Untruth and Its Consequences

In a recent TED talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke eloquently on “The danger of a single story.”   In her talk she spoke of how “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story”:

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In the United States we value our right to “free speech” which includes the right to speak up and out against our government and anything else we feel strongly about. There is often talk of the mainstream media’s “liberal bias.”  The reality is that conservatives on the right use that supposed bias, which is presumably against them, as an excuse to proliferate often contentious right-wing rhetoric in the form of talk shows, written publications, even a prominent cable “news” network.

The real problem with a lot of American media goes beyond right and left, conservative and liberal leanings in reporting. American media today is often guilty of disseminating misinformation by focusing on an incomplete narrative. This, coupled with the promotion of opinion based stories as fact based articles and news pieces, is leading to the demise of  the fundamental tenets of journalism. Presenting just the facts of “Who, What, When, Where, Why and How” have been replaced with nuanced news narratives presented as though they were based entirely on fact and devoid of the intrusion of opinion into the matter.  Isn’t a half truth also a partial lie?

Presenting half-truths can lead to the public parsing an oft-repeated story and jumping to false conclusions. The case of Trayvon Martin is a prime example of how someone who operates based on assumptions of partial truths can lead to a devastating outcome for all involved. The shooter of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman’s own words when pursuing the youth were that he “looks like he’s on drugs or something.”  What actions did the young man display that made him look like he was under the influence of anything more than copious amounts of high fructose corn syrup? Could it be that Zimmerman believed, like many people who read or hear that ”Black youths are arrested for drug crimes at a rate TEN TIMES higher than that of Whites”1 that they are more likely to be found wandering the streets, rain or shine, at all hours of the night, under the influence of some illegal substance, and therefore, up to “no good”? That may sound like a stretch to a logical thinking person; unfortunately, there are far too many people who are prone to re-act to the partial truths they read and hear presented by the media.

The arrest rates among Black youths for drug related offences may be fact based, but it is an incomplete story. The media should be delving deeper and looking at the reasons for the imbalance in the justice system. “There’s a perception among many individuals that African-Americans as a group — regardless of socioeconomic status — tend to abuse or use drugs at higher rate and this [does not support] that,” says Dr. Dan Blazer, senior author of a study and a professor of psychiatry at Duke University.

I guess the headline “Black youth ten times more likely to be arrested for drug related offenses” sells more ad space than “U.S. Justice system has some explaining to do:  Drug use among white youth is nearly double that of Black youth — yet Black youths are TEN TIMES more likely to be arrested for drug related crimes!”

A headline like the one above might lead to the telling of the whole story. In doing so,  it is bound to include some media complicity in the proliferation of half-truths and therefore partial lies. If there were really a liberal leaning in the mainstream media and not just a perceived one, perhaps we would have more complete stories.

If the mainstream media was prone to telling and selling more than one side of most stories, people could and would still believe false narratives and act on them, but they would have only themselves to blame. Shameless plug:  We at Borderless News and Views seek to tell “The other side” of the story.  You know…the part that makes it the whole truth not just the part that many in Mainstream Media, right, left and center are likely to sell.

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1 Time Magazine article: Addiction Study: Whites More Likely To Abuse Drugs Than Blacks.  By Maiza Szalavitz. Published November 7, 2011