Slusher: Information, misinformation and a viral G-7 photograph
The job of news and copy editors at a traditional newspaper today is fraught with more hand wringing and fear of second guessing than I can recall in more than 40 years in the profession. As they work to select pictures, edit stories, write headlines and organize the presentation of all this material, editors are constantly looking over their shoulders for something some critic will find to declare, "Gotcha!" as proof of a political motive to manipulate the, apparently, spongy minds of the pliant masses.
In the contentious climate of 2018, nothing is more indicative of this tension than anything having to do with President Donald Trump. Every headline, every phrase, every story chosen for the front page or moved inside -- and many stories not chosen for the front page or reported at all -- seems prone to ideological scrutiny. A picture of the president locked eye-to-eye with German Chancellor Angela Merkel provides a particularly instructive case in point today. Even before the photo, provided by the German government, had gone viral online -- or perhaps even as that was happening -- we chose the picture to accompany our editorial Tuesday, in which we hoped for success in the president's mission to Singapore but fretted over the distance he seemed comfortable with placing between the United States and our Western allies. The tone of the picture reflects pointedly the tone of the reporting and analysis, from virtually all perspectives, about the G-7 summit and was appropriate to the theme of our editorial.
Then, a sharp-eyed follower of our Voices of the Suburbs Facebook page pointed out that another picture of that setting exists, taken within seconds or minutes of the one we published. It evokes an entirely different mood. Instead of sitting back with arms crossed over his chest glaring at a stern-faced Merkel, Trump is leaning forward in an animated posture while the chancellor is smiling. That, the poster said, is the picture we should have used. When we contended that such an image would hardly reflect accurately the tone of the conference, the reader replied that, if we were truly objective, we would have included both pictures. To add salt to the sting of his complaint, he included this quote attributed to Mark Twain, "If you don't read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you are misinformed."
Such is the state of social discourse in today's world. But so, also, is the state of partisanship, for the Center for Mark Twain Studies finds no evidence that Mark Twain -- the fake name used by author and former newspaperman Samuel Langhorne Clemens -- ever used that phrase. An exhaustive review by quoteinvestigator.com comes to the same conclusion. Its examination does provide an authoritative and entertaining array of anti-newspaper quotations, but its ultimate value -- for me, at least -- is to reinforce the tension that has always existed among those who would describe events of the world, those who would be described and those who would see the descriptions.
There are, in fact, at least a half-dozen photographs online of that moment between Merkel and Trump, perhaps many more, taken from every conceivable angle. The choice of any one of them could imply some underlying ulterior statement. There is no way all of them could be included in a single presentation or editorial regarding the G-7 summit. We chose the one we did because we thought it told the story we were trying to tell. There are many other stories to tell from the conference. We've told some of them. Many other publications, print and digital, have told others. Will you be misinformed if you read any single one of those pieces? Not necessarily. But you will certainly be only partially informed.
It's for that reason that I and many others urge you to accept on faith most unaffiliated media's desire to tell news stories as thoroughly and objectively as human imperfection and the limits of space, time and reader patience allow. Don't unsettle your nerves with cynical suspicions that you are being misled. But do look elsewhere for other points of view that will deepen your insights about the events being reported.
Whatever your politics, you'll always be able to find a "Gotcha!" moment somewhere. But if you want to be well-informed, you'll look for information -- and consider context -- everywhere.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.