Monday, May 2, 2011

The Morality of Exaggeration - and its Reportage

Benjamin White (

Since this is an ethics class, it’s worth considering exaggeration in an ethical sense- is it always as bad as lying? A New York Times article a few years ago addressed the psychology of lying – including the propagation of tall tales. It recounts a study conducted by a Northeastern University psychologist had students fill out a form which asked for a few routine pieces of information, including GPA. The psychologists then compared the given GPAs to the students’ actual GPAs provided by the school. The students were then interviewed while hooked up to electrodes which measured the activations of their nervous systems (basically lie detectors).

What the researchers found: Students who exaggerated their GPAs the most (up to six tenths of a point) “appeared the most calm and confident” on the ratings.

“The grade inflation was less an attempt to deceive, the authors concluded, than a reflection of healthy overconfidence and a statement of aspirations. “It’s basically an exercise in projecting the self toward one’s goals,” Dr. Gramzow said.

In earlier studies, Dr. Gramzow and Dr. Willard found that students who bumped up their averages in interviews subsequently improved their grades — often by the very amount they had exaggerated.”

So it seems that exaggeration is often produced from completely innocuous, perhaps unconscious motives. As we read in “Myth-Making in New Orleans,” the terrible exaggerations were not made maliciously – they were simply made.

But reporting them is a completely different story. I believe journalists have a duty to confirm everything (or as much as humanly possible) their sources tell them, especially in a chaotic situation like Katrina. Breaching that duty is wrong. Period.

Covering Tragedies

Interviewing those touched most profoundly by tragedies is easily the hardest part of reporting such stories. Journalistic duty dictates that such newsworthy stories must be written in a timely manner when those affected are still reeling from the often-horrific events.

I’ve never interviewed anyone who was still emotionally torn from the story I was reporting, but I’ve heard stories of reporters who, in an effort to perform their duty, locked into a robo-reporter mode and kept the interview coldly professional and cordial. Though that approach may help the reporter, it definitely hurts the interviewee and is surely morally questionable if not flat-out wrong.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offers a good deal of advice for reporting such tragedies, but one tip on interviewing stood out to me:

[Traumatized interviewees’] own descriptions can take them by surprise. When survivors have a bad reaction, give them a moment. Quit asking questions. Step out of the interview and react like a Good Samaritan or a friend. They will usually compose themselves quickly and be ready to move on. Just give them a minute."

Celebrity Reporting

I’m the first to admit that I really don’t care about celebrities. Sure they’re rich and famous. So? Obviously, though, millions of other people truly care about the lives of celebrities. I cannot argue with the idea that “soft news” draws many highly sought-after readers, but its seems “hard news” is suffering as a result.

“In 1987, Time Magazine featured 11 stories on international news [in an average issue],” said University of Michigan Communications Studies Professor Susan Douglas last month. “By 1997, that had dropped to one story.”

As long as serious, real news is safe, “soft” reporting is fine. Once Hollywood news overtakes Washington news, though, something is wrong.

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