One thing I've learned over the years is that the closer one is to given subject matter, the more inadequate the reporting on that subject appears to be.
Journalism, as we know, usually fails the test of time — the first draft of history is typically very rough indeed. But we are oblivious to this because most stories involve subjects about which our knowledge is (often a lot) less than the person who wrote it. To the very ignorant, the slightly less ignorant can appear wise.
One example that comes to mind is that of Max Fisher, a well respected writer at Vox, formerly of the Washington Post. Fisher is prolific and his beat, especially at the Post, seemed to cover every corner of the globe. Even today I read most of what Fisher writes, and some of it seems very good. I say "seems" because I recall Fisher's attempts to write about the Great Lakes region of Africa when I lived and worked in Rwanda. His stories about the so-called M23 group operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo at the time, and Rwanda's alleged support thereof, were short of historical and political context and, in many cases, just plain wrong. At the time, when I was intimately involved in the issue, it struck me that it would be far preferable for Western audiences to read nothing at all than Fisher's accounts. Now, I don't blame Max Fisher, but his employer: The Washington Post had no business giving the task of reporting on such a complex story to somebody without considerable expertise and first-hand knowledge. By doing so, Fisher had no choice but to engage in CTRL-V reportage: cutting and pasting from other news reports along with UN and NGO press releases to compile his stories.
Of course, the only reason I knew Fisher's reporting was so bad was that I happened to know the beat better than him. With respect to almost everything else he writes, I cannot claim such an advantage – and those other stories come off swimmingly. This means one of two things:
- Max Fisher writes well-informed and properly contextualised stories, except when the subject happens to be Great Lakes Region; or
- All of Fisher's work shares similar shortcomings to his Great Lakes reporting, but I am too ignorant to notice.
This sounds like I am piling on Max Fisher. I am not. He is intelligent and hard-working and, with command of his subject, an excellent journalist. It bears repeating: the fault for his flawed, often erroneous EDRC reporting lay clearly with the Washington Post. And it's not as if Fisher was the only Western journo to misreport the story: Reuters and AFP were consistently worse than Fisher, and both had stringers based in the region. Wire services, especially Reuters in my experience, are almost entirely dependent on the well-funded comms shops inside institutions like the UN as well as Big NGOs.
Any person who has been interviewed by a reporter will know that they invariably get things wrong. When I forayed into the media as a teenage city councillor and shameless publicity ho in the late eighties, I was blown away by how the journalist invariably got some detail wrong, failed to convey the key points, or placed a quote out of context. Until that time, I had taken as given that news reports were accurate representations of events and perspectives. The inevitable errors in reporting about my precocious antics struck me at first as personally insulting, but soon I realized this was not the case. They were neither specific to me nor malicious in intent, but merely the product of carelessness or corner-cutting by time pressed journalists.
The correlation between proximity to subject matter and perceived accuracy is not restricted to journalism. Whenever fictional politicians give speeches in movies or on TV, they sound forced and implausible to me because I've written many actual speeches for real politicians. By contrast, as a random example, on the trailer for the upcoming earthquake flick, San Andreas, Paul Giamatti oozes authority as a seismologist but I'm sure his hysterical utterances cause real world seismologists to roll their eyes, if not shake their fists. (Not that I'm comparing my cobbled-together sham of a career to seismology, but you get the drift).
What's my point? Well, nothing that you probably don't already know. "Don't believe everything you read" is decent advice that could only be improved by replacing 'everything' with 'anything'.