A Few Fake Apples
July 2003

by Jim Parisi

In light of all the attention the latest phony media type is getting, this time at the NY Times, I’d like to say something about the accuracy and consistency of most reporters and news personnel I’ve known.

The conspiracy theorist will tell you that if any story gets relayed, and there is a middleman of any kind, its accuracy is compromised. The theory goes that since every human has a bias, and media-types are human (some would disagree strongly on that), then every writer puts a slant on every story. True in theory, but I can't say I've seen a lot of that in real life. In fact, year after year I see rooms full of reporters of every conceivable background and yes, bias, get the same basic 'lead' from every story they cover together. Most reporters I know make a serious effort to tell the pure truth, to get it right or at least to get it perfectly fair. And their trained accuracy and dogged intensity are good traits, if not for the over-zealous few who trample over people getting their stories.

Let me tell the story of Larry our assignment editor, and a roomful of TV journalists from a CBS affiliate in the Northeast USA.

A culture guru was conducting a sociological experiment with our newsroom in the conference area of a local hotel. The guru picked one of us out of the group to stare at a diagram and relate what he/she sees to the rest of the newsroom. I assume the point of the test was to show how each person can interpret what they hear in different ways, and how people are not always very good listeners as well. At least I think that was the point of it.

So Larry our Assignment Editor was chosen as the person to look at the picture and describe it to us all. Larry was our Harley-ridin' gruff but knowledgeable 60 yr old pilot of our crazy desk. On my first day as News Director there, it was Larry that came up to me, and with the look of a man actually trying to help me get assimilated, says "you'll learn how we do things around here." This man talked on two phones at once while yelling into the radio and directing news crews in the field at the same time. This man could describe things in the clearest way possible, especially to newspeople.

The poor guru didn't know what he was getting himself into.

"Larry, describe what you see in this picture." Larry looks at the mish-mash of triangles, circles and squares assembled in a very haphazard manner into an image. "Tell the rest of your colleagues what you see, and be as accurate as possible."

Larry took his time and looked carefully at the paper before him, squinted his eyes like he was about to direct a live truck to a fire scene, and started: "draw a circle about three inches tall. From the 3 O'clock point of the circle, draw a triangle, where the right bottom angle is touching the circle but not penetrating it." His precision was beauty to behold. I smiled and drew exactly what I heard Larry describe. Exactly, because I knew he was being as precise as a surgeon with his scalpel. "Inside the circle at the exact bottom of it there's a square, about 1" tall. A small dot is inside the square.directly in the center." When Larry was finished, I knew my copy was exactly a match of the image he had looked at. There could be no question, because Larry our Assignment Editor had left no room for error. He told me exactly where to place each object to form exactly what he saw. He was doing what he did best, and I for one totally enjoyed being part of it.

The guru giggles sheepishly when I raise my hand to say my image perfectly matched the original, now being held up for all of us to view. More hands go up as those in the back get a look at the original and realized they nailed it as well. Still more hands go up. This isn't supposed to be happening. When "normal" people (translation:non-journalists) take this experiment, the person chosen as the describer probably gives a "normal" description of what he/she sees. Probably something like "There's a circle on the bottom, with a triangle on the left of it." The trick is, unless the describer is intense enough to tell where each point of each shape touches the other exactly, everyone in the room varies each shapes location a tiny bit, resulting at the end in a much different image being drawn by virtually everyone. But not this time. Not with Larry and a bunch of journalists.

The guru blushes a bit, and obviously caught with an unexpected end to his experiment, simply whispers to Larry: "This never happens"...

© Jim Parisi

(Jim Parisi dabbles in television news management where he specializes in interactive news, is a former anchor/reporter, and is the editor of www.tvnewz.com.)


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