The Narrow Gate (Newsworthiness)

This was originally posted on my old blog on 18 February 2017.

It is impossible for any of us to know everything. Considering that there are 196 countries in the world, if only a single interesting thing happened in each of them every day, it would be a full time job to keep abreast. We therefore rely on mediators to do that for us, and even then, they specialise in areas, or topics, or narrow their scope down in some way to keep the volume of information they have to process to a manageable level. We call the mediators of our information journalists, or reporters.

Reporters have to decide what, from the ever-flowing river of data, they should lift out and bring to our attention. In other words, they have to decide what is newsworthy. These decisions are never free from bias, no matter how much the reporter tries to stay neutral (and many make no such attempt). What factors do they need to consider as they decide what to report, and what to leave out? In no particular order, the following are among the many issues which affect what goes into our news reports:

  1. The person creating the report. Their personal tastes, political and social beliefs, likes, dislikes, goals, sensitivities, acquaintances and more can affect what they choose to report on.
  2. The people who will consume the report, the target market. What will grab the attention of a farmer in Louth may be of no interest to a nurse in Galway.
  3. The source of revenue. Reporters can seldom afford to offend advertisers, or the owners of their publication.
  4. Available space or time. Stories can be dropped simply because there is not enough space on the page or time in the television slot, or edited to fit what is available.

Such factors form a narrow gate through which potential news stories first have to pass before they can even be brought to my and your attention. Passing through that gate also shapes and changes what we eventually consume. With ‘fake news’ being an issue lately, I believe basic media analysis skill is becoming something we should all have. When you read, hear, or watch something, you should consider the following five questions:

Who created this message?

Try to become cognisant of the possible biases built into various publications, or the personal biases of various reporters. For instance, in Ireland, in a report on media ownership, it was pointed out that the vast majority of media were owned by the state broadcaster and an individual businessman. These two entities between them control almost all of what we see, hear, and read in Ireland. This problem of ownership controlling what can be reported, and how it is reported, was demonstrated by the Denis O’Brien affair in 2015. While these owners don’t personally write what we read, the reporters working for their publications are aware of and affected by their bosses’ preferences.

Publications also have certain standards, orientations, “party lines”, an often recognisable voice. What they report to you is shaped by all these “personality traits” of people or institutions.

How did they shape this to grab my attention?

Or, what creative media techniques did the creators of the message use to grab my attention? Reports are often shaped in such a way as to interest us, putting the most sensational aspects in the most noticable places. Headlines are written to make us want to watch the snippet, or read more, click the link or at least not switch the channel. Yet these headlines can be misleading at best, and downright false at worst. This story in The Sun, for instance, is called out in this tweet for linking singer Lily Allen’s name to a story to sensationalise it, claiming she was not in any way involved.

Hi @TomGillespie1. Why link this tragic death to Lily Allen? She never played at the event and your pic is from an event 8 years earlier pic.twitter.com/SKXilZciRZ

— The Sun Apologies (@SunApology) February 18, 2017

How might someone different from me understand this message?

Our cultural and social background affects how we interpret a message, and what it says to us. Age and congnisance of online culture can also result in different messages meaning different things to different people. While this is most often subtle, Donald Trump demonstrated the difficulty of trying to communicate with a wide audience when he recently referred to Easy D. Young, internet-savvy consumers of his message understood it to mean something hopefully different from what he intended.

Another example of a cultural reference lost on certain social groups is

What values, lifestyles and points of view are either shown in or left out of this message?

Certain lifestyles and points of view are presented in the media as important, through a myriad of subtle signs. Over and above years’ conditioning about who and what is important, this question links with our consideration of who is shaping our messages. We should consider that journalists are (at least in the USA) overwhelmingly white males. We are for the most part presented a picture of reality viewed through the eyes of this social group. This bias has been shown to affect how reports are framed, often with serious societal consequences.

Why is this message being sent to me?

To answer this question, we need to try to pull the curtain back and see what ultimate monster may be operating the levers. News reporting can and very often does have a purpose well beyond merely informing you. Again, this question ties in with who is behind the message. Media owners are people with political and economic points of view and biases. For instance, Rupert Murdoch may have used his spectacular power in British media to help orchestrate Brexit for his own gains.

