Commentary | Heroes and villains

Losing sight of the whole truth in search of a narrative

There’s something seductive about a nice, clean narrative. You know the story: the kind where the good guys are virtuous and deserving of victory and the bad guys are their evil opposite who must be vanquished. A story without much nuance, and not a particularly accurate portrayal of how things go down in real life.

You might think that we, the cynical young adults of the 21st century, have moved past this sort of thing by now. But you’d be wrong; at least as far as some writers at The Daily go.

Take Thursday’s News piece by Juan Camilo Velásquez on the decision to cut one hundred Arts courses for the 2013-2014 scholastic year (“100 Arts classes to be eliminated,” January 17, page 2). This story is, as you can imagine, a complicated one with long-lasting consequences for McGill, and potentially worrying implications regarding staff-student-administration relations, as well as McGill’s financial future. There are a number of angles from which this story could be approached, so I have to wonder what prompted the kicker “Arts senator alleges cuts are punishment for Course Lecturer unionization.”

Actually, I don’t have to wonder; it’s a kicker that, though a relatively small part of the story, supports one of The Daily’s favourite narratives: the classic conflict between Good (unions, students) and Evil (administration). Rather than presenting the story in a way that captures all sides of the issue, the paper tries to spin it toward this type of narrative by taking a particular opinion expressed in the article, and putting it out front. As a result, someone skimming the headlines will think that ‘admin punishes workers for unionizing’ is the main idea of the piece, which, frankly, isn’t the full story.

The emphasis on the union side of the story, projects to readers the sense that the writer was selective in which details he included in order to make the piece fit into a specific storyline.

Though I feel that Arts Senator James Gutman’s claims regarding the motives of the administration may have an element of truth, I also feel that the situation is likely more complicated than he – and whoever wrote the kicker for the piece – are trying to portray it. Putting the story into simplistic good versus evil terms tends to force someone into the role of a villain, obscuring the actions of other actors or outside forces which may be equally deserving of criticism.

And that’s the problem with this sort of spin; the confirmation bias that it generates can lead to authors and readers ignoring those details that don’t fit the story they want to tell. Ultimately, it’s not constructive to take the side in a conflict that superficially embodies that for which we stand, as doing so puts them beyond criticism. And if we want to make real progress, nothing should be beyond criticism.

Readers’ Advocate is a twice-monthly column written by Austin Lloyd addressing the performance, relevance, and quality of The Daily. You can reach Austin at readersadvocate@mcgilldaily.com.


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