There are several powerful lessons to be learned from the recent retraction of a story reported on the radio program This American Life about working conditions for thousands of electronics workers in China (mentioned here and here).
TAL's report (their most-downloaded story) was based largely on the one-man-show presented theatrically by Mike Daisey, a well-known theatrical writer-actor-producer. Once other reporters began digging into the claims from TAL's story, they found Daisey had "fabricated" information, which so angered and disturbed Ira Glass of TAL that he issued a full retraction of the story, telling listeners he felt he had been lied to, that the report should have never aired.
Daisey admits to creating a "truthful" stage production, Glass says the standards of journalism demand more than "truthiness", that journalism demands a different standard, and he's right about that. However, in challenging Daisey, Glass said he felt Daisey's shows should bear a disclaimer or warning that the show may not be 100% fact.
Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’
I must challenge that perspective - if a reporter decides a one-man theatrical show demands attention for it's powerful claims and evocations, then it seems clear to me the reporter has the obligation to report on the show as just that, a "show". For thousands of years, writers and performers have forcefully confronted many real-life issues in the guise of fiction, and most all of us know that watching a "show" and reporting are two different forms of communication.
"This American Life", certainly a news show, is made using very dramatic styles and breaks and revelations. That's one of the program's strengths, compelling stories. Daisey's works had previously been hailed as masterfully blurring the lines between fact and fiction - and perhaps that is the real issue which, however clumsily, Ira Glass and "This American Life" is trying to highlight.
It's one thing for Glass to admit he was "fooled" by Daisey's story - but to demand Daisey re-package his show to suit journalistic standards is mistaken. And Daisey was wrong to let journalists report on his show as factual. And certainly, further reports on conditions in these Chinese factories have shown some brutal conditions.
And yet ...
How often do major news outlets - especially television - rely on metaphorical, if not utterly faked, emotions to drive a story? Hours are filled with "opinion" and not "fact", because the passion of opinion will always attract an audience.
If Daisey's work must be clearly "labeled", then so should so-called "news" programs be properly labeled as well -- "This hour of program features opinions about facts, and therefore is not 100% factual."
That won't happen - criticizing writers for creating passionate fictions is too easy. Criticizing journalists/panelists/experts/producers for creating passionate fictions is big business, from "reality" programs to "news" programs. And they see themselves as "too big to fail" or "too big to be criticized".
Much cable news - and especially radio programming like Rush Limbaugh - are dramatic creations, carefully designed to elicit an emotional response, all falling under the sway of attracting an audience.
And it is precisely those creators and writers and performers of "news" who should label their creations for audiences.