October 2015 archive

Truth as a process

The New York Times Magazine took a comprehensive look at the American media’s evolving coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death, perfectly illustrating our course text’s contention that journalistic truth is a practical, functional and evolving process. From the article:

Where does the official bin Laden story stand now? For many, it exists in a kind of liminal state, floating somewhere between fact and mythology. The writing of history is a process, and this story still seems to have a long way to go before the government’s narrative can be accepted as true, or rejected as false.

Jonathan Mahler also addresses the seduction of narrative (often at the expense of facticity):

These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media. Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. During the Iraq war, reporters informed us that a mob of jubilant Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. Never mind that there were so few local people trying to pull the statue down that they needed the help of a U.S. military crane. Reporters also built Pvt. Jessica Lynch into a war hero who had resisted her captors during an ambush in Iraq, when in fact her weapon had jammed and she remained in her Humvee. In an Op-Ed essay in The Times about the Lynch story in 2003, it was Bowden himself who explained this phenomenon as ‘‘the tendency to weave what little we know into a familiar shape — often one resembling the narrative arc of a film.’’

Was the story of Osama bin Laden’s death yet another example of American mythmaking? Had Bowden and, for that matter, all of us been seduced by a narrative that was manufactured expressly for our benefit? Or were these questions themselves just paranoid?

Bias and style


The students are expressing mixed opinions about traditional news writing.

We’ve looked at some different approaches to conveying information: the neutral, objective “view from nowhere” and the more subjective, personal presentation style.

On their blogs, students analyzed the structure of their choice of article from the Associated Press’ website. They discussed whether they plan to write their own articles in a more traditional or more subjective style. Here are some excerpts from their posts:

Fairness is generally good, but in journalism it can cloud the truth if you include all of the points of view equally, because some of the points of view are more rational and “better” than the others. By emphasizing fairness in the “dirty dozen”, Asimov is encouraging journalists to potentially cloud the truth by including all points of view equally.

In my article, I will take some aspects from Asimov, and some from John Oliver. I will take the lede, the kicker, the nut graf, and some of the quotes, although I will be flexible on how many quotes I put in my article. From Oliver I will take the humor aspect of journalism. I will try to keep the reader interested by being humorous but at the same time keep my loyalty to telling the truth in my article. – Zohaib, 9th grade

The use of the structure can be used to press a particular point. In my article, this particular point was the possibility of sustained life on Mars – the positioning of the lede, quotes, evidence, and transitions was used to emphasize certain points and make the article flow more smoothly, in a way that was interesting and comprehensive. This had no effect on the accuracy of the facts or of the truth of the statement. –Shailee, 8th grade

I believe that you can be bias in an article, interview, or news story, but your method of gathering facts cannot be, or it would be an inaccurate article.  By only collecting facts and opinions on one side of an argument or story, and not “transparently conveying” the facts, the research you conduct is therefore biased and unreliable.  My article will take on John Olivers’ style of conveying the news, not masking my personal bias, but still collecting data objectively. –Jaddus, 7th grade


Offend yourself!

“What do you disagree with, but are willing to explore in order to learn new things?” – @irshadmanji


George Mason University grad student and Columbia University lecturer Roi Ben-Yehuda created a web challenge this past summer: for twenty-four hours, embrace an idea with which you vigorously disagree. In other words: #offendyourself 

In the video, Ben-Yehuda explains the reasons behind the challenge:

The world is complex, and yet we reduce it to narratives that avoid any nuance and any contradiction, and so we misunderstand reality. We belong to tribes, we belong to moral tribes, to ethnic tribes, to religious tribes, and those tribes tend to be ideologically homogeneous. It is these perspectives, and these narratives, and these identities, that themselves legitimize exclusion of the other, and violence towards the other, and make constructive dialogue within groups, and between groups, a lot less likely. Challenging an idea that the tribe shares collectively is quite risky. On the one hand, you have the risk of being unpopular, and the other extreme, you also have the risk of facing violence as a result of taking an unpopular perspective.

He argues that in order to engage with other people constructively, you have to possess two key qualities:

The first one is intellectual empathy: not just feeling with somebody else, but generously imagining what it’s like to think as another person. The second one is integrity, and by that, we mean not losing sight of your principles, your core principles and core values that anchor the worldviews that you hold.

If you just have empathy without integrity, you are an intellectual chameleon. If you have integrity without empathy, you’re dogmatic, you are rigid, you are unbending.

The goal of this challenge, which we’ll be engaging next week in Truth in Media, is to build intellectual empathy.  The purpose is not to change your views; it’s to engage the kinds of ideas, experiences, and perspectives that you otherwise purposefully or accidentally avoid.


The Challenge: For twenty-four hours, you’ll generously imagine what it’s like to be a person who embraces an idea with which you vigorously disagree. You’ll seek out information confirming this idea: articles, social media posts, videos, books, conversations with people. Entertain the idea; consider the experiences, traditions, and values that might inform the people who possess it. Perhaps explore the history or geography of this idea: when or where has it been popular? At the end of your twenty-four hours, post to your blog reflecting on your experience and new insights. Explain why you selected your chosen “offensive” idea. Share or paraphrase any informational sources you consulted during the challenge.


Criteria for your choice of idea:

  • Must challenge a belief shared by you and one or more of your social groups (peers, family, neighbors, etc.) because there should be a social risk associated with challenging this belief
  • Must have accessible sources confirming it (articles, blogs, videos, academic communities, etc.)
  • You should be able to explain in your blog post why temporarily embracing this idea will be an intellectually-worthwhile experience for you.

What makes a good question?


In preparation for drafting their first news articles, students collaborated to come up with norms we’ll all follow during interviews. (I should mention that the term “sexy quote” comes from Asimov’s Dirty Dozen).

The lists on the board are entirely student-generated. They also came up with a sophisticated response to the “purpose of interviews for journalists”:

To pursue the full truth, document it authoritatively, present it transparently, and humanize issues and events.

This is an insightful bunch.

I think my favorite moment was when Sofi (perhaps unknowingly, but probably knowingly, drawing on Louis CK) suggested a journalist should basically “act like a person” during an interview. The optimism and prescience are strong in that one.

In the second half of class, they practiced interviewing each other. (We did “musical chairs” to randomly pair them. Musical chairs is exactly the awkward compulsory act set to music that I remember it being in elementary school. But it’s so much fun to watch).

They drafted questions for a fictitious article on how courses here at the Loudoun School are different from those at other secondary schools. I reminded them to uphold the norms they listed earlier on the board, and they went off to different corners of our campus.

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At the end of class, we debriefed. Students pointed out when they felt awkward, and what effective things the interviewers did to get them to relax. They also noticed what kinds of questions helped them open up — and which ones might have been too open.

Summer recognized some of the reasons an interviewer might not seem fully engaged: it takes a lot of focus to listen, transcribe, ask, and refer to notes. There’s so much temptation to hunch over the notepad instead of maintaining normal eye contact and open posture. Especially since interviewing can be such a nerve-wracking performance.

And Brenn pointed out that being recorded makes the interview subject equally nervous. I’m hoping this insight translates into empathy during their “real” interviews this week.

They came up with great ethical questions: to what extent should we alter grammatically-awkward speech (or edit out fillers like “um” or “like”) in our articles? Are there some interview subjects we might want to make uncomfortable – for instance, when we’re trying to hold the powerful accountable? What do we do during an awkward silence?

I’ll guide them as they prepare and carry out their own interviews, but they’ll ultimately have to come up with those answers for themselves.