Friday, June 30, 2006

Cognitive Dissonance

I saw this story cross the AP wire while I was eating lunch the other day and the headline caught my eye: "Amish farmer fights milk law after sting." As it turned out, the article interested me for a different reason.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture had received an anonymous tip that Arlie Stutzman was selling raw milk in violation of state law, so they sent an undercover agent to Stutzman's farm. Stutzman filled the agent's plastic container with milk, and the agent gave Stutzman two dollars. As a result, Stutzman's dairy license was revoked.

The problem is that the AP article equivocates between selling and sharing. Stutzman's defense is that his religious beliefs compel him to share his milk with anyone who asks. The article uses the word "share" five times. "Sell" appears only twice. The anonymous tip claimed Stutzman was selling milk, but the article doesn't claim that Stutzman asked the undercover agent for money — only that a man asked Stutzman for milk, Stutzman complied, and the man gave him two dollars. If I asked a stranger for milk and he gave it to me, I'd probably reach for my wallet to compensate him. That doesn't make him a merchant.

The article notes that "sales of raw milk" are illegal in 25 states; but it also quotes an Ohio Department of Agriculture spokeswoman as saying, "You can't just give milk away to someone other than yourself. It's a violation of the law." So are we talking about selling or sharing?

I point this out not just because it's an example of unclear writing, but because it's an example of clumsy journalism and a common trap of journalistic objectivity — that reporters become so focused on reporting the facts coldly that they neglect to add them together and they miss the forest for the trees.

If Stutzman was indeed selling milk to his neighbors, he's in trouble. If, on the other hand, he was "sharing his product with others who would otherwise not have access to it" as he claims, then he probably deserves protection from prosecution. Those are two distinct scenarios that could not reasonably be confused, yet the AP article doesn't seem to distinguish them. It conflates the two terms as if they were equivalent.

Journalism isn't stenography. You can't just report 2 plus 2 — you have to add them together, and if you don't get 4 then you need to find what's missing. Objective doesn't mean disengaged; just because you shouldn't endorse one side over the other doesn't mean that you should avoid scrutinizing either. Good journalism, like most things, requires critical thinking.


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