Storytelling and Information Control

A few days ago I attended a lecture about media framing in news reporting at the Vancouver Public Library as part of Media Democracy Day. It was definitely nice to have a refresher on some of the topics we covered in J-School. As the workshop facilitators were individuals from the non-profit/activist media-making community, I quite enjoyed hearing what they had to say as these topics were ones that I struggled to find space to talk about in my undergraduate studies. I think this is because most of my peers and instructors were concerned with the technical aspects of news reporting, and were reluctant to engage in conversations that were critical of that process in an age where the entire industry is being threatened by rapidly developing communication technologies, social media, and citizen journalism.

One of the main topics of the workshop was the use of algorithms and how online media can be contrived to pull in an audience who then have limited access to information according to dominant powers that be. The danger of this business is the control of information. Someone, somewhere, is profiting from not necessarily telling you what to think, but rather from telling you what to think about (even though they are finding you by playing off of your interests/affiliations/passions). For example, if you were to Google the Iraq War, you might read about Saddam Hussein, terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction. You are less likely to find information about Halliburton, George Bush, or how financial corruption fuels warfare.

These subtle linguistic differences change what we are talking about and how we talk about it. It doesn’t take much to see that PM Stephen Harper uses this tactic in his public speaking engagements – getting his message across without really answering the question at hand.

(There is an excellent MacLean’s article that talks about this practice. The key is to drone on except for one sentence, which you will emphasize in both French and English, encouraging journalists to choose that for their sound bite. As a journalist, I will admit that that tends to work).

From a business point of view, this makes sense. But I can’t help but feel weird about it from a… basic human decency point of view. And perhaps this speaks more about the temptation of laziness in news reporting, and the struggle to get things out before other news outlets.

This practice creates a cycle in which news largely perpetuates information and dominant values that we already believe to be true about the world, or are encouraged to take as truth. What does this mean for the future of news? Of advertising? Of our relationships with each other?

(One of the participants who I was sitting with was a self-titled conspiracy theorist who argued that banking families dictate the content of most of Canada’s newspapers. Take that how you will).

In the workshop, we were asked to list how we get our news. It seemed obvious that news gathering is done primarily in areas we already have interest invested in (websites that pertain to our own interests, social media in which we like pages we prefer and are friends with people we choose to be friends with). What does it mean for our understandings of humanity when we only seek out news (whether on purpose or not), that we have some kind of self-interest in? Who is dictating the boundaries of our interests? If most people get their news from social media and their social circles, how do we foster and encourage empathy for those who exist outside these categories?

How do we avoid contributing to this system? As much as I love documentaries, it’s not realistic to expect that to be my constant news source. Social media is deeply integrated in my life, and I do get pleasure from having access to information and sources that reaffirm my core values or speak on topics pertaining to various passions. And of course, from a rational perspective, there does need to be some decision in which articles go on the front page, and which topics are covered at all.

To avoid contributing to the use of algorithms, and thus encouraging more balance in the news you are offered online, someone in the workshop suggested e-mailing links because opening links from inside the body of an e-mail won’t be tracked. You can also use startpage.com, a private search engine, instead of Google.

What are some of your ideas? Is it a personal responsibility to seek out all sides to a story? Can news journalism be relied upon anymore, or was that assumption the problem to begin with?

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