Ellison: Reading between the lines

Raising Hellison

I read newspapers before I really knew how to read. Every morning from when I was about four until when I was about six, I would sit on the floor with the sports section and read through the box scores. In time, I read the front section as well. It made me feel grown-up and important; I could read the newspaper and know everything that was going on in the world.

Conversely, while waiting in line at trips to the supermarket with my parents, I was taught that tabloids were nothing but made-up attacks on the reputations of celebrities and should never be read. As an aspiring educated person, I accepted this critique without much additional thought. But in recent years, I have come to question my black-and-white view of the value of these different journalistic approaches.

At Yale, with a daily newspaper focusing on stories so close to students on campus, I have had the opportunity to see instances in which the article that I read differed significantly from the reality as I observed it. Occasionally, this split came as a result of imperfect reporting — a story would slightly misrepresent a situation, emphasize a relatively unimportant aspect of a story or use quotes that fit a preconceived narrative and exclude other quotes and facts that were equally true and relevant.

In some cases, however, the imperfections have seemed more systemic and indicative of a bigger problem: Many students know things, or at least think they know things, that the News claims are unknown. For the same reasons that the things I have in mind have not appeared in the News, I cannot give any more details about them on this page.

I do not mean to single out the News; I use examples from this paper because I am familiar with the events going on at Yale that this paper covers. I am confident that if I were a political insider in D.C., I could make the same criticisms of The Washington Post. Indeed, when I was interning at a political consulting firm in Washington for a boss plugged into South Carolina politics, I learned that there was another woman (in addition to the Argentinean “soul mate”) widely believed to be romantically involved with Governor Mark Sanford. Reporters at The State in Columbia, S.C. knew her name. But the journalists never got enough publishable information to run the story, so the existence of this rumor was never revealed to the public, even though it was widely believed to be true by people in the know, including journalists themselves.

I do not blame journalists for not reporting many of these facts, and I recognize that there is a need to corroborate and speak with additional sources to ensure that a story is accurate. Sometimes, journalists won’t be able to verify a story to a great enough degree, and it will go unpublished, even if it might be true. Sometimes, journalists have off-the-record information that they can’t publish because they want the source to give them valuable information for future stories. Such is the practice of modern mainstream journalism, and I mean no disrespect to those who engage in it, the vast majority of whom would really love to break the next big story.

Tabloids are routinely mocked, and I agree that much of what they report is sensationalized and inconsequential. But I do think there is a place in journalism for publications that require a lower standard of proof to publish. The National Enquirer broke the John Edwards story months before any mainstream news organization would touch it. It was an important story to tell, and the failure of the mainstream media to pick it up before the primaries could have spelled disaster for the Democrats in 2008.

I do not think the mainstream media should adopt the journalistic standards of the National Enquirer and believe people are correct to be much more skeptical of its content. But in many cases, I wish the public could be made more aware of things that are probably, but not definitely, true. Disclaimers can be inserted, and readers can be told where the information is coming from and how reliable the journalists believe it to be. Rumors should be reported on, as long as readers are also told who the sources are (e.g, “it is widely believed by Branford students that …”).

Mainstream journalism is unlikely to take this advice, and I understand that. Nonetheless, I maintain that it is useful for any consumer of news to realize the limits that often prevent the full story from being thrown on your driveway. And we shouldn’t assume that traditional media sources are painting the entire picture. And, perhaps, once in a while, we should give in to the temptation to read that article under the seamy headline in the checkout line. It might just be about Octomom, but in three months, it might show up in The New York Times.

Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.

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