I personally think basic media analysis skills should be taught in school, as a fundamental part of civic and social education. Without knowledge, we are controllable, and when we can be controlled, we can en masse be used by the wealthy and powerful to direct even thicker streams of wealth and power into their hands.

Is that an echo I hear?

This was originally posted on my old blog on 4 February 2017.

The echo chamber effect works in two ways. First, it’s when you only get exposed to media which reflect your ideology, never challenging your already cemented views. Second, it’s when an opinion is uttered, and repeated in the media you are exposed to so often that you start believing it’s fact. The echo chamber effect is particularly associated with conservative media. A liberal echo chamber also exists, but it is more associated with the first than the second characteristic of the echo chamber.

Politics works differently in Europe and the left/right divide is more complicated (because in Ireland, where I live, for instance, there are nine political parties in parliament right now, with more having representatives at local government level. Compare this to the USA where they’re one party away from being a one-party state, and may already be there – but more on that in another post). Nevertheless, it’s safe to say I’m on the liberal side. I am as susceptible to the echo chamber as anyone else, and mostly see the liberal framing of news. I have noticed a worrying echo chamber effect in my news feed.

Take, for example, the recent Bowling Green Massacre gaffe. Trump aide Kellyanne Conway cited a massacre that never happened to justify the recent Muslim ban. Conway was roundly mocked on social media for her mistake. My Twitter and Facebook feeds abounded with examples of witty responses which I admit I found very amusing. Yet something bothered me. The way this was all framed was that Conway was being schooled, roasted, owned, trolled. It was all framed as this triumph over her, that she was embarrassed. That those so cleverly mocking her achieved a victory over her, and over the Trump administration. So… what was Fox, bastion of right wing media, reporting?

That she misspoke, and corrected  herself. Then the report goes into great detail of the story she was actually referring to, and this in itself serves a purpose: it achieves what she was trying to achieve with the interview in which she made the mistake.

See, here’s the problem: those opposing Trump are creating this fantasy world in which they’re winning. We paint a picture where our clever social media burns actually matter to these people. They don’t. The people who got them into power, and the people who got Britain out of the EU, and the people who are likely to put Marine le Pen into power: our clever social media burns never reach their eyes or ears. Their echo chamber doesn’t report on those. The people who achieve the trolling are not in their Twitter or Facebook feeds. They live in a fantasy world where all these developments are building their utopia, while we live in a fantasy world where our intellectual warfare is actually affecting the Trumps, the Conways, the Farages, the Le Pens.

And while we each create and live our fantasy where we are winning, the wealthy and powerful are sucking the world around us dry, amassing the riches that will see them through the catastrophe their rape of earth’s resources will bring about. It’s like they’re feeding us drugs to keep us high, to keep up our illusion, so we don’t notice ourselves starving to death.

The Wet Cat (Out-Foxed)

This was originally posted on my old blog on 3 February 2017.

The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one.

These words perfectly explain the current flood of misleading or even outright fabricated “news” that pours over our senses day in, day out, until it’s a mammoth task to separate reality from fiction. Yet they were written almost sixty years ago. The quote is from historian Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image, first published in 1961. In it, he posited that what we observe can be divided into three categories:

  • Genuine events are things that happened.
  • Media events are things that would probably have happened, but which take on certain peculiarities because of reporting. The main concern in these events is staging a story.
  • Pseudo events are fabricated for reporting, for the cameras. They are totally staged happenings which would not take place if reporting was not a thing.

So for instance, it rained. That is a genuine event. There was a hole in the roof of the house, so the cat got wet. Reporters are filmed talking about the plight of the wet cat, and people flock to help the cat who may not have been interested if the cameras were not rolling (the people, not the cat. The cat, mildly confused by the sudden interest but enjoying the generous offers of towel rubs, is otherwise unaffected by the presence of cameras). That is a media event. Later, a press conference is organised where the mayor announces a war on dogs. While the event happens live, technical or dramatic techniques are used to make it more attractive for the cameras, and of course to control its unfolding. That is a pseudo event.

