Stuck in the me­dia bub­ble

We need to read ar­ti­cles we dis­agree with be­cause more per­spec­tives al­ways mean bet­ter un­der­stand­ing.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - star2@thes­tar.com.my Dzof Azmi

ONE in­ter­est­ing thing I’ve learned about chil­dren rel­a­tively re­cently is that you can make them stop do­ing some­thing by ei­ther telling them to stop or you can go one step fur­ther and say “Stop, be­cause...”.

The rea­son­ing be­hind this is that once chil­dren un­der­stand why some­thing should or shouldn’t hap­pen they are more likely to make a good de­ci­sion. Don’t touch that hot iron, it hurts. Don’t stand on the wall, you might fall.

This ap­proach is crit­i­cised by some adults be­cause, they say, why do you waste time ex­plain­ing some­thing to a child? Just tell them to stop do­ing it.

I sus­pect one of those adults is US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. The phrase “FAKE NEWS” has been tweeted by him (yes, usu­ally in loud cap­i­tal let­ters) dozens of times, each time with the im­plicit ad­mo­ni­tion that you shouldn’t be­lieve ev­ery­thing you read in the pa­pers.

He doesn’t ex­plain what he means, but he has a point. Al­though jour­nal­is­tic ethics have at their core an idea of “truth­ful­ness”, it is ob­vi­ous you can be telling the truth and still be ac­cused of telling a lie. Some Amer­i­can news­pa­pers like The Wash­ing­ton Post or The New York Times clearly side with the Democrats, the party op­pos­ing Trump’s Repub­li­cans. Other me­dia out­lets like TV’s Fox News or news mag­a­zine Bre­it­bart side with the Repub­li­cans.

Take for ex­am­ple the re­cent news about Don­ald Trump Jr ef­fec­tively ad­mit­ting that he was in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the Rus­sians dur­ing his father’s elec­tion cam­paign last year de­spite months of de­nials from his father and the White House: Whereas The New York Times (whose re­porters did much of the work to break the story about pos­si­ble Rus­sian in­flu­ence on the US elec­tion) had the head­line “Ran­cor in West Wing over Rus­sia re­ports”, the right-wing Bre­it­bart.com had a re­port on the front page with Don­ald Trump com­mend­ing his son, say­ing “I ap­plaud his trans­parency”.

Both head­lines are true but clearly show dif­fer­ent an­gles. Is it a good thing to have dif­fer­ent an­gles? Sure. But the prob­lem is, lament so­ci­ol­o­gists, that most peo­ple get their news from a bub­ble. They only read the stuff they agree with.

There is a great value in read­ing stuff that you dis­agree with. It gives per­spec­tive, which deep­ens un­der­stand­ing. So why is it easy to dis­miss sto­ries writ­ten by “oth­ers”?

What is re­mark­able is that this bub­ble is ex­pe­ri­enced by those in the me­dia them­selves. An es­say by jour­nal­ist Sean Trende deftly il­lus­trates this by de­scrib­ing what hap­pened when Bri­tain chose to vote to leave the Euro­pean Union (tinyurl.com/star2-es­say):

Al­though polling data showed that the 2016 Brexit referendum was too close to call, much of the press in Bri­tain sided with “re­main”. Trende at­tributes this to an “echo cham­ber” en­vi­ron­ment pop­u­lated by the an­a­lysts and re­porters them­selves, who felt that leav­ing was an un­think­able op­tion, and this bi­ased their re­port­ing.

For ex­am­ple, a col­umn in the Econ­o­mist mag­a­zine used the tru­ism that when a vote is close, un­de­cid­eds will lean to­wards the sta­tus quo, and thus they felt the re­main camp would ben­e­fit (tinyurl.com/Star2-Econ­o­mist). But in hind­sight, per­haps many Bri­tons saw Europe as en­croach­ing on their rights and that a leave vote would keep things as they are – ie, pre­serv­ing the sta­tus quo. It was a valid counter ar­gu­ment that not many had con­sid­ered.

So apart from the po­lit­i­cal bias of es­tab­lished news agen­cies, we also have the per­sonal, per­haps un­con­scious, bias of the jour­nal­ists. Com­pound­ing this is per­haps an­other kind of bias, of­ten de­scribed as a “chill­ing ef­fect”: cen­sor­ship.

It’s the fear of be­ing cen­sored or rep­ri­manded for what you write. The rea­son why this col­umn is about jour­nal­is­tic in­tegrity from the view­point of US and Bri­tish pol­i­tics is be­cause it’s a sub­ject that’s not easy to broach in Malaysia.

Al­though I ini­tially be­gan by want­ing to write things that were con­tra­dic­tory to com­mon be­lief (hence this col­umn’s name), I re­alised that there was also op­por­tu­nity to clar­ify dif­fi­cult ideas or com­plex sto­ries. Al­though there is a risk that I might miss the nu­ance, I felt that at least I could pro­vide read­ers with a jump­ing off point from which they could ex­plore the topic in more de­tail on their own.

But with the shadow of gen­eral elec­tions loom­ing, some top­ics are off the ta­ble. Which is a real shame, be­cause these top­ics have gar­nered much gos­sip and mis­un­der­stand­ing. I am itch­ing to write about them, not to judge or to sway, but to pre­sent facts and add more per­spec­tive.

And as men­tioned be­fore, more per­spec­tive means bet­ter un­der­stand­ing.

The one great thing that Trump’s reg­u­lar “fake news” di­a­tribes have done is that they have pushed me­dia out­lets to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity for ed­i­to­rial de­ci­sions. Al­ready, three jour­nal­ists from broad­caster CNN who were re­port­ing on Trump-Rus­sia links have re­signed af­ter it was de­ter­mined that an ar­ti­cle they pub­lished re­lied on only one anony­mous source.

In the fall­out, there was dis­cus­sion about what con­sti­tuted fair and fac­tual re­port­ing, and thank­fully it wasn’t just “no”, but “no, be­cause...”.

What re­spon­si­ble jour­nal­ists do is im­pres­sive. They dig through dirt to re­veal what was once ob­fus­cated.

There are those that frown when stones are over­turned to re­veal an un­com­fort­able un­der­belly.

They say that the public is mess­ing with cor­ner­stones and foun­da­tions of gov­ern­ments and the coun­try, and that pulling on the wrong one could bring the whole house down.

But if the bedrock that we build our na­tion on is so rocky and frag­ile, then per­haps we should worry about that more than about those who pick at it to un­cover the truth.

I un­der­stand that some in power be­lieve that the Malaysian public is not yet ma­ture enough to han­dle the dou­ble­s­peak that emerges from con­tro­ver­sial sto­ries. The Amer­i­can public, too, get ob­vi­ously con­fused by what they see and read. But if what we find is com­plex and eas­ily mis­un­der­stood, it should be a sig­nal to work at it, not shield us from the con­fus­ing truth by just say­ing “no”.

Be­cause even chil­dren de­serve to be told the rea­sons.

Logic is the an­tithe­sis of emo­tion but math­e­ma­ti­cian-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s the­ory is that peo­ple need both to make sense of life’s va­garies and con­tra­dic­tions.

Most peo­ple get their news from a bub­ble ... they only read the stuff they agree with.

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