Sunday, July 6, 2003

The Press Effect, by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman

All the news that fits

Ben Fischer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Did Pvt. Jessica Lynch really unload two pistols into Iraqi attackers in the final moments before her capture? Nope. Her gun jammed in a sandstorm. Did her captors abuse her? No, Iraqi doctors say.

So why was the original story of Lynch's ordeal as a POW in Iraq reported so excitedly in the media, even when it was untrue? It's simple, say the authors of The Press Effect: The need for dramatic, easy-to-digest narratives drives modern journalism more than aggressive reporting. As a result, journalists are not as vigilant as they need to be in covering national and international affairs. All journalists who report on national government and war need to read this book.

Early on in an news event such as a political race or a war, major news outlets cast the story in an initial "frame," another word for the big picture.

From there, everyone follows the leader. Subsequent reporting uncovers information that either fits into the frame or doesn't. News that fits into the frame doesn't get the scrutiny it should.

That's why the Pentagon was so successful in telling tall tales about Jessica Lynch - the story just fit so well into the basic frame: American soldiers are heroes, the Iraqis are brutal and Iraqi civilians are eager to help their "liberators." Plus, it made for exciting articles and TV.

There was more than a hint of self-recognition when I read this book. I recalled times I and other journalists sat in the office, decided what the news was, then went out and looked for the facts to support it. The Bush administration waited until it had majority opinion on its side before attacking Iraq, throwing a large country into turmoil. We might still be waiting if the nation's leading journalists had read this book and challenged our leaders more than they had.

Books that might have changed the world
Off With Their Heads, by Dick Morris
Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir
The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen L. Carter
The Press Effect, by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
Letters to a Young Conservative, by Dinesh D'Souza

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