Pseudo events are manufactured, and nothing is ever manufactured without a purpose. This doesn’t need to be something sinister, but it can be. Worryingly, pseudo events can by their very nature be more attractive to consumers. This means that even reporting of real events is increasingly undergoing something that can be compared to processing of food. It’s tastier, it’s more attractive, so we gobble more and more of it, becoming fatter and sicker from the poor nutrition it provides.

Understanding of the human psyche has become very sophisticated, leading to the discovery that certain emotions can be evoked by framing news in a certain way, so that you hook a consumer and, of course, make more money. If you control news reporting, you can control what people believe about the world, and subsequently you can control who they vote for, and therefore who commands power. Considering this, the ownership of media organisations should be something we all worry about. These owners are the real rulers of the world.

The Mirror (Reality)

This was originally posted on my old blog on 27 January 2017.

We all live in the local, moving in and interacting with a limited part of the world. To form a view of and understand what lies outside our personal experience, we rely on the reports of others. In other words, mediators. Media – artefacts created to communicate – especially news media, are meant to act as a mirror which reflects society.

The usual function of a mirror is to allow us to see ourselves. Interestingly, what we see is not quite real, even though it’s a perfect reflection. While many a horror story or film have used the trope of mirrors being, in fact, a window to another world, or something in which a monster or ghost can be captured, in reality mirrors are no more than a surface meant to reflect.

Yet increasingly, this media-mirror has shown life stirring in it of its own accord. There’s a monster in that glass, and instead of reflecting society, it is reaching out and shaping society. This is indeed the stuff of nightmares. Take, for instance, the recent British vote to leave the European Union. Among many issues that were hyped up as an imminent threat was the spectre of thousands of immigrants from Turkey overwhelming Britain, with EU membership allowing their free flow into the country. The fear arising from this spectacle was a critical factor in many people’s decision to vote to leave the EU. Yet it was a false narrative. A similar situation exists in the United States of America, where the new president has made moves to ban Muslims from the country, while the reality is that only a tiny fraction of all acts of terror on US soil have been carried out by Muslims over the last decade. Media is used to create a false narrative, but people accept it as a reflection of reality, and act accordingly, with serious consequences. Media can lead us – whether we think of ourselves as liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, or more – to believe something that simply isn’t so.

The mirror, even if it is free of faults that warp what it reflects, cannot help but frame reality in a certain way. The people who tell us the story of what happened inevitably viewed events from a certain vantage point, and filter the story through their own biases, no matter how hard they may try to be neutral. Modern technology has exacerbated the problem: with 24/7 news cycles and competition for consumers, profit and sensationalism drive selection of what to report. People rely on the news media to condense world events in an easy-to-digest ready-meal, and reporters comply, even when the stuff of the meal is too nuanced to compress into a sound bite. It all has to stay fresh, too, so news pours over us too quickly to consider, digest, examine.

The mirror is small and unable to show us all there is too see, it is warped, with a monster stirring inside and reaching out to shape what it should only reflect, yet it is all we have to work on in our effort to understand what is going on beyond our local world. What are we to do?

The answer is not easy. It’s not a ready-meal. We have to teach ourselves to become media analysts. I am privileged to be in a position to formally study media analysis, meaning I can spend the time needed to look beyond the reflection and actually examine the mirror. Not everyone has that time, and that’s a dilemma. I hope to share my journey with you here as I take it. It might give you ideas on how, with the time available to you, you can also look more closely at the mirror’s surface and more accurately understanding the reality it should reflect.

The Jocks and the Nerds

This was originally posted on my old blog on 12 January 2017.

I can think of few better metaphors for our roads than my kids’ school. It was established more than 100 years ago, the building erected with spacious passages, if you consider the maybe two or three hundred pupils it catered for at the time. School, back then, was really for nerds (forgive the stereotyping in this article, it’s to prove a point): your more brain-strong than body-strong types, and of course they were all male.

As the years rolled by, school changed. It became common for more than just nerds to finish to Leaving Certificate level, so the school got fuller and fuller. The demographic changed from nerd-heavy to nerd-light. The doors were opened to girls, too. Additions were made to the school building, but there’s legacy infrastructure that catered to a very different need. Those spacious passages are actually really narrow, now that two or three times the number of pupils need to move through them.

