Every week I get an email update from Media Matters discussing some aspect of the journalistic landscape. The one that arrived yesterday covered two areas of journalistic practice and malpractice: the use of anecdotes and media outlets' willingness to correct errors promptly.
Human interest anecdotes, true stories of people, can serve as an enticing lead to many stories. But Jamison Foser did a great job of explaining how journalists can misuse illustrative anecdotes to create lasting negative impressions about people toward whom they harbor hostility. For example, Democratic politicians, who for whatever reason, rub them the wrong way:
Moreover, because a good story is a good story, these things tend to hang around -- even if they turn out to be false. It's been shown many times that Al Gore didn't say he'd "invented the internet," but the phony story just keeps coming back around, even in publications that have debunked it.
Foser proposes four criteria for using anecdotes in reporting political campaigns:
These seem like good questions to me.
And Foser's further insists that news organizations need to promptly admit and, where possible, fix their errors:
Again, well said.
In my post Talk about blood sucking.... pretty much the whole text is an anecdote, the linked story of a Mexican woman who made more from selling blood plasma to a company in the U.S. than she made in a week's work at a factory on her side of the border. It gives a human face to the fact that blood products, the stuff of life, are extracted from the poor for the rich -- my real point. The article from which it is drawn is a more complicated (and in some ways even more condemnatory) discussion of the practice of blood sales, so there is more there for anyone who follows the link -- but I just wanted to highlight the shocking reality. In reaction to Foser's criteria: I believe the story is true; I am certain it is not anomalous; I think the truth it illustrates is important.
What using the anecdote the way I did leaves out is why I think it is both true and important. There is a back story of my familiarity with blood collection practices that I could have written: about supporting a picket line by homeless plasma vendors on Los Angeles skid row in 1973; living through the revolution in blood screening in the 1980s here are at the West Coast epicenter of the AIDS epidemic; and recently learning that only 37 percent of people in the U.S. are eligible to donate blood. But all that information detracts from the clarity of the point I wanted to make. I think, for a blogger, it probably ethical to use a simple, gripping anecdote to spot light a larger point, so long as you are convinced of its truth through some, not necessarily stated, knowledge of the context. It might well be unethical, if I had merely grabbed that little story out of thin air, without knowing anything of the back story.
Yet from my point of view, and, I think, from the point of view of the voters, this is a distinction that doesn't make much difference to the overall narrative. The congressional seat was a Burton fiefdom; it was passed on within "the machine" (eventually to Pelosi.) So I didn't make the correction in the main text, but appended it. In doing so, I made a decision that may skirt an ethical edge. I'm happy with it -- but should I have corrected in the body? I'm still not sure.