Saturday, 12 November 2011

When Was The Last Time Someone Said That You Might Be Wrong?

(Hi all- I know I'd said I'd be starting my series on "Towards a Political Alignment System" today, but I wasn't able to get it finished in time; instead, here's a post I have finished. So, y'know. There's that. [Owesome]).

In the 21st Century, there are more media outlets than ever before in history; however, they're all ultimately owned by the same five to seven companies.

BBC,  TV 1, TV 3, Prime, Sky News, Fox News, Al Jazeera, National Radio, Fairfax Media, Newspapers Ltd, CNN, ABC, etc, etc, etc, are all constantly pumping out important information that they think that you Need To Know Now or you are Missing Out on Important Issues.

And when there's no big news to report, they're sitting down and talking about all the Really Big Important Things That You Just Saw, and telling you What It Really Means.

I don't know about you, but I feel exhausted just typing that sentence, let alone trying to keep up with all the big events of the day..

And that's not even going into talking about the New Zealand Blogosphere, or any other site staffed by enthusiastic people with a passion for something who are keen to share their ideas and views with the world (he says, somewhat self-referentially).

Just putting it out there.

In Corporate Speak, the marketplace of ideas is over-saturated. You'd have to be obsessive-compulsive to take it all in. So, instead, the modern internet-enabled-MySky-owning citizen will choose one or two news outlets that they relate to best, and follow those exclusively. If a friend shares an article they found interesting on a different outlet's news-site, they'll read that, then go back to their happy place.

That's normal. We only have so many hours in a day, after all, and if you tried to read everything, you'd never have any time left for the real world. The trap, however, is that you will only ever read stories written by people who think exactly like you, written for people who think exactly like them.

The myth of the objective news media is just that, a myth: a story with a moral message that tries to make sense of a complicated world in terms that you can understand.

In reality, every news outlet has their own particular editorial slant; some are subtle, like the way the Dominion Post of November 3, 2011 featured nothing but pro-National stories after the first leader's debate on TV1? Or even the subtle way I omitted the word "alleged" from that sentence, implying that this is a fact rather than an accusation from a private individual (who by posting the Ghost Jobs macro shows good taste and fine judgement, if I do say so myself).

Or is the bias as blatant as Fox News, with their incessant carping and neighing about how the Scary Liberal Loony Left will drag us all into Sodomy and Perdition with their Godless Ways, but the Righteous Right remain the Sole True Hope For All True Patriots, even as George W. Bush's presidential legacy of unprecidented national debt leaves the current administration tearing itself apart before the world stage?

Every news outlet has an editor. The best editors recognise their own biases, and actively try to challenge them. Some editors remain ignorant of their own biases, and aren't even aware that the news they choose to use paints the world with a certain size brush, glossing over some of the details. Other editors embrace their biases as a way of increasing market share, actively positioning their news services to appeal to a certain type of person.

There is also the tricky issue of self-censorship in media as it relates to media ownership, and the thought that if a reporter wants to keep their job, pissing off the corporates is a bad way to do that. But that's another post, for another day.

The point I'm trying to get around to talking about is, it's very easy to go through life and only ever listen to people, and talk to people, who more or less think the same way you do.

After all, it's impolite to talk politics or religion at dinner parties. The surest way to get people to adopt a fixed grin and have them back away slowly is to say, "Actually, I think that the situation in the Middle East bears some interesting parallels to the way Northern Ireland blah blah blah blah blah." You might even be making a good point, but people have a way of just having their eyes glaze over and start thinking about dessert when people bring up the Big Issues. It's not polite.

So what happens is, people hear about an issue: Say, the rising rate of unemployment. They hear about it through a media channel that they like that is already sympathetic to their view; that channel will gather quotes from people who are sympathetic to the editorial slant of the media outlet. So if our hypothetical person is the kind of guy who reads, for example, the National Business Review, he is likely to read this story calling the latest unemployment figures "surprising," because hey, Auckland's been having a huge job boom lately! What's the problem? Canterbury's losing jobs? Don't worry, they can all become builders, lots of houses going up soon. Oh, what's this? Papers to show Ministers doubt accuracy of the unemployment data? Too bad it's behind a pay-wall, but I bet it's about how things aren't really as bad as they seem. Record numbers of youth unemployed? Probably too busy playing with their Poke-Man cards to do real work.

...but the scary part is that, if he ever talks to anyone about these thoughts, he is not going to hear the other side of the story: that, maybe, there is actually a real problem here for real people. That there are talented, motivated people who are currently unemployed who really want to work, but the work just isn't out there: everyone's scared about the looming credit crunch, everyone's scared about the earthquakes, everyone's scared about how insurance companies aren't taking on new clients despite advertisements running every day in the papers and TV news. So companies are just not hiring.

You can't just say, "there's no real problem. Apart from Canterbury, there's lots of new jobs going!" All of those new jobs in Auckland? How many of those were created by Christchurch businesses setting up shop there instead of staying put?

But that's slightly off-topic. The point is, you don't know what you don't know. Listening to the other team is, at worst, a chance to hone your own views in the cut and thrust of debate; at best, a way to see another side of things and maybe learn something.

TL;DR: This election, try listening to people who think that you're a dick. They might be a rabid, raving loony, but they might also, just maybe, challenge your ideas and force you to improve upon them.

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