Consider, now, the experience of nerds, the behaviour of jocks. The rowdy, energetic, strong, and often physically big jocks are by their very nature intimidating to nerds. Some of them are perfectly polite, but simply unaware of how they make life difficult for the smaller nerds when they stride down the narrow passage as if they own it, unconsciously offering the nerds the choice between being shoved aside or shrinking out of the way. Others delight in their power, and will go out of their way to intimidate nerds, veering just ever so slightly closer as they push past, laughing when the nerd is shoved or steps aside. Even in small, petty doses, power gives a big high. Still others are aware the nerds feel intimidated, but believe might makes right, and the nerds must just deal with it.

Then there are the nerds. Their life can be made a complete misery by the daily ordeal of trying to get books from their lockers while big, rowdy, often intimidating and loud jocks stream past. Being bumped into; for the girls, unavoidably coming into physical contact they would usually avoid, with boys they didn’t choose to rub against (and who most likely didn’t choose to rub against them, sorry, but the passage is so narrow, or perhaps they were even shoved into the girl when they themselves would rather have avoided physical contact).

It strikes me as illogical to solve this problem by getting the nerds to wear a bright waistcoat marking them out as nerds, and helmets to complete the uniform. When it comes to road safety, visibility is an issue, especially at night, but the inherent visual marking of vulnerable road users with what can be classified as a uniform has wider implications for social group issues, which are extremely powerful inhibitors to sustainable transport uptake. One can absolutely achieve visibility without using the standard, ugly, meaning-laden high visibility vests.

The solution to the problem lies in addressing the behaviour of the powerful, not in coaching the vulnerable to stay out of their way. Like all kids have a right to use those passages without stress or fear, just so all people have a right to use the roads without stress or fear. It’s not happening right now, so we have no choice but to make big changes. If you drive, you are the jock. Be aware that your mode of transport is inherently dangerous and intimidating to those around you, and drive accordingly: carefully, slowly, patiently, giving vulnerable fellow road users a wide berth to show you’re not going to harm them, and for the love of all that’s holy, stay out of their designated space.

You can be a jock without being a dick. It’s time we started aggressively insisting that everyone using the roads makes that their mantra.

Full of Stars

This was originally posted on my old blog on 10 October 2017.

He’d parked the van across the footpath, pulling up until the footplate at the back door touched the wooden gate of the entrance beside the shop. The footpath was wide in this spot, but this van was one of those extra long ones. It blocked the entire footpath and stuck out beyond it, the width of the parallel parking spaces lining the street. To get around it, I would have to walk in the street itself. He was sitting in the van, so I caught his eye and did a what now? shrug. He understood, which means he was not unaware that his conduct was problematic: he gestured generously to the road in front of him, where he felt I should be walking. I shook my head, and he wound down his window.

“Hi, sorry you’re blocking the whole footpath, I can’t get past you,” I said.

“There’s loads of space right there.”

“You mean in the road?”

“Yes.”

“That space is for cars, not for pedestrians. The footpath is for pedestrians.”

“Oh come on, it’s not as if there’s any traffic.” He gestured to the empty early-morning street.

“You are parked illegally, why should I have to walk in the road to accommodate that? You’re the one breaking the law.”

“Yeah whatever.” He wound his window back up.

So what was I to do? Because like David Bowman in Space Odyssey entering a mysterious monolith and uttering that stunned declaration of sudden understanding, my study of the problems surrounding sustainable transport uptake brought me understanding of how the base attitude of “I follow traffic rules when I judge it to be necessary” is directly responsible for hundreds of deaths. Everytime you park on a footpath; everytime the light is red for you and green for pedestrians but you pull away because feck it, you can’t see anyone crossing the road; everytime you park on a yellow line; everytime you see that sign saying 60 but hey, everyone else is doing 80 – you carry on your shoulders that driver going too fast to see that child. You push down on the pedal that saw that young man flying across the tar to his death. You help create the paradigm of “follow the rules if you feel like it” that kills, maims, widows, orphans.

The van driver was right, I was almost certain to be safe walking in the road for the ten steps or so that would see me past his massive obstruction. Almost, compared to certainly if I were able to walk on the footpath. But doing so would be agreeing that he has a right to decide on my behalf what is safe and what is not. Walking in the road, even if there’s no traffic, is uncomfortable. It’s unpleasant. Why should I accept that experience to facilitate him breaking the law?

