A naval captain told me of an agonising decision he had to make. His ship, with several hundred crew, was sinking. Water was coming into the ship from below. The ship had watertight doors that, if closed, would seal off the leak sufficiently to get the vessel back to harbour. He had two minutes to close the doors or it would be too late. Appallingly, there were two seamen working behind the doors who would drown if he closed the doors. What did the Captain do?
The Captain closed the doors.
Were I to be writing for publication, I might describe the agonies the Captain had faced but how he had saved the lives of hundreds of men. He had no choice. How his family loved him and saw his stress. “Known as a firm leader, Captain xxx was widely respected by his men”. And I would most likely quote a Rear Admiral saying how brave he was – ‘exactly the sort of spirit we need in the Navy’.
But I could also have written about his decision differently.
The Captain closed the doors and killed two men.
I might then write how shocking it was that the Navy put to sea in ships that could leak. On behalf of the cruelly bereaved relatives of the sailors who were killed, I would demand an independent enquiry to seek justice for them. “The Captain, who was known as a strong disciplinarian” deserved to be sanctioned for his negligence, his inability to find another solution, or some other failing. “Our loved ones died and the person who killed them gets away with it,” I quote a ‘close relative’.
Both stories review identical facts. Yet each leaves a different impression on readers. The differences are made worse by dramatic headlines.
“Hero Captain saves 700 lives.” “Navy slammed for leaking ships and brutal leadership.”
You get the idea.
Why do we only rarely put these two stories together to make a more complete picture? Readers could see both the dilemma and the tragedy and make up their own minds.
It is too easy to say: ‘they have to sell newspapers.’ ‘Bad news is more interesting than good news’. While these clichés may be true, there is a deeper cause.
However objective we may try to be, we all have a bias and prejudices, life experiences that help us choose what to believe. We believe what we want to believe. Journalists, however hard they may try to be objective, have their own views and biases. You work for a left-wing or right-wing paper for example, because that is what you believe in.
The young people holding violent protests on all manner of issues around the world see things as black or white, right or wrong. But they never are. The media should be making clear that things are never that simple. Blindly supporting one side or the other may win you friends for a while (like populist politicians) but it greatly harms society and will let you down eventually when your strident cause fails – as they all will in today’s complicated, multi-sided, world.
To paraphrase a famous Chinese leader – it doesn’t matter what colour shirt you wear, so long as you benefit the community. We lose sight of others in making our strident voice heard.