Tell All the Truth

In high school I worked on the school newspaper. I wasn’t cool enough to work on the yearbook so I put my budding writing aspirations to work writing and editing news stories. It was a great experience and I moved quickly into the role of News Editor, responsible for making sure reporters got their work in on time and it was edited well, had photos with appropriate (and accurate) captions as necessary and that the copy fit the space available.

It wasn’t hard work. The essentials of good journalism as I learned them were to answer the what, when, where, why, who and how of a situation. Preferably within the first two paragraphs. Additional information could follow later in the story, but it was essential to give readers (our national literacy level is described as 8th grade) the main facts quickly so they could absorb that if they didn’t have time to read the bulk of the article. Not rocket science.

In fact, my first year on the paper I found out the staff was going to a convention of high school newspaper staff from around the state. I had never heard of such a thing but was more than happy to miss a day of school. We sat through various presentations and sessions I don’t remember a thing about. What I do remember is that I was informed there would be a contest for newswriting and I should participate. Again, nothing I had heard about. I was shown a room with dozens of typewriters (yes, I’m that old). We were apparently given some amount of information about a hypothetical event and told to write a news story about it. How unprepared was I? I had to borrow a sheet of paper from the person next to me, who was clearly disgusted with my complete lack of preparation. Mea culpa.

It took me about 15 minutes to type up the story and turn it in to the rather startled proctor, further irritating the person still typing away next to me. It wasn’t very hard. Tell the facts then fill it in. I won third place in the state. I’m sure that irritated the person who had sat next to me even more.

All that to say writing a newspaper story shouldn’t be complicated. Give the facts. But, give all the facts you have. Failure to mention facts can skew a news story into something else. Something that doesn’t just inform and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions from the data you’ve provided, but something that nudges (or shoves) the reader towards a particular response. Not necessarily an intellectual response – it can be emotional as well. Once you begin this (and it’s easy to not be conscious of it, depending on how you were taught to write a story or what the purpose of a news story as opposed to an op-ed piece or the purpose of a newspaper as a whole is) you’re not writing a news story, you’re writing something else. You’re guiding the reader towards a conclusion you either expect they already have or you think they ought to have. Sometimes the danger is confusing those two things or not seeing them as either distinct or intrinsically problematic.

I know writing for a high school newspaper doesn’t qualify me as a journalist. My top reporter went on to get her journalism degree and today writes and edits for magazines and other publications around the country. That required a lot of additional education and training. But the foundations were laid there in a high school journalism classroom, under the tutelage of a kindly and uncharacteristically patient old lady who put up with the crap routinely dished out by some of the cooler people in the class who clearly understood better than she what The Times called for in terms of journalism. She was a good teacher and as such was not properly appreciated. She taught me a lot about writing in a short period of time.

It rained here today.

It rained yesterday as well and is scheduled to rain a fair bit of tomorrow. The rain has been nice and steady and blessedly even. Only one short downpour. I live in a coastal desert so rain of this kind is pretty unusual. It’s also desperately needed. Our state was in a multi-year drought often described as the worst on record. And once the rest of the state received better rainfall levels our particular county remained drier and at greater risk longer. We reactivated a saltwater conversion facility that was built and mothballed decades ago at a cost of millions of new tax dollars. That’s how bad things were.

Then things got worse.

We received torrential rain right after a devastating, massive forest fire. A catastrophic mudslide decimated wide swaths of a community just outside town, literally washing houses off their foundations. Over twenty people died in the span of a few hours. The community is still rebuilding and recovering from that event and in places the landscape is permanently altered.

As such, some people here get nervous about large quantities of rain over prolonged periods. Understandable. But the fact remains that rain is a natural and necessary occurrence and that if we don’t get rain during our very brief November to February rainy season our water resources can run dangerously low. Rain is a good thing. A blessing from God. A necessity. Not simply a source of fear.

But you’d never know that from reading the news story about it.

The headline announced how drenched we were by heavy rainfall, and the subtitle recited flood advisories, high wind advisories, high surf advisories and beach hazards. The opening paragraphs (some of which are only a single sentence) scream out about all the possible dangers and warnings and advisories the county is under, and almost grudgingly admit that no actual problems beyond some minor road flooding have arisen. Then the story moved on to recount each of the major fires in the past four years and the unusual danger associated with those burn areas and the higher risk of debris flows and mudslides in those areas.