So what did I do? Well, I went to the back of the van, and saw it was pulled as flush to the gate behind it as was possible. But it had a footplate running the breadth of the van, so there was a small gap he couldn’t avoid leaving, with all the will in the world. I climbed onto it and squeezed past his van. It was unpleasant, but it was absolutely worth it. I did not walk in the road just because he decided that’s what I should do.

What upset me all day yesterday is that the vast majority of people would likely think I was being ridiculous, unreasonable. Making a big deal out of nothing. A little seed is also nothing, but if you leave it in the ground, it can grow into a very, very big tree.

A thought experiment

This was originally posted on my old blog on 27 December 2016.

Think of a road near where you live, work, or study. It should be a reasonably busy road, but not a highway, and if all such roads near you have well designed, separated cycling infrastructure you can stop the experiment right here. Got one? Good. Imagine yourself cycling along that road. Try to really immerse yourself in the experience, what it would feel like to pedal along that road, nothing between you and the traffic surging past, no barrier between you and the roar of engines.

Do you think it’s safe?

Now imagine yourself cycling along that same road, but all vehicles powered by an engine have lost the ability to go faster than 30km/h. So about twice as fast as a leisurely cycling pace, even pedal to the metal.

Do you think it’s safe? Safer than your previous scenario?

Next, imagine that same road, and you’re cycling along it. Feel the air on your face, but listen: silence. Imagine every car, van, truck, bus has disappeared. Nothing’s wrong, it’s just the way it is for this stretch of road, there are no engine-driven vehicles on it.

Do you think it’s safe? Safer than scenario one and two?

Maybe you’re an experienced cyclist, and nothing scares you. Try then to put your child, or an elderly parent in that same scenario: first as it is, then as it would be if all traffic moved at a maximum of 30km/h, then as it would be if no motorised traffic shared the road with the cyclist in your imagined scene.

Considering your judgement of the safety of a cyclist on a busy road in your environment with the only variable being motorised traffic, what do you think is really the biggest threat to cyclist safety? The perception that cycling is not safe on our roads is a major barrier to its uptake, meaning one of the most accessible ways to combat air pollution, congestion, diseases related to sedentary lifestyles and many more issues is being blocked by safety fears. And the threat to safety is motorised traffic.

I want you to consider one last scenario. Take yourself back again to that busy road you chose for this experiment, and again picture yourself (or a vulnerable loved one) cycling along this road. Traffic is at the levels you’d normally expect for that place, and all engines work as they do in reality. Picture one weird difference, though. Every single motorised vehicle is driven by a clone of you. They drive like you, think of other road users like you do, react the same way to stress such as congestion as you do. None of your clones are aware of the identity of the cyclist.

Is it safe?

Accessible Magic

This was originally posted to my old blog on 30 November 2016.

One morning last week the world was painted with a brush dipped in frost. I cycle past a primary school on my way to college. After weaving my way through the mess of cars trying to push their way as close as possible to the school gate, I crossed into a park right beside the school. There’s an estate on the other side of it, which means a good few families can opt to walk along the winding tarred paths through the park with their kids. To watch these littlies interact with the suddenly slippy world was simply delightful.

The excitement on those glowing faces, as they slid their feet along and slip-slid to school. What an amazing experience it must have been! The sensation of cold on your cheeks, of the snug warmth of your coat, hat, and gloves, of Mom or Dad’s safe hand whenever you needed it for a moment before dashing off to explore the unfamiliar familiar once more. The balance lessons, as this slidey world met your feet. The stimulating sights as you explored the delicate ice patterns on grass and leaves, as you listened to the crunch of frost beneath your feet.

Is it not heartbreaking that this burst of pure joy is denied most of the children in Ireland? That most of them were instead locked away, on their journey to school, inside a metal box cutting off all these awesome sensations, these valuable stimulants for growing little brains?

Imagine if these parents were given an environment they felt was safe for them and their children to negotiate outside the padded, isolated loneliness of their moving prison. Imagine if society prioritised family wellbeing and adapted hours and expectations to allow the parents to walk or cycle to school with their littlies before going on to work.

