Post No.: 0238
The ‘VIA’ analysis for assessing information stands for verifiable, independent and accountable. Reliable information is verifiable (so gather, assess and weigh up the evidence then place the facts in the bigger picture/overall context, balance according to what’s fair and appropriate (i.e. this doesn’t mean giving proven lies the time too) and maintain transparency), independent (check that there are no conflicts of interest), and accountable (because the reporter takes accountability and direct responsibility, by name, for the truthfulness and reliability of a report).
One must be aware of satire (some entire websites are dedicated to satire), intentional hoaxes and lies (including forged documents or doctored photographs or videos), information taken out of context, and genuine mistakes. Sometimes information becomes out of date and has been superseded by more recent, more reliable and/or more accurate data too. There is also the editing of footage to directly achieve a comedic effect, to take things out of context or to intentionally manipulate emotions and opinions – we don’t usually ever get to see what a journalist or editor leaves out from his/her final edits so we need to compare different independent reports of the same events rather than only get our news from the same sources.
However, sometimes even the most respected news outlets make occasional mistakes or get suckered in by hoaxes. And the newspapers sometimes copy each other in following hoax stories due to lazy journalism. So just because a normally-respected news outlet says something is true, and then other news outlets follow suit, and then millions of people believe it’s true because every news outlet is saying it’s true – that itself doesn’t necessarily make something true. Even if a few billion people believe in something and are sharing and spreading the same story – that in itself won’t contribute to the truth of a story whatsoever because a truth doesn’t depend on how many people believe in it.
Sometimes hoaxes make it through to popular consumption and persistent belief (e.g. urban myths). Otherwise intelligent and educated people sometimes get duped too because being intelligent or educated in one thing doesn’t necessarily mean being intelligent or educated regarding other things. And just because anyone, even in high or official and relevant positions, says something is true, that itself won’t necessarily mean it is (e.g. even if the finance minister of a country says that economic austerity is over, we must check if this really is the case). A truth depends on what actually happened, and to prove what actually happened requires evidence rather than beliefs or people merely stating it is true. Woof.
All journalists are supposed to verify all facts before publishing them, but so many are under massive time constraints and deadline pressures nowadays hence they don’t or can’t always put in the resources to do a proper investigation, especially with breaking news; which is when a report tends to be full of conjectures or media speculations, even from those who are/were apparently ‘on the scene’ for even they might not know exactly what’s really going on yet even though they are/were there. Although professional reporters (and the more responsible social media posters) typically clarify that such early reports are not yet verified – any conjectures or speculations will still likely subconsciously prime or influence the minds of the audience already. For example, pre-trial publicity can have a major effect on influencing juries or the public in general, such as if there is a report of a ‘lone suspect’ (i.e. there are no other suspects currently being considered), then this suspect is highly likely already going to be labelled as ‘guilty’ by the public because no alternative suspect or hypothesis is being offered.
Lots of media reports on scientific research end with question marks, and although this is usually warranted and most truthful because a piece of research is inconclusive, many readers will still subconsciously read a ‘maybe’ as more like a ‘definitely’ depending on their own personal biases. For example, a headline claiming that chocolate might help people to lose weight will possibly be read by a person who wants to lose weight and likes chocolate a lot as ‘chocolate will help people lose weight’.
A journalist might lazily release a story full of ‘maybes’ thus leaving the onus on the reader to check the facts – but even if a story is verified, the best answer might still genuinely be a ‘maybe’ or ‘it depends’ because the conclusion is truthfully complex. An effect or outcome could depend on a lot of exogenous or external factors. For example, whether a certain diet will reduce one’s blood pressure or not will also depend on one’s activity levels, stress levels and other factors too.
Because journalists can be extremely time pressured (or sometimes lazy), the people being interviewed about a story can potentially exploit that – if an interviewee lays out the information just right, they can shape the story that emerges in the media just as they want, almost as if they, rather than the journalist, are writing their piece for them. If done just right, the reporter might just exactly copy-and-paste what is provided (e.g. a catchy headline, punchy quotes, a spicy kicker (a line just above the main headline or at the end to conclude an article), a sexy lede (lead paragraph), a clear nut graph (nutshell paragraph) and/or even some vivid visuals). A promise of an exclusive story is also tempting, even if such a promise might be false.