Then it detailed how warming centers were open and available for the homeless during this storm. Rain totals were provided but given no context (what those levels mean compared to our average annual rainfall totals). Then the story once again reiterated all the various warnings and advisories issued thus far and concluded with a summary of all the areas where flood warnings were in effect.

Now all of that is true, of course. But what’s the cumulative effect of a story like that, where the event – a natural if somewhat unusual event – is described and portrayed in nothing but negative language with nothing but warnings and alarms the topic throughout? It is an article of fear. Fear of what happened in the past. Fear of what might happen in the future. The reader should be aware, on alert, on edge.

Not a word about how badly we need this rainfall given how dry our rainy season has been thus far. Not a single observation regarding how much rain we’re getting but how gentle and gradual it is. Not a single word about how the air quality improves dramatically after a rain, or encouraging readers to appreciate the brightness and clarity of light that will follow. I know, I know, some of those things aren’t news, per se. But they are true. They provide a balance to the story that reminds people there is more to rain – even large amounts of rain – than fear.

The assumption seems to be people should be worried and afraid of this rain. The news story is validation of that assumed pre-existing fear. All these different weather advisories have been issued! Your fear is justified and healthy! No matter whether the advisories actually come to anything. Fear is appropriate! And as such the article contributes to an emotional state it presupposes or, worse yet, seeks to inculcate.

A single article on the weather may not contribute much towards this end. But couple that with all the other articles about politics, the threat of right-wing extremist terrorists, the existential dread that is COVID and the worries and concerns about whether the vaccines will be enough or will be taken by enough people.

The only positive news stories have to do with new administrations and changes of direction. There is unrestrained joy and optimism in those articles as things that a very large percentage of our country’s population apparently approved of are repudiated and gleefully dismantled.

Rain is natural. It’s uncontrollable, yes. But it’s natural. It isn’t something we do or manipulate. It is something we simply have to deal with and sometimes that means dealing with too much or too little of it. That’s fearful. Like viruses. Again, natural things. Sometimes very dangerous to us, to be sure. But things we don’t (generally) create ourselves and that our abilities to manipulate are decidedly ill-equipped for. So these things are scary as well. Live in fear of them, we are told. The only hope is that someone will come along and fix them for us. A pill or an injection – something we do and we control. That’s where our hope is. In ourselves. In what we can do and control. Anything else is fear.

Don’t live your life in fear. Live your life in a proper context. But don’t simply walk around being afraid of everyone and everything except for the narrow sliver of things and people the media claims will help and save you from your fear. They won’t. They can’t. Their intentions might be good or not, but they cannot save you from the uncontrollable. From the natural. They can’t save you from death, or from the gnawing fear and anxiety inside you they have helped create in order to ensure they retain control.

Only in understanding you are a creature and not a creator – just like the scientists and politicians and social activists so glorified in the media, and just like those same categories of people excoriated in the media for disagreeing, for contributing alternative assessments of the situation and alternative avenues of dealing with issues. All creatures. Hopefully doing the best they can, which sometimes is wonderful and sometimes completely awful. Sometimes doing the worst they can, because some people are like that, just like little pieces of ourselves are like that. Black and darkened with fear and anger and hatred and jealousy. We point the fingers and make the blames for those things inside us but they persist. And they persist in no small part because we feed them. Left or right, blue or red, we’re apt to feeding those ugly things inside of us with justifications and material that encourages them rather than weakens them.

Use the brains God gave you. Read, but also evaluate. Listen, but also reflect. Hope, but put your hope in the one place that can support it – the Creator of the Universe instead of fallible and broken creatures good and bad like yourself. And a key part of all of this is telling the truth. All the truth. As much as we’re able to see it and understand it. And in doing so reject the culture of fear that rapidly swells and grows around us at all times. Look for the details and then come to your own conclusions. A good news story should help you do that. A good community will help you do that. And a good baseline will give you the starting point to make comparisons and evaluations and conclusions.

Make sure your baseline can hold, even when the rain is heavy.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

~ Emily Dickinson ~

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