Wouldn’t that be grand.

Drivers, drains, and brains

This was originally posted to my old blog in November 2016.

My route to college includes a road with a Z bend: sharp right followed immediately by a sharp left. That exact section of road also has a number of recessed drains probably about twenty metres apart. Therefore, even cyclists who don’t believe in the merits of vehicular cycling* have to move to a position in line with where motor traffic’s closest-to-the-kerb tyre would run.

On Thursday two car drivers overtook me on the turn, one giving an oncoming driver a near heart attack because overtaking on a blind bend is not a good idea. No accident, but a close call. What took the cake was that I joined a queue of waiting traffic at the T junction about thirty metres after the bends… right behind both cars that had overtaken me dangerously.

Now, I get that people are frustrated by cyclists slowing them down to a fraction of the speed they are capable of and allowed. What intrigues me is what foundational thinking framework is lodged in the mind of a driver that results in them making the split-second decision that overtaking the cyclist is worth the risk of one of the most dangerous types of collisions: head-on with a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. The situation Thursday highlighted the pointlessness of this risk: these drivers gained literally nothing. I don’t believe in overtaking traffic on the left, but it would have been my legal right to do so and to cross that intersection before them. As it was, I stayed in the queue of traffic, so they risked collision, injury, death for the sake of making a right turn at best thirty seconds before me.

There is no logic here, so what prompts such folly? I am convinced that dangerous road user behaviour doesn’t start with the moment in which poor decisions are made. Therefore, changing such behaviour will not start with addressing the moment in which poor decisions are made. The key lies in shifting the springboard from which these decisions originate. I believe also that this behaviour is most visible in road user interactions involving cyclists, but that the “bakermat” – the place of origin – of a lot of dangerous road user behaviour resulting in injury and death is the same.

Imagine if we could address that core, if we could shift the launch pad to direct decisions into a safer trajectory. It could save so many lives.

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*Vehicular cycling means you cycle as part of the traffic stream, placing yourself in line with other vehicles for visibility and predictability (our eyes are in the front of our heads, so cycling as close to the kerb as possible takes you out of the line of sight and focus of drivers, and violates the Road Safety Authority’s advice to “Be Safe, Be Seen”. It also places you in the lane with the highest number of obstacles, increasing your risk of swerving into oncoming traffic – drain covers, holes, debris, pedestrians stepping into the road without looking which yes, happens unbelievably often. A British qualitative study mentioned cyclist unpredictability as a major stressor for drivers, so putting yourself in a lane where you’re more likely to swerve unpredictably does drivers no favours, even if they don’t realise that). Segregation (separated cycle lanes) seems to work better for cycling safety, but in a situation where you have no other choice but to share a surface with motorised traffic, many argue it is the safest practice.

Say it with clothes

This was originally posted on my old blog on 12 November 2016.

As part of research for my Honours thesis I have looked into clothing as a form of communication. I’ve long suspected that what we wear speaks as loudly as our words, and it was a pleasure to see that confirmed in academia. Clothing can tell those around us about our affiliations, our activity, even something about our personality. Just look at advice for dressing for an interview to see how much what we wear matters in shaping what others think of us.

What specifically intrigues me, though, is how what you wear speaks to you. It can, to a large degree, shape what you feel about yourself. In the years I worked as fulltime parent, when social isolation was one of my greatest enemies, I had a rule to never wear track suits. My aim was to always dress casual but nice. I often got it wrong, but looking back, days that I didn’t dress well, I didn’t feel good about myself inside.

I also, over the years, discovered the power of clothing in helping against the occasional bout of the blues. Colour psychology is important here: on a day when you have to drag yourself out of bed, choose brighter colours, and those on the warm side of the spectrum.

Finally, I discovered that when your view of yourself is a little off track, you can start dressing the way you see yourself, which reinforces the skewed self-image, which reinforces the dress tendency. One of the most uplifting things I did in a recent phase of reconsidering the direction I was heading professionally, was to realise I was dressing like someone I wasn’t. Part of recalibrating myself involved reconsidering my wardrobe. I started loving what I wear again. Every day, choosing my outfit for the day is a joy. It’s a way of being creative, a way of expressing myself, of sharing my joy in being me with everyone around me.

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