photo credit: Oberazzi

In the public’s mind, what is the purpose of journalism? My understanding leads me to believe that the industry exists to investigate issues that others—who are preoccupied with their own engaging pursuits—cannot. An industry has thus been created around investigative reporting, with individuals specializing in sifting through the constant turmoil of the world to find and report on news that is relevant to their audience.

Journalism (and public knowledge as a whole), however, only succeeds to the extent that it asks the right questions. One need only look at Fox News—champions of the neoconservative establishment—to witness the erosion of public trust and credibility that occurs when individuals fail in their duty. But while other reporters and journalists have skated by with some semblance of journalistic integrity, the public is waking up to the disappointing truth that the vast majority of journalists do not ask the right questions.

What do I mean by this? Picture, if you will, a reporter interviewing a legislator on the subject of overbooked prisons. This legislator has proposed a bill that mandates tax increases over the next five years to fund the construction and operation of two new prison facilities, thus increasing the state’s total prisoner capacity by 250%. If you were conducting the interview, which questions would you ask?

Here’s a list of questions a journalist on any leading news channel might ask the legislator:

  • Most polls show that the majority of residents do not favor a tax increase. How do you plan on finding support to pass this bill?
  • Where would the new prison facilities be built, if this bill passes?
  • New prisons require new staff and guards—how many new jobs will this bill create?
  • When would this bill go into effect, and how long would it take for its full implementation?
  • How many co-sponsors do you have on this bill? Are you hopeful it will pass?

Contrast the preceding questions with others that might be asked:

  • Given the alleged need to expand prison facilities, can you explain why there is an increase in crime, if any, leading to higher numbers of individuals sentenced to prison?
  • Instead of building new prisons, what might be done to decrease the number of individuals being sent to prison?
  • With one out of every 32 people in this country in prison, do you think that spending our time and money expanding prison facilities is the best use of our resources in deterring crime?
  • Is it proper for people who commit small crimes to be sent to prison?
  • Would you favor seeing prison sentences reduced in length to have more turnover, and thus a decreased need for expanded prison facilities?
  • Your bill suggests a tax increase over five years; after that time, can you guarantee that the tax rate will return to where it stands today?

The differences between these questions may or may not be apparent, but they are important. The first set of questions deals only with superficialities, whereas the second deal with the underlying issue and attendant consequences. In the first, the reporter fails to challenge the legislator in any way, instead turning the interview into a simple media appearance benefiting the legislator, rather than the tax-paying viewers. In the second, the reporter uses the opportunity to raise alternative viewpoints and make sure the legislator has thought them through and has appropriate responses for each.

If journalists (and individuals seeking to understand things as they really are) do not ask questions that address the underlying issues, then we are doomed to the same fate as the Titanic—ignoring the looming iceberg whose massive volume lies just beneath the surface, outside of plain and immediate view. This selective questioning (in effect throwing softballs to almost all interviewees) occurs every day: we hear talk of monetary policy and the economy, but nobody discusses the nature and purpose of the Federal Reserve, a key component in the discussion; we read reports of troop surges, new deployments, and funding, but no explanation of what constitutes a sound foreign policy or how the Just War Theory plays into the picture; we view passionate speeches on health care reform without discussing where the federal government was granted the authority to do a single thing about it.

Hugh Nibley, always one to get to the heart of the matter, once wrote about the effect of not asking the right questions:

Satan’s masterpiece of counterfeiting is the doctrine that there are only two choices, and he will show us what they are. It is true that there are only two ways, but by pointing us the way he wants us to take and then showing us a fork in that road, he convinces us that we are making the vital choice, when actually we are choosing between branches in his road. Which one we take makes little difference to him, for both lead to destruction. This is the polarization we find in our world today. Thus we have the choice between Shiz and Coriantumr — which all Jaredites were obliged to make. We have the choice between the wicked Lamanites (and they were that) and the equally wicked (Mormon says “more wicked”) Nephites. Or between the fleshpots of Egypt and the stews of Babylon, or between the land pirates and the sea pirates of World War I, of between white supremacy and black supremacy, or between Vietnam and Cambodia, or between Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers, or between China and Russia, or between Catholic and Protestant, or between fundamentalist and atheist, or between right and left — all of which are true rivals, who hate each other. A very clever move by Satan! — a subtlety that escapes most us most of the time. (Hugh Nibley, via Quoty)

So, while we often watch debates between two different individuals, or hear contrasting viewpoints presented on a given issue, what is not readily apparent is the simple fact that a third option is almost always left out of the discussion. C. S. Lewis noted this as well:

I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs–pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them. (C. S. Lewis, via Quoty)

If we as individuals do not ask the right questions, we will simply allow ourselves to be led down a path chosen for us by people bent on pursuing their own agenda, shaped by ulterior motives. The refusal of journalists to ask hard questions, and the tolerance of the public at large to accept their softballs as valid investigation, must be repudiated if we are to hold people accountable for their actions and pursue the right course.

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