women to be so terrified of a faceless enemy, that she would willingly agree to sacrifice her son to go get himself killed in war. Every war had false stories of this ilk. Do not tell me that this kind of lie never happens. I am a radical feminist who thinks women’s shelters are concentration camps for abused women that enable abusive men; so to suggest I am being archaic and anti-woman is absurd. If you are offended by the notion that women’s primal nightmares are exploited in war propaganda, then you have serious reality issues you need to work through, and if you think women never fib about sexual assault, does Rolling Stone have an answer for you.

Were women raped there in unrest? Of course, just as there were women raped there when there wasn’t unrest. Hollywood does not have the monopoly on raping women for kicks, but it is important to know that there will be those who lie about getting raped, just as there are women who will lie and say it didn’t happen — and PR firms who invent nonexistent figments to inflate their narratives. War is not just ugly with body counts, but with the truth in general. That is the reason we have to be ferocious truth-finders in any chaotic situation. Underreporting and exaggerations alike can lead to the same pile of dead bodies.

So, on the one hand, we have a knowledgable professor asking hard questions, which is absolutely fair and justified. It does not matter what two groups of people are in conflict, we have to ask questions — not to dismiss them, but to understand the truth and reality of any given situation.

It does not even have to be about war or violence. In the 1980s, there had been a slew of reports of people finding all sorts of objects in their cans of Pepsi. It was national news and there was a real panic. The victims were consumers. The aggressor was a corporation. In the end, most of the consumers who reported tainted cans lied. They saw an opportunity to sue a company with deep pockets and took advantage of it.

Now, let’s take another consumer nightmare story from the same era: the Tylenol tampering terrorism. Here, people died, and we could confirm those people died from the same root cause. In this case, while it was tampering, the company had been lackadaisical with how they packaged their product, and made people vulnerable to a sicko’s whim. It forced companies to repackage their wares in such a way where there would not be a repeat.

Two cases with two very different causes: the former where a lot of strangers all lied for a common goal and were not victims, and the latter where these strangers were real victims. We do not go in with some mindless default assumption that people are always lying or always telling the truth. Sometimes it is in-between. Sometimes people lie. Sometimes people tell the truth. You don’t know unless you are rude enough to ask the questions to find out. Political correctness and insincere empathy are tools people use to hide truths, not find them.

But the scribe in the Post article appealed to authority after authority, deeming them all “credible” without actually proving that any were credible. That is not journalism, but stenography. I don’t care about an organization: I care about the facts. I do not want a journalist to commit a logical fallacy because he cannot be bothered to dig. Find the victims. Interview them. Verify their accounts.

The professor in the story asked perfectly legitimate questions. If you do not like what those questions imply, find the hard data to answer her questions. The story has some uncalled for manipulations in it — at one point the professor in question uses the number “70,000”, and the reporter sniffed that none of the organizations used the number in their reports…

Well, okay, you interviewed the skeptical professor, didn’t you ask her where that number came from? Did she mean the number literally — or figuratively? And just because no organization has a particular fact on file, does not mean the fact does not exist. They are not gods whose purpose in life is to do all of the reporter’s legwork for them.

Not once in this article does the journalist bother to inform readers which PR firms and lobbyists are working for which side. We need to know as news consumers who is managing the optics of this conflict — one way or another.

This is not to say violence isn’t happening or that the violence isn’t lop-sided or even one-way: but no journalist can take any narrative as the default. You dig. You find facts. You verify facts. You find more facts. You verify those facts. You compare and contrast your facts. They will not fit neatly into a perfect little jigsaw puzzle. You do not gloss over facts that prove a heart wrenching yarn to be a lie. You do not appeal to authority. You do not appeal to sympathy. You do not commit a confirmation bias in some de haut en bas manner. You are mindful of Ockham’s Razor, meaning you do not explain away or justify facts that go against your working hypothesis of a situation that magically proves that you are holier than the skeptic. You agonize as you keep digging, unconcerned about the toil and filth you have to wade through, unconcerned about whether you are going to get a cookie for being “sensitive” enough. You worry about every word you write, wondering what are the long-term consequences if you didn’t dig deep enough or misinterpreted reality.

You do not look down your nose on someone who dares challenge an accepted narrative. You listen with an open mind. You look at multiple alternate theories and you keep digging to open the truth, not burying it with some sort of manipulative narrative no one will have the courage to question.

So shame on the National Post for using feints and ruses to attack a skeptic instead of rationally looking for primary sources (and sorry, organizations and experts are not primary sources) to answer the questions without arrogance or judgement. We should not be threatened by questions. When we have truth, we can deal with reality. When we have lies, we have narratives that hide the solutions reality has in plain sight.

Journalists are supposed to be the jerks who snatch the paper crown off your head and examine it as they then tear it up. They are not supposed to be impressed with your awards and titles. They have the mandate of finding the truths that paint the most accurate picture of reality. That means their atom of existence is facts. Not narrative.

