Read the news skeptically

It’s not one of the strengths—or even one of the goals—of most journalists to convey the subtleties of a story. The late literary scholar Hugh Kenner put it well when he told friends that newspapers are a “low definitional medium” and to never tell a reporter anything the meaning of which depends on the placement of a comma. That is certainly even truer of television.

The very reason we report some things is because they are out of the ordinary, yet our coverage casts them in the public’s minds as the norm. For instance, journalism coverage of the spate of school shootings of the 1990s was so over the top that the public concluded, inaccurately, that schools are unsafe.

The Ft. Hood tragedy happened on the same day that many subscribers of Rolling Stone received their new issues in the mail. The magazine carried this headline on the cover: “Ft. Carson Murder Spree/The Iraq Vets Who Couldn’t Stop Killing.”

There is a danger here that Vietnam taught us. The years of that war and after, myths were born. For instance, everyone “knew” that African-Americans were sent to the war in disproportionate numbers. The truth was more complicated. While black soldiers were drafted in a slightly higher percentage than their presence in the population (11 percent of the United States, 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam), it was not remarkably higher. What was really operating was not a race factor but a class factor—low-income people of all colors carried a disproportionate share of the war. And blacks were sent into combat at a rate much higher than their share of the population, with the result that African-American combat deaths were what one scholar called a staggering 14.9 percent.

Then there was the suicidal Vietnam veteran. This was a fable that prevailed in the 1970s and ’80s, but the actual statistics did not bear it out. Again, the truth was more complex. For a few years after the end of the war, the suicide rate among Vietnam veterans was slightly higher than among other citizens, but, “After that initial post-service period, Vietnam veterans were no more likely to die from suicide than non-Vietnam veterans,” Dr. Vernon Houk told a congressional committee. “In fact, after the 5-year post-service period, the rate of suicides is less in the Vietnam veterans’ group.”

There is a danger that heavily publicized incidents will again cast veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars as crazed killers, akin to the equally bogus claims about postal workers. (A combination of two myths back in the 1980s had it that because veterans enjoy a hiring preference in federal employment, PTSD- afflicted veterans went on to go postal!)

It would be well if news reports would put these kinds of incidents into some kind of context, emphasizing their rarity in every report, but that’s not the mode of operation of our calling. So it readers, listeners, and viewers should keep in mind that the whole reason these incidents are in the news is because they are exceptions, and that the way they are covered can mislead. When journalism is irresponsible, members of the public need to protect themselves from resulting myths.