Following up on the previous post, it’s worth mentioning that while journalism can make use of storytelling techniques and still maintain its ethic, the routine crime committed by for-profit news outlets is the same as that committed by duplicitous authors: exploitation of audience uncertainty. This basic dynamic in communication between two people — one who knows and one who does not know — can be harnessed for good or ill by anyone, which is why the real test of a journalist is whether questions an audience has (or would have if they were more informed) are being answered, or whether audience uncertainty is being fed, led, and otherwise exploited as a means of generating ratings or sales.
Exploiting uncertainty (and its sibling, fear) is the modus operandi not of writers, storytellers and journalists, or even advertisers, attorneys and politicians, who often stoop to that level, but of con artists, propagandists and fear mongers. As a technique uncertainty is commonly generated by entertainers in all mediums precisely because it’s effective, but even then there are standards to such practices. The power of any fiction turns on withheld knowledge because the author could simply reveal all outcomes at the beginning, but as audience members we understand that the best experiences necessitate going along for the ride. What we will not forgive, however, is finding out at the end of a story that the uncertainty at the heart of a work was contrived: that information was withheld from us unfairly or that we were lied to in service of outright deception.
In the case of the missing Malaysian airliner that CNN has been exploiting for profit, simply understanding the context of such a search was and probably still is outside the cognitive capacity of most human beings because the scale of the search area is so vast. While anyone can confront how big an ocean is by going sailing on the high seas — or, alternatively, by looking at a globe and extrapolating — it’s not up to patrons of the news to do this. Rather, it’s up to purveyors of the news to anticipate or detect confusion and uncertainty and work assiduously to defeat it. Doing so, however, obviously shrinks the number of nutso conspiracy theories that can be sourced from the internet and debated by a panel of paid experts. (Here’s one example of how it might be done for web-centric news junkies.)
The test for whether you’re being honest or not in your communications with others is simple: how are you handling audience uncertainty? If you’re authoring a work of fiction, are you being honest in the telling? If you’re a journalist, preying on your audience’s lack of information means, by definition, that you’re not honest. You may get away with it for a while — you may even be able to make an Orwellian career out of misrepresenting yourself as an arbiter of honesty — but you’re still dishonest.
— Mark Barrett
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