Not narrative.

How many people were harmed in a conflict? Journalists have to push through PR and lobby groups, let alone image consultants. No one gets a pass because they have a title or are a politician or tycoon. Truth is the equalizer. They must resist the temptation of narratives that establish a convenient pecking order and filter of how to see the world.

If we had journalists like that, we wouldn’t have toxic tripe in the Post. We wouldn’t have skeptic-shaming. We’d have facts.

And with facts, we’d have real answers, and far less bloodshed in the world.

Muzzling the Messenger: How the New York Times still does not quite get this Internet thing

The New York Times is behind the times, and in the age where anyone, no matter how empty-headed and uninformed, can broadcast their shallow-most thoughts, there is no use trying to move backwards. Their new social media “policy” insists their reporters refrain from using social media to broadcast their personal truths, such as the fact they do not like Donald Trump or that their mechanic did not fix their muffler and is doing nothing to remedy the problem.

Okay, what reality does the Times inhabit?

Do they think that muzzling their journalists will hide what they truly believe in their stories?

Of course not. What facts you see and what facts you ignore is guided by your interpretations of reality. There is no hiding that, and don’t think you are such a practiced liar that you can fool all of the people all of the time. You are not always the smartest person in the room. The Times has made numerous blunders over the decades. For example, more than one con man got away with fleecing people because that newspaper gave them legitimacy without asking hard questions. Those journalists just assumed those grifters got their wealth by legitimate means, which tells us something very important about their opinions on businessmen.

Objectivity is not pretending you do not have any biases because that is a lie, and everyone knows it is a lie. Objectivity is, in fact, acknowledging you have preferences, and then challenging your own beliefs. There has to be an element of struggle, dissonance, and true analysis as you revise your own assumptions. The simplest way to challenge yourself is by not falling for the confirmation bias: you absolutely have to look for evidence that refutes your theory and then face the fact that issues are more complicated than what your perceptions reveal. The more facts you present, the more you and your audience see that the story, event, or issue is more nuanced than what everyone initially believed.

Journalists are not the only ones with biases that need challenging: so do audiences who also have them. The purpose of a news report is to inform those biased audiences that their narratives and interpretations of reality do not align with the real thing. That is the reason we need to consider an issue from more than one or two perspectives: we can focus on a newsmaker, but while he is a hero to some, he is a villain to others. The point is to view people as human beings, not gods or devils. We can weigh the good and the bad and come with a more realistic view.

Reporting is not about spewing propaganda. It is not about manipulating audiences by fear-mongering, cheerleading, hero worshipping, or demonization. People get whipped into some childish outrage, and then they cannot actually think for themselves, and the worst thing of it all, they don’t realize they are not actually feeling that way, but have been talked into those unnatural emotions. They get injected with adrenaline, and then look at the choreographed feelings of others, mistakenly taking those feelings as their own.

Yes, it happens, and frequently happens to you. You are not propaganda-proof.

If done correctly, journalism informs rationally. It gives facts, and the audience can use those facts to make assessments and decisions.

But the Times’ policy does something to undermine that simple journalistic mandate: it gives reporters less freedom than the audience they are targeting. If common readers have more leeway to express, then why should they take the Times seriously? Why entrust a censored group who are withholding their feelings?

Because reason is only one-half the information we use to make assessments. We also use emotionality. An emotionally literate person has biases and reactions, but can use the reflection of logic and facts to revise their feelings just as their feelings give context to those facts. It is a feedback loop.

Hiding emotions is deceptive, and worse, the lack of emotions is a sign of an anti-social personality, while the lack of opinion is a sign of apathy.

In journalism, facts come first. We don’t need a reporter to meddle and tell us how to think — but we also need to get some sense of who a reporter is as a person.

A very good example of solid journalism was Ronan Farrow’s recent game-changing exposé of Harvey Weinstein in the New Yorker, a publication that usually peddles in arrogant sophistry. There is no question of who Farrow is and his background…and yet his reportage was accurate, truthful, honest, valid, reliable, useful and righteous. It had the balance of both logic and feeling. It did what a good piece of journalism is supposed to do: warn people about the hidden dangers and remind them not to be complacent followers who mindlessly cheer those who are destructive. We know Farrow’s stance and personal history, yet far from him being someone who shouldn’t have done the story, he became the very person to report it.

The New York Times needs to take a lesson from Farrow. You cannot hide the truth, or else you are as deceptive as those you condemn in your stories. Stop pretending and stop tethering your reporters to the point they have less freedom of expression than the audiences who have the freedom to do so.

It is not about hiding opinion. It is about facing those opinions and learning to channel them through the lens of reality and humility. You do not know everything and you have a lifetime to learn and adjust your opinions as you gain new information.

But the Times chooses to go back in to a less honest era to cover a world that has moved on.