Thursday, 29 December 2016

Our responsibilities as readers

The recent furore about fake news stories has made me think about my responsibility as a reader. Though not my duty to determine if a story is fake or not because, to be frank, it's not that hard to spot a fake story - is it from a source you recognise? Does it have quotes from people with actual names and an explanation of who they are? Are other sources reporting the same thing? If the answer is no to these questions, then that's a bit of a clue that the story is not legit. What the fake news thing has made me think about is how I consume, for want of a better word, information from sources that I do trust. 

I think my most fundamental (and most obvious) responsibility is to understand to that if we don't read it, they won't write it. The Daily Mail, deservedly, gets a lot of flak for its editorial stance towards to anyone who, well, isn't a white, middle-class, non-Muslim, heterosexual, centre right voting, man. But the fact is it wouldn't spout out any of the rubbish it comes out with if there wasn't a willing audience for it. This being a free country, I can't stop other people from reading it but I can show my abhorrence at its hate-filled stories by not buying it and (if not more importantly) not increasing its web traffic by going on its website (not blameless on this score to be honest)

However, of the media I do read, I have to recognise that there's an agenda behind all of it - even the most impartial. For example, I occasionally pick up The Guardian - which is unapologetically left wing. But, the paper that I regularly read, the I paper (which started life as the sister paper of The Independent), is less obvious about its political stance. Even if you ignore the strong argument you could make that it is left wing, the paper isn't really impartial whatever it purports to be. The editor, or team of editors, has made a choice about what news to report, what story (or in the I paper's case, headline) to put on the front cover, and what to ignore. Therefore, each edition is not a reflection of what is going in the world; it is a reflection of what a group of people think are the most relevant and most important things happening in the world. It would be impossible, of course, for them to include every event that happened and I think that they make the right selection (otherwise I wouldn't buy the paper), but I do have to acknowledge that the view that I am getting when I read the paper is only part of the picture; not the whole picture.

Another thing I have to recognise that is that a news story is usually a tertiary source (third hand in other words). It's a report of someone's else report of something that was said or that happened. It's a rarely a first-hand account. That doesn't mean the story is inaccurate; just that things can get lost in translation and things don't always happen as they have been reported. A good news reporter will take steps to validate what they've heard and try to get all sides of the story (ie, if someone claiming someone did something; get a response from that someone). Furthermore, they will make it clear that their report is not a first-hand account (and thus, they can't guarantee that they are reporting exactly what happened) by shoving in lots of "mays", "thinks", "claims", and "according tos", etc. But again when I am reading something, I have to recognise that - despite the best efforts of the reporter - I am not getting the complete picture.

The problem is of course is that it's pretty much impossible to get the complete picture - we rely on news sources for information because we are not able to get it ourselves. Even if we were able to, we would still have to acknowledge that we have our own agendas and will interpret things in certain ways. I, for example, am left wing so I am predisposed to be sceptical of any policy that the Tories bring out - no matter how good or bad it actually is. 

Therefore, what is our responsibilities as readers? Is it to mistrust everything we come read? No, of course not, that would be impractical as well as paranoid. More that we have to be critical and recognise what we read may not be the Gospel truth. Or at least, not the only truth. 

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