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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The source of revenue. Reporters can seldom afford to offend advertisers, or the owners of their publication.
- 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.
— 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.