In ninth-grade biology class, we learned to use a microscope. Our teacher had us prepare slides for which we cut a tiny section of newsprint, one letter, put a drop of water on it to “stick” it to the slide and placed a cover slip over top. Our task was to draw what we saw through the microscope.
When I raised my hand to indicate that I was finished with the exercise and ready to move on, my teacher came over, looked at my drawings, and asked:
“Is that really what you saw? Did it actually look like the letter ‘e’?”
He did not pass my notebook. He instead told me to do it again, this time drawing what I actually saw, setting aside preconceived notions or biases. I was not happy, a straight-A student being told to do it again and do it right, but now I realize the wisdom in the teaching of that oft-mocked biology teacher.
That is what scientific observation is supposed to be. That is what an “examined life” is supposed to be.
That is also what journalism should be—observing the world, deliberately setting aside preconceptions, and noticing what is new, surprising or not quite right, doing some ground work and research and recording what you “see” with words. But news media outlets today are usually identified by their biases. Perhaps the only news medium that isn’t characterized this way is the small town newspaper. It’s hard to put spin on close-to-home incidents and stories when your readers can go next door and talk to the subject of the story and let the paper know when facts are wrong.
I recently attended a presentation of a professional blogger and CEO of a company that encourages online career conversations for young professionals. I was familiar with her work, and although I recognize that she is a talented writer, her writing always seems short on substance, unaffected by facts, studies or reading of information counter to her own opinions. Her presentation, to me, was similar to her writing—engaging but short on substance, footwork, research, critical thinking, or context in the larger body of work in the field. Perhaps that’s why this 42-year-old business woman came across like a college student “BS-ing” her way through a presentation for which she had not prepared.
The scary thing is that personal opinion, bias and limited experience was being presented as expertise not editorial, and it is happening everywhere.
The glory of the internet, 24-hour cable and the information age is that everybody can have a voice. The problem is that very few people have the appropriate critical thinking and listening skills to sort the solid from the sordid. Anybody can have a blog (I write for three). Anybody can have a Twitter account, Linked-In or whatever page. And with the cool tools out there like RSS feeds and iGoogle, a person can choose to follow only the sources that provide the viewpoint you agree with. No information overload. No challenge to your biases and preconceptions.
And that’s not good.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. For instance, when I look at Google News, I can read a story from Fox, NPR, the Washington Post, the Sacremento Bee and other sources. By the time I have read about the same event from these differently biased voices, I usually have an inkling of the actual facts. But it takes time and effort.
The speaker I referred to above did say several things in her talk that had value. One of them was a challenge to listeners to try something new and a little scary, like playing with a new technology. I would like to expand her challenge to include something truly scary, setting aside biases and really observing the world. Check out stories from several angles. Look up some facts and data. Look at the world around you.
What do you see? Really. Do you really see the letter ‘e’, or do you see something else?
© 2009 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.