LLOYD GRAY: True facts, no context

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

In writing a news story, a reporter can have all the facts right but still not be accurate. That’s something good journalists know intuitively and try to guard against.
Just because A and B are true doesn’t always mean that C automatically follows. Context is everything.
Sometimes news consumers say they want “just the facts” when, in fact, they really want more. They want to know what the facts mean, or at least not to be misled by presentation of facts out of context.
The importance of context was again made clear recently in a Washington Post story that relayed a couple of facts surrounding Sen. Roger Wicker’s support of an earmark appropriation he secured when serving in the U.S. House. Wicker was included in a Post report about 33 members of Congress who had gotten earmarks for projects close to where they live or own property. The clear implication was that this was an improper attempt to benefit personally by these appropriations.
The facts presented about Wicker by the Post were that A) while a member of the House in 2003, he “helped secure $1.5 million to study the relocation of railroad tracks at an intersection in downtown Tupelo, Miss.,” and that B) “Wicker’s home is less than a half-mile northwest of the intersection.”
Both are true facts, but context was nowhere to be found. Anyone remotely familiar with the long-standing issue of the railroad tracks at Crosstown knows that the premise of the Post story – that these earmarks “held the potential to enhance the surroundings of a lawmaker’s property” and were therefore improper – doesn’t hold up when these facts are placed in the proper context.
Relocation of the railroad tracks at Crosstown and throughout Tupelo has been a desire of city officials and residents for decades. It would have been done long ago if the expense weren’t so staggering.
Roger Wicker would benefit from their relocation in the same way everyone else in the city would: It would take him less time to get where he was going and he’d be spared the noise and inconvenience of a couple of dozen trains traveling through town every day.
The outcome of the $1.5 million study and even the wisdom of such an appropriation can be questioned. But to suggest that attention to an issue in which every person who lives and works in Tupelo has a vested interest somehow especially benefited Wicker is simply not true. The facts are accurate, but the story isn’t. A and B aren’t followed by C.
Of course journalists aren’t the only ones who can get the facts right but still be inaccurate. Politicians do it all the time.
Facts out of context have become the rule more than the exception in political campaigns and policy debates, especially when attacking the opposition. The facts are often if not most of the time at the service of a preconceived conclusion, context be damned.
This is not a way to do either journalism or politics. The public needs more than “just the facts.” It needs the context in which those facts reside.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.