Mick Jagger and I have a disagreement. He said:
“You can’t always get what you want but you get what you need.”
“You can’t always get what you need but you get what you want.”
I am talking about news and information. Do we get the facts we need or do we get the facts we want to hear? I think the latter.
We think of Chinese media as a propaganda unit of the government feeding the masses ideas to keep them in line. How different is our media in the sophisticated western world? How prepared are we to hear the truth, or at least both sides of the argument?
Demand the unusual
Every person in the media knows tragedy sells more than happiness. The unusual outsells the usual. Sensation beats dull. The media is largely constructed about reporting the abnormalities in life. A politician cheating on his wife beats a next door neighbour celebrating 50 years of marriage.
So do we encourage or discourage the media?
Here is a hypothetical. Two TV news programs report the politician above who is cheating on his wife. One says that to protect the privacy of those involved, they will not show the family or girlfriend of the politician. The other advertises sensational footage of the girlfriend and an interview with the wife and kids. Which would you watch?
So do we “need” to see the girlfriend and family, or do we “want” to see them? The TV station, who are focused on ratings, will give us what we want – intrusive camera shots with hopefully some crying and screaming. Where is our respect for the privacy of the individuals involved?
Bias in reporting
I am not only talking about the stream of propaganda that comes from some media outlets such as Fox News. I am talking about how we only channel media that supports our view. The so called echo chamber.
How many time have I heard people complain that they cannot understand how people read, or listen to, or watch certain media. They do because that media shapes and reinforces their view of the world. They get little opportunity to have that view challenged because they never expose themselves to another perspective.
Us too. How many watch a broad range of media ranging from those that support our views, to those that are diametrically opposed to our view.
It may be right wing, or left wing or even the middle ground, but people create their own bias by only listening to like minded individuals.
One of the great fallacies of our era is that there is a simple solution to everything. Sorry. Life is more complicated than that. In fact most issues are highly complex. How often do we take the time to research situations and find what it is really all about?
People can give simple answers to solve most of the problems we face. The problem is that they are usually focusing on only one part of the problem, and the solution has implications they never think about.
If we want to claim to be informed on a topic, it takes time to read the background and find out how different experts interpret the topic. A journalist may be limited to a few hundred words to present an opinion on explaining a topic and how it should be addressed. Maybe the full explanation would take pages.
Fact or opinion
Are you reading a fact, or an opinion? Trump is the master of presenting opinion as fact. It must be fake news because he says so. Mexicans are murderers and rapists because he says so. If he says it often enough, people start to accept it as fact.
If we were all to stop and ask why this statement was true, journalists would have to prove, or disprove it. We don’t ask. We just accept it until it becomes the accepted norm. Journalism is about presenting the truth, but do we hold the media to this standard? The answer is there in flashing lights ten feet high. NO.
If Trump, or any person making a public statement, were to preface it with “In my opinion…” we would be clear that it was not a fact. It was just what someone had concluded. We would be able to form our conclusion that might, or might not be the same. Instead we are lazy and accept what we are told.
What is quvoidance? A term I just invented. It is the answer to a question that totally avoids shining any light on the question being asked. It is often preceded by comments such as:
“Good question. Glad you asked me that”
“Before I answer your question, let me say…”
“I have already dealt with that issue.”
“That is not the real question. The real question is ….”
Or a thousand other variations.
We listen to them day and night and remain uninformed. An interviewer might ask a politician what is their immigration policy and we suffer for ten minutes hearing how the opposition stuffed up when they were in power. Not just immigration, but the economy, defence, schools, hospitals and sometimes even allocation of paper clips.
The wrong question
If you read in order to be informed about a topic, or by watching an interview, can you be sure you understand at the end, that the facts you sought were never forthcoming? The absence of an answer usually means there is something it would be more convenient if you did not know.
I covered this concept in a previous post but from a different perspective. When you are reading something it may in fact be the wrong question being asked by the reporter or by the person providing the facts.
A good example was when people were first studying anti-arrhythmic drugs, the question asked was, “Are these going to reduce heart attacks?” Other scientists asked, “Do they reduce arrhythmia?” Big Pharma funded the latter group. It poured money into scientists asking whether these drugs reduced arrhythmia.
In fact, they did. But they also increased heart attacks and were responsible for upward of 100,000 premature deaths by heart attack. So, again, independent researchers were doing exactly what they were doing before. It was just that some of them now had a lot more money and that shaped the evidence.
In summary, we want media that supports what we think and provides simple solutions requiring little consideration. We get what we want. If on the other hand, we should say to media:
“I don’t care how complex it is, lay it out for me and I will read it. If you ask people questions they won’t answer, don’t give them space. Just say they refused to answer. I am as interested in the majority of occurrences not just the one outlier. If you are presenting an opinion, make it clear it is not a fact. Finally, tell me about the opposing argument and why people give credence to that point of view.”
Maybe then we can make informed decisions rather than rehash opinion. We might even get what we need.