livingissues: untangling some tough issues of the 20th century

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Media: FAQs

We increasingly live in a second-hand world – a world whose sounds, images and impressions come to us from screens and pages. It’s very interesting, often great fun, and sometimes daunting. We look at some of the issues.

Stories Snapshot FAQs Links

Can you trust what’s on the web?
It’s surprisingly easy to check out statements you see online. Or rather: if you’re in a site and it doesn’t lead out to other sites and sources which you can check out, then it’s probably a site with something to hide.

That’s not too reassuring. Doesn’t it involve a pass the parcel quest?
Yes, but not a long one. Within three or four clicks to websites you’ll find whether a source looks like they’re trusted by the kind of people you trust. for instance, if you find statements on the site come from academics from universities, or news organisations or even churches and charities and campaigning bodies.

Can we trust Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is important because it doesn’t claim to be true. It claims to be “verifiable”. That’s to say that most of its statements are linked to sources you can check out, and the site goes out of its way to say when statements don’t have those links.

But what sources can you trust?
On the whole, they’re sources which are not web-based, or anyway have a life outside the web in the “real” world. So one can trust sites run  by established broadcasters, newspapers, news agencies, universities and publishers.

Is that because those sources have proved they are not biased?
Not really. It’s more to the point that they are honestly biased (just like this site).

Is the BBC biased?
The BBC says it’s impartial, and it’s famous for being impartial. But its DNA is “liberal”: it kind of assumes that lots of government action is required on nearly everything, for instance. It prefers the UN to President George W. Bush. It doesn’t worry about sneering at politicians. It distrusts big business. That’s all fine, and provided you understand what the BBC is like, you can “read” it pretty well. And that’s the essence of being savvy.

Is Channel 4 less biased than the BBC?
Channel 4 has to be impartial, because it’s got the same regulator and the same rules as the BBC. Channel 4 News is more “lefty” and “green” than the BBC. But the rest of the channel often is more challenging than the BBC. That’s because Channel 4 cares about being lively more than it cares about anything else. Again, fine, provided you understand it. (So it was Channel 4 which produced the Martin Durkin movie, The Great Global Warming Swindle.)

Aren’t the newspapers hideously biased?
Yes, they’re biased. No, that’s not hideous. Newspapers are lively because they are the home to strong opinions. Provided you understand that, not much harm will come to you. Of course, the trick is to get out of your comfort zone. If you’re “pink” or “red” (liberal or lefty), then make sure you look at a right-wing paper sometimes. Come to that, if you only like quality papers, make sure you look at trash papers sometimes (and vice versa.)

Is there a liberal orthodoxy?
Kind of. Nice educated people tend to believe they should pay lots of taxes and have the government look after everybody and everything. That’s because they went to universities and were taught by left-of-centre teachers. And partly it may be because it saves thinking. After all, if you’re successful and feel a bit guilty, it’s quite nice to pay taxes and get on with being happy.

How come the newspapers are privately owned but there’s a liberal bias?
Partly, the UK is a liberal society and papers wouldn’t sell if they kept banging on about how taxes ought to be lower. Partly, British politics is mostly more or less liberal, so when papers are discussing political reality they are discussing a row within a liberal consensus rather than whether there should be that consensus.

So newspapers are all the same?
No, of course not. The Daily Mail‘s all over the place as it does “moral panic” one minute and relishes celebrity scandal the next. And the Times thrives by having lots of very varied opinion (even though it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, a much misunderstood man). And the Telegraph is intelligently right-of-centre with great news. And the Guardian does news very seriously and is not just a left-winger’s heaven (though it’s that). And the Independent is quite serious, and socially very liberal, though its news coverage is a bit patchy. It’s complicated. Above all, the print media is highly competitive.

Can you trust newspapers?
It’s very seldom that anything stated as a fact in the quality press is actually wrong. Better than that, most of the time, most them work very hard to get the real essence of the story honestly into their pages. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of nonsense in even the quality press. Look at it this way: if it’s news, it’ll be true. If it’s opinion, it may be barmy.

So you think opinion is barmy?
No, of course not. But some is. The point is that news must be factual, and it’s open to the test of evidence. But opinion isn’t quite like that. Opinion is what people think and believe about things, often on issues (like religion, say) where there’s not much evidence around. And it’s often about what people feel, and that often has nothing to do with evidence at all.

How can you tell opinion from news?
In general, it’s quite easy. Most serious newspapers have pages called “News” and others they call “Comment”. Actually, you have to watch “news” pages quite carefully for signs that an element of opinion has crept in. On TV and radio the situation’s a bit more complicated because quite often a news report is presented by a “reporter”, a “correspondent” or an “editor”. Often these people are there precisely to provide a kind of running commentary on the news.

How do you check that a source is unbiased?
It’s is not a good idea to get all paranoid about bias. But it is best to cross-check different accounts of the same story in very different sources. So if you’re consuming news from the BBC, The Guardian, the Independent and Channel 4, you should read about the same subject in The Times, The Telegraph, the Financial Times or the Economist. Notice, you won’t be able to cross-check any British broadcast source with another (except perhaps with Sky): they tend be much of a muchness.

Isn’t everybody’s opinion equally valuable?
Nice one. Each person’s opinion may be of equal value to the person holding the opinion. Nice societies (most Western ones) treasure the idea that it really matters that everyone’s opinion be valued. Or rather, they hold that it matters that everyone be free to have any opinion they like. But no, not everyone’s opinion is of equal value. Lots of people can’t be bothered to base their opinion on evidence or good sense. What’s worse, lots of people insist on their right to believe – and to act on and campaign on - any old opinion they fancy.

What’s wrong with Web 2.0 self-publishing?
1) In a way it’s great that everyone can express themselves. But the more people do it, the more one can wonder if many people have very much to say. So filters become more important than ever, to sift out what’s worth bothering with. And that come back to “The Media” which are really channels and filters as well as opinionated people.
2) People may deceive themselves into thinking they are famous, or that being famous is valuable in itself.

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