Context is Everything

In our impatient, sound byte society, where the news reporters tend to pluck phrases and nuggets as news and we viewers take what the say as gospel, we many times miss the real story. That is one of the reasons I watch PBS News Hour, as they take the time to do more in-depth reporting by people who know their subject matter. One of my constant themes is explained by this title – context is everything. Anyone can be made to look foolish by taking their words out of context. Plus, in so doing, the real story is often missed.

I was reminded of this yet again yesterday, so I thought it would be good to highlight an example of what we call news and public discourse, masking the real story.  The Head of the South Central Region for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resigned this week over words taken from his speech two years ago in Dish, Texas. The site will become more relevant as more of the story is told. Al Armendariz’ resigned over remarks made in the speech saying he would “crucify” companies for not adhering to compliance with the EPA standards. From what I have read, he has been a good public servant and was a good champion for the EPA who has been historically held at bay by lobbying efforts of the various industries they try to patrol.

So, the big story was around his resignation and his unfortunate use of the term “crucify.” Opponents of the EPA cited this as over-zealous and how dare he discuss crucifying these legitimate business  interests. The context is the real story. Dish, Texas is the community near a hydraulic fracturing site where bedrock is blasted by chemically loaded water to release natural gas. For more on “fracking” please refer to an earlier post on “The Perils of Fracking.” Mr. Armendariz’ was making a speech in Dish as there is evidence of contaminated water and air pollution which are two of the major drawbacks of  fracking. The real story is the extreme measure of harvesting natural gas is poisoning the water supply of a nearby town and arsenic, mercury, methane and others gases are being released into the air. Although not stated in the article fracking takes a significant amount of water that should not be reused and Texas is having severe drought problems.

To be perfectly clear, we are more concerned that a fine public servant doing an unpopular,misunderstood, but much needed service used the word “crucify” than the reason why he was there. The reason being the oil/gas industry is polluting the water and air supply of children (and adults) in an adjacent town. Not to mention that Texas, where water is being trucked into some towns can ill-afford the loss of any water. This is the news the oil/ gas industry spends so much money on to mask it from society. This is why they fight the EPA and want it diminished or disbanded – one of the dumbest ideas I have heard. The next time you hear that comment, ask the person do you really want to live in a country that does not police these issues?

On other subjects, the context that seems to get lost in news reporting and public discourse, would include, but not be limited to:

I am bemused by the position of the religious right on contraception. 99% of Catholic women use (or have used) birth control, but the Pope wants to beat on nuns for daring to counter the views of a bunch of old men. This also bleeds into the discussion around Planned Parenthood.  Let me be plain on this. Young people are going to have sex and it will continue until they die. You can preach abstinence all you want, but it will not even make a dent. It is like trying to hold back a flood with sand bags. So, unless you want unplanned children and expose your children to STDs and AIDs, my advice is to promote as much knowledge about sex as possible. I would even suggest churches have balanced sex education classes. And, for those of you who say my child is not having sex, note that I live within three hours of well-known religious university. People who went there say the kids go wild there as they have been restrained for so long.

While we are on the subject of Planned Parenthood, the issue is more global than the US. When funding for Planned Parenthood dries up, it affects others on the planet. Here is the context – there is a high correlation between family size and poverty. So, it is incumbent for  parents to plan for their families. The other issue of import is the Earth can only support so many people. We are just shy of 8 Billion. A study was done in the UK a few years ago. It noted if people consume like the average citizen of a poor country in Africa, the Earth could support about 15 Billion. If they consume like the average North American, the Earth could only support about 2 Billion people. This begs for the use of planned parenthood and birth control and is the bigger story.

I may offend some with this next statement, but things have gotten out of control. The NRA has way too much influence and every politician, not just Republicans, are scared of them. We have more guns than people in the US. Let me say this again. We have more guns than people in the US. Pick up any paper and read the news around the region – murder, suicide, murder, accidental shooting, murder, etc.- are reported consistently. For context purposes, there is high propensity of depression on college campuses and the NRA wants to arm the students. Arguments with family and friend escalate into a shooting because a hand gun was nearby. Yes, you are partially right NRA, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people. The last phrase should be “people who have access to guns kill people.”  I like Chris Rock’s solution to gun violence – make the bullets cost $5,000. That will minimize gun deaths. As an US citizen, there is no reason a civilian should possess an AK-47. So, the real story is too many people are dying needlessly in our country. More guns  to reduce the number of gun deaths would be like putting out a fire with kerosene.

Global warming is the story, but we debate too much on personalities. For all the good Al Gore did with his documentary on global warming, it unfortunately put a political face on the global warming debate. So, the other side had to defeat Al Gore and win. Unfortunately, the story is the planet is heating up and the data is overwhelming. For the former NASA employees who want 100% causal proof, you will never get there, so we cannot put off planning looking for perfection. Already there is sufficient correlated, highly correlated and, in some cases, causal data and the impact of global warming is showing up and will continue to show up. The problem is we cannot wait until the sea encroaches fully on low-lying areas to say see we told you so, as it takes about 15 years to make a difference. We need to act now. That is the story, not the diminishing few who cry foul. We need active and real discussions around the problem and long term solutions. We need the GOP at the table with their ideas.  And, we need them to today. That is the context.

I could go on, but let me close with a major theme of our times. Since politicians now continuously run for office, it is difficult for them to agree with the positions espoused by the other side. This is a problem for both sides of the aisle, but I would not be President for all the tea in China. When everything you do is chastised, critiqued and lampooned by the opposing party, it makes it difficult to govern and for us to be governed. The President has actually done a better job than the GOP would let you believe. He has not been perfect, but he does not get his “propers” from the opposing force. So, when the GOP criticizes him for not doing enough, it amazes for the lack of context. The GOP Congress has fought him at every turn, even ideas that many in the party agree make sense. For example, unbiased economists would tell you the stimulus package worked, it just was not enough. So, when a new stimulus is needed, we cannot even talk about it. Housing based recessions take on average six years to come out of – a 2007 Harvard/ Maryland Professors study of all housing recessions over time. We have had modest growth for 25 straight months. Could the President have done more – yes? Could Congress have helped more – absolutely?

We have to move away from these “zero sum” exercises, where someone wins and someone loses every argument. Oftentimes the news stories are around the game of politics rather than the substance of issues. I detest news stories on who gains and loses from a verbal miscue. The other stuff is harder to report and harder still to decipher. Yet, that is where we all must do more work. On this last issue, it is the US citizens who lose when politicians do not work together. So, whether it is political, economical, environmental or other type of issue, we need to look for the context in everything. Who said it, why did they say it, when did they say it, where did they say it and what else was said at the same time. I would like people whose words are being insufficiently reported to step up and say “yes, I said that and here is why. Next question.”

Quoting my old boss, he would say “my daddy used to tell me believe half of what you read and nothing of what you hear.” So, dig deeper when you hear something said and look for its context. It may make all the difference.




45 thoughts on “Context is Everything

  1. I agree. It is hard to find news coverage that really digs into an issue instead of just taking a comment out of context. I worry that is because people’s attention spans are too short. We are fed these sound bites and fabricated stories and rarely demand more context. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  2. Thanks for your feedback. Nice quote. It reminds me of another – “people miss opportunity as it is often dressed up as hard work.” Please feel free to share.

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