Saturday, July 23, 2016

The credit of the report was closely linked to the reputation of the teller

From The Invention of News: How The World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree.
Very occasionally, through a diary or family chronicle, we have a window into the process by which early news readers weighed and evaluated these news reports. One such was Herman Weinsberg, who lived in the great German city of Cologne in the later sixteenth century. Weinsberg, it must be said, was a very odd man. It was only after his death that his appalled family discovered that he had memorialized all their doings in an expansive chronicle of their lives and times. Weinsberg, who lived a comfortable existence on the rents from inherited property, took a close interest in contemporary events. Living outside the circles of the city elite, he was forced to rely on what he picked up from friends, or read in purchased pamphlets. Happily a news hub like Cologne was drenched in information, but not all sources could be relied upon. Weinsberg’s technique was to weigh conflicting reports to discern the ‘general opinion’ or consensus. In this he unconsciously imitated precisely the process followed by the city’s magistrates, or at Europe’s princely courts. But sometimes it was simply impossible to discern the true state of affairs. When in 1585 the nearby town of Neuss was surprisingly captured by forces of the Protestant Archbishop Gerhard von Truchsess, Weinsberg heard no fewer than twelve different accounts of how the archbishop’s soldiers had slipped into the town undetected. He interviewed eyewitnesses who told their own story. The city council sent messenger after messenger to find out what had happened, but they were prevented from entering the town. Weinsberg had eventually to conclude that the true facts might never be known: ‘Each person cannot truly say and know more than what he had seen and heard at the place where he was at that hour. But if he heard about it from others, the story may be faulty; he cannot truly know it.’

The exponential growth of news reporting did not necessarily make things easier; many believed it made things worse. In fact, for those traditionally in the know, the industrialization of news, the creation of a news industry where news was traded for profit, threatened to undermine the whole process by which news had traditionally been verified – where the credit of the report was closely linked to the reputation of the teller. In the burgeoning mass market this vital link – the personal integrity of those who passed on the news – was broken.

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