The importance of getting the full story

Published Tuesday, February 14, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Remember “The Rest of the Story”, a short daily radio program hosted by American broadcaster Paul Harvey until about a decade ago?  Harvey was a master storyteller who would spin tales that sounded pretty ordinary – until the very end, when a key detail was revealed.

For example, one story was about an artist named Pablo who was so poor he had to burn paintings one winter to stay warm.  Compelling, but not necessarily remarkable – until it was revealed that Pablo’s surname was Picasso.  

Harvey’s program always closed with his booming signature line: “And now, you know… The Rest of the Story!”  

It’s a line I’m pondering a lot these days.

Info irony

We’re fortunate to live in an era when humanity knows more than it ever has, and much of that information is readily available on that smartphone most of us always carry around.  

But that’s also led to our being bombarded by so much information that it’s almost impossible to keep up, never mind process and critically evaluate.  Plus, the production and dissemination of one-sided, incomplete or just plain incorrect information has never been easier, thanks to the internet.  

The result?  We’re more susceptible than ever to being misled, and developing beliefs based on shaky information.  We don’t get to hear the rest of the story.  

But worse, it becomes easy for us to entrench ourselves deeply in those beliefs and positions, and no longer consider anything else.  We stop looking for the rest of the story.

Part of the story

There’s no shortage of incomplete stories in the world of energy and the environment.

For example, University of Guelph Economist Ross McKitrick recently wrote a column declaring that Ontario’s shutdown of coal-fired power plants had been a financial disaster with no environmental benefits.  But here’s the rest of the story: he drew that conclusion by choosing to focus only on smog-forming emissions, not the greenhouse gas emissions that would have painted a very different picture.  And the study he cited was co-authored by himself, and published not on the University’s evidence-based website, but on that of the Fraser Institute, a conservative/libertarian think tank.

Another example: several months ago, Troy Media columnist Gwyn Morgan criticized electric vehicles and instead advocated a national switchover to natural gas.  Morgan was identified to readers as a retired Canadian business leader.   The rest of the story?  Morgan actually spent most of his career as CEO of Encana, Canada’s largest natural gas company.

True, a bit of latitude may be granted for bias in columns.  But it’s ominous to see incorrect or incomplete information infiltrating news stories today too. 

What to do

So how can you ensure you’re not getting just part of a story?  Here are a few strategies:

First, stick to good sources.  Newspapers, especially large and longstanding ones, are among the best places for critical analysis and quality journalism.  (Very few are totally free of bias, so don’t entirely turn off your truth filter.)  Media Bias/Fact Check and the Pew Research Center of Journalism and Media offer (unbiased?) assessments of many major news organizations.

Second, have a healthy suspicion of stories originating from think tanks and other special interest groups.  They may not be wrong, but it’s unlikely they’ll share anything that hurts their case. 

Third, look for credible references.  It’s wise to be wary of writers who cite only their own articles or research.

Fourth, beware of headlines that sensationalize or exaggerate; stories that contain adjectives like ‘amazing’ or ‘revolutionary’; or web pages splashed with click-bait stories.

Finally, take the time to read balanced, well-researched and well-written pieces that challenge your own point of view.  There’s always room for added perspective and better understanding.

So let’s strive to always get the rest of the story.  It’s more important than ever in this age of surreality and alternative facts.