Many journalists rely on readymade press releases provided to them, for a quick turnaround. Or they may resort to ‘he said, she said’ (one word against another’s) journalism, which is easier to produce. Journalists and papers can sometimes be taken in by fake news, fake witnesses or fuzzy hoaxes because they don’t double-check the facts (journalists routinely scour the chatter on social media nowadays and thus encounter the extreme amount of noise present there). Some take their source’s words at face value without independent checks, where such sources may have personal agendas or they could be wittingly or unwittingly giving out false information. Eyewitness accounts can be fallible even if they don’t mean to be.
Journalists can themselves spin things (e.g. exaggerate or twist words out of context in order to try to create a more interesting-sounding story), spread bunkum (pass information that they themselves believe is true but is actually false) or outright lie (deceive on purpose to serve a political or corporate interest, for instance) – so it can be down to us rather than journalists to actually cross-examine things, or to be cautious at least. Sometimes journalists do not or cannot have access to the information to verify it because they are personal private, company trade or state security secrets, and are therefore legally confidential. And individuals may face fears of severe repercussions from either powerful corporations or governments if they whistleblow or talk badly against their employers or government in any way.
Now it must be noted that just because a whistleblower has emerged from within a firm or political party, it could be that this person is simply vindictive towards their employer or party and has fabricated or exaggerated information rather than has factual and damning information, hence we must still check the evidence rather than trust it just because of whom or where it came from – including ‘insiders’. Hopefully they can provide harder evidence than just their personal witness statements; although if a lot of independent insiders say the exact same things then that will add to the overall dossier of evidence. And do some whistleblowers purposely select which data to publish depending on their own political or ideological motives? If they don’t publish all of the data they find but curate (under the guise of protecting private data or sifting out irrelevant information) then can we be sure that they’re not biased themselves? Whistleblowers do important work for society, and protecting private and of-no-public-interest information is critical, but these are questions an independent critical thinker and news consumer must consider.
In some countries, there is wide-reaching government censorship. The freedom of the press is vitally important though – we don’t want governments or just a handful of giant media corporations controlling the news for their own interests, which might not align with the general public’s interests.
Some stories best require specialist knowledge on a subject that a generalist journalist doesn’t have enough expertise on to be a useful and fair advocate or sceptic for, which could lead to a situation where effectively the blind leads the blind (which happens a lot more on social media, where anyone can voice their opinions regardless of their expertise). One also might not be familiar with the language, history or culture of a country and their style or focus of journalism, and this would naturally reveal or render a bias in both their and our audiences (e.g. ‘European’ media sources looking at a ‘Far Eastern’ problem, which we may find trivial but they find serious, or vice-versa).
So journalists frequently rush in order to try to be the first to get a story out there – but this means that they can jump the gun because information can be deceptive when seen at first glance and the truth is often not immediately apparent. In an ideal world, all journalists will only include the most reliable and fully verified sources of information in their reports, but given the time or deadline pressures in the real world, this will never be likely. Therefore a good tip is to take every ‘breaking news’ story as pending firmer evidence, verification and critical analysis. Don’t jump to conclusions too soon yourself (e.g. that a breaking story involving explosions is one of a terrorist attack committed by a certain group, or even a terrorist attack at all). If you’re not also doing it yourself then it takes the journalistic community time to sift through the mass and myriad of (sometimes conflicting) information and to verify the facts.
Along with the biased interests of a news outlet (the political bias and corporate interests of their owners, sponsors, investors, clients and other stakeholders) that potentially affect the content of its news articles – individual journalists are under the pressure of deadlines to come up with something interesting each day hence what they report can often be very provisional, not very well verified or they may even fall for complete lies.
Yet even though journalists typically write or say, for instance, ‘this could…’ or ‘that may be…’ or ‘it is reported that…’ – most readers will casually read these lines as ‘this will…’ or ‘that definitely is…’ or ‘it is true that…’ because we often read what we want to read and not just the precise words on the pages, and only the precise words on the pages. Different people can read the exact same words but come away with different thoughts and conclusions because of the individual mental lenses we absorb and interpret information through. And many readers or viewers love to personally jump to rapid conclusions nevertheless because they think it demonstrates their own superior powers of intuition, for being able to read so much from so little confirmed information – but truly wise people will be patient and will still have more questions to ask than opinions or conclusions to give.