I know that I am not alone here when I say that my consumption of the news, through TV, radio or through scrolling on online news sites, has dramatically increased this last month, and for good reason too. The barbaric events in Ukraine has not only woken the world to the risk of Nuclear war but also shown how fragile peace can be. As the old saying goes ‘the first casualty of war is the truth’ and in this post-truth society of fake news allegations, restrictions of press freedom, political pissing-competitions and 24 hour rolling news, it feels important, more than ever, that we question and understand WHAT we are being told.
Let me say though that this isn’t going to be a political moan or a finger-pointing blog post. In fact, I felt inspired to write this because of the number of young people I’ve encountered these last few weeks, scared of what they are reading and not knowing what is real and what is not. And who can blame them? The UK education system does not focus on teaching them, beyond a handful of English lessons if lucky, how to read the media in a modern world.
So I thought this was a good opportunity to go through 4 key aspects, because in recent years our news consuming habits have unnoticeable evolved and changed to sound bites and quick headlines. In our fast-paced lives on the go, we take our news like a take-away burger - we want something quick, immediate and with little regard for exactly what is in it! Ultimately, we forget to question what we are consuming. So let’s have a look at these 4 aspects.
Facts are of course based on data, information or statistics that have credible evidence to support and verify what is being said. I’m careful here to say credible, because again we cannot take the origin of facts as the truth. The presentation of information can easily sway or divert our attention and this is open then to mislead. The problem is that to fact-check the facts becomes a bigger task and in a world where you want it quickly, nobody has time for that. We look towards our reporters for that balance of impartiality and to ensure that they fact-check it for us. It is well documented that 'Fox News' coverage during the Trump administration was swayed to one political side then the other and 'GB News' in the UK offers a more demographically-opinionated approach, yet both will claim that they are balanced and fair in their perspective of the information. And that’s the key problem with our present day consumerism of news, we do not take the time to check or question what we are being told, but instead put our trust in the organisations that deliver it. Would you trust your Just Eat delivery person to be able to tell you the whether the Zhajiangmian dish you just ordered is Vegan.
Lies; fake news; propaganda - This is information that is deliberately put out as true in order to mislead, discredit or misinform its consumer. In today’s world where we consume media not just from independent news organisations but also state owned news outlets, politically minded business entrepreneurs and their news companies, as well as celebrities and influences across the many platforms of social media, there are more opportunities now, more than ever, to make information available to mass audience. However, it is important to note, that when we talk about misinformation we’re talking about the deliberate spreading of untrue information. The problem is again, if that information fits the narrative being pushed, then it is easier for it to be believed. This again can raise issues that have been thrown around politically for a number of years; the responsibility of social media platforms, the censorship of key people, and the influence of outside agencies on specific countries political processes to name three. These are of course bigger questions that can be unpacked in another blog post, but they do raise questions about who we seek as credible sources.
We have always been drawn to hearing others opinions, beliefs and ideas on a huge variety of topics, from the role of the film critic telling you what they thought of the latest movie, to the celebrity guest taking a mouthful of steaming-hot food from a chef and before they start chewing they are already offering their ogasmic claims of deliciousness. Opinions have a place within our consumption of information and plays a crucial role in understanding different perspectives on a topic. Unlike misinformation, opinions hold an individuals beliefs and is not presented for the purpose of misleading others. That opinion is held by the believer, often trusted to be an expert, and ultimately their credibility is at stake if proven wrong. However, it's the idea of 'expert' that begs debate and how we put our trust into those presented to us.
Throughout the pandemic the phrase 'Follow the Science' became a common soundbite to describe particular actions taken by the UK government. The presentation of scientists, virologists and medical experts every evening at a national press-conference, reassured the British public to follow the rules. The data gathered and presented supported the situation and these people were known, experienced and respected people within that field. Yet this did not stop political ministers coming on air, speaking to journalists, stating that the data was incorrect and that we should relax and crack open a bottle of Château Lafite-Rotschild.
Now you might say that this is typical of any argument; two different opinions publicly giving the facts of their case to persuade others. The problem is that the line between opinion and fact is blurred. Slapping a statistic on the side of the bus does not make it any more true than claiming that the BBC is run by Frank Sidebottom. The use of likeable, influential people or traditional new organisations means that we emotionally engage and trust their opinion as if it was hard data or fact.
How a story is reported by a particular news company will always have some aspect of opinion and bias to it. The selection of who is interviewed, what interviews are shown and how much of the interview is shown can push a particular view point. Even the structure of the news report, the closing image, the language used and the questions posed can also pull the viewer towards a particular conclusion or thought. The bigger issue is that news organisations are owned and controlled by others and is therefore a representation of their views and beliefs. This can be easily seen with American Fox News owned by The Murdoch's, or the BBC's love-hate relationship with the many UK Government's who hold the oxygen tube to the life line of the public service corporation. However, it feels too easy to just blame the owners, or controllers or editors, because again, our lack of reading around the subject and questioning what we're presented with is a key to the 'zombiefication' of our news watching.
Like opinions, Speculation is about a belief of what may happen. These predictions have been the more commonly seen type of information in recent years due to rolling news coverage and the need for sensationalism. Journalists and news reporters have focused questions to get not just people's opinions, but their predictions of what others are thinking or what might happen. The issue here is that these responses are often the soundbites and headlines that draw us in and used to fill air time whilst the next report comes in. The claims are often unfounded or based on observations and have little connection with factual evidence. Last week, newspaper outlets ran stories claiming that Putin's actions were down to an incurable cancer diagnosis and a last chance to make a name for himself in Russia. When reading the article, it was quick to learn that the reasoning for this thought was that he 'looked a little chubby around the neck'. I decided to read around this further and found that the same speculation had been made in 2018 with the Russian president having just 6 months to live. Speculation as fact is not something new and with some political situations, such as Brexit or the Scottish Independence vote requiring it's leaders and campaigners to guess the outcomes, we in the UK have grown to see this type of reporting more by newspapers.
So what can we do? The answer I feel was best summed up by Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova this week, after she went on live Russian TV to highlight the control the Kremlin has on its state TV channels.
"Learn to look for information, analyse it. Western sources, Ukrainian sources, I understand it’s very hard in the conditions of an information war to find alternative information, but you need to try to look for it."