In my Critical Inquiry class I teach a section on applying critical thinking skills to the news. One of the things I warm my students about is being aware of partial truths. That is, when a story presents only some of the facts while leaving out others that might be quite relevant to interpreting and understanding the events in question.
An excellent recent example of this is the coverage of Reverend Wright. The news coverage of his infamous 9/11 sermon did present what he in fact said. However, the whole story was not told. As CNN Roland Martin has pointed out, his remarks were taken out of context. For example, it has been claimed that Wright said that 9/11 was a case of America’s chickens coming home to roost. It is true that he did say this. But this in only a partial truth. The full text of what he said is this:
“I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday did anybody else see or hear him? He was on FOX News, this is a white man, and he was upsetting the FOX News commentators to no end, he pointed out, a white man, an ambassador, he pointed out that what Malcolm X said when he was silenced by Elijah Mohammad was in fact true, he said Americas chickens, are coming home to roost.”
While Wright goes on to express agreement with this view, his main point seems to have been that Americans need to reflect on our actions and to consider their implications. He also calls on America to take action against problems at home and in the world rather than engaging in military actions abroad.
It cannot be denied that Wright has said things that seem to be wrong and hateful. But, it is important that the full truth of the matter be exposed as much as possible.
Why, then, is it so common for people to present only partial truths in the news? There are numerous possibilities, two of which are as follows.
One obvious factor is that fully investigating the facts takes more time, effort and resources than the much easier way of simply going with a partial truth. This is why it is important for those who bring the world the news to put in the required effort to ensure that the coverage is as complete as can reasonably be expected.
Another obvious reason is that partial truths can be much more inflammatory and hence more exciting to people. The main business of the news is still business-to make money. As such, they need to appeal to the largest possible audience. Partial truths are one way to create a more dramatic story and hence increase the size of the audience. By presenting, for example, only some of the facts about what Wright said, a more inflammatory story can be created. Saying that Wright was quoting someone on Fox news is not as exciting as reporting that he said that America’s chickens had come home to roost. This is a tougher problem to deal with because the media depends on appealing to the audience and what people seem to want is the drama. As such, the solution to this problem also lies with us: since the people in the media aim to give us what we want, we should try to want the truth rather than mere spectacle.
Because of these two factors, it is always important to observe the news with a critical eye (or ear). To be specific, if it matters to you, then you should ask whether important facts have been left out or not. If the matter is inflammatory, it is also wise to pause and consider that not all the facts are in and that some additional information might change the story in significant ways. This can be rather challenging because of our emotions, our natural love of spectacle and the difficultly of being a critical thinker. It is also challenging because most of us have to rely on the news media for our information. As such, knowing how much of the story has been revealed can be a rather difficult matter.
Fortunately, it is worth the effort. We would be better off if we were better informed and if the media was more inclined to truth over spectacle. Again, much of the blame must fall on us-as with our government, we mostly get what we want and deserve.