(Photo credit: Yukiko Matsuoka)
In recent months, there have been a lot of media coverage on the proliferation of ‘fake news’ on social media sharing sites such as Facebook. The fact of the matter is, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Fake, misleading, incomplete, misconstrued, or manipulative information have been and will always be around. It’s up to us to take the bull by the horns and decide what we allow to shape our own opinions.
There shouldn’t be any one dominant media voice shaping the world’s public opinion — it’s dangerous and insulting to those from parts of the world who don’t agree with what’s being said on big global media networks by virtue of different historical and cultural contexts, or simply an opposing collective societal mindset. If there were no dissent or diversity of thought, imagine how easy it would be for those in power to take full control and distort reality and history at will.
One of the most positive developments in the media in the last decade is the rise of citizen journalism and social media (a caveat: it also raises a whole other set of concerns on verification and context that just won’t fit in 140 characters).
We’ve seen the growth of smaller ‘independent’ media organisations offering a plethora of voices — adding to pluralism of media, which is not only important, but necessary if we are to call ourselves believers of justice and democratic values.
Almost every media outlet has an editorial agenda, direction and tone that one may or may not agree with. In countries like France or the UK, a news outlet is openly associated with a political leaning. As for journalists, even the most respected ones are human beings with inherent biases that influence choices made in the reporting process. It is precisely this that makes verification paramount, yet increasingly difficult in an era of real-time reporting. The aim, at the very least, is accuracy and context.
The essence of journalism is the a discipline of verification. (…) The method is objective, not the journalist. (…) This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction, or entertainment. [Elements of Journalism. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.]
While verification allows us to get to the bare facts (who, what, where, when, who said what, who did what, etc.), journalistic interpretation still falls in the realm of subjectivity. How the facts are assembled to reach a conclusion is generally not an absolute truth. Rather, it could simply be one’s version of the truth or a mere part of the larger truth.
Social media is rife with opinions on the credibility of the major news organisations. For those that resort to highly emotional and irrational praise for particular media outlets, it’s often driven by whether a story resonates with theirown interpretation of facts. The ‘truth’ doesn’t mean ‘the point of view we agree with.’
Image source: Join the Coffee Party Movement (Facebook)
Even in a world of expanding voices, “getting it right” is the foundation upon which everything else is built — context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The larger truth, over time, emerges from this forum. [Elements of Journalism. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.]
In this age of citizen journalism and social media, where the Internet has democratized information, where we have the platform to challenge the status quo with a few keystrokes, let’s use this newfound power wisely. As citizens, let’s take it upon ourselves to employ the discipline of verification. For starters, we can think twice before reposting or retweeting sensationalist or assumption-based headlines. We can decide not to take video screen grabs at face value, but rather, seek out the original video source. We can decide to always click a link and take one more minute to read beyond an article’s first paragraph.
Read a variety of alternative opinions and be open to opposing points of view. At the very least, understand why others think the way they do. Check laws, constitutions, history books, and other official records. Reach out to parties involved (maybe through a tweet) to verify. Let’s ask questions like who stands to benefit? ‘Follow the money’ in most cases. All these can be done, and it’s much easier now with technology than it ever was.
Take everything with a grain of salt. Just because it’s published, doesn’t mean it’s infallible. The powerful media establishment — backed by states or private corporations — in whatever country, or any establishment for that matter, should not be allowed to shape public opinion unchallenged.
Let’s question our government’s own version of events at all times and not pick a side by virtue of nationality or citizenship. Let’s be mindful that while many journalists try their best to be fair, accurate and objective, journalists are also people who do have inherent biases and who can make mistakes in their reporting.