When you use media, do you choose the news you want to hear or see? Or does the news choose you?
If we were to travel back in time, say 100 years to 1922, your main source would have been a newspaper reporting on international events, such as the miners’ strike in Transvaal, South Africa, or the naval arms limitation pact between the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, France, and Japan. You would have heard about the release of the Dracula film Nosferatu in Germany, or the fact that Mahatma Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison by a British judge in India for insubordination. In June 1922, you would have heard about Lenin appointing Joseph Stalin as general secretary of the Russian Communist Party, or about the Italian dictator Mussolini planning an uprising against the government. Of course, the news we glean from newspapers today is led by headlines that catch your eye as you walk past the stands, and they did in 1922, but people didn’t have the images and opinions that television and the Internet give us, and they didn’t have the feeling of being nudged and made aware of issues all the time, as they do today.
It is clear that we need information to function as a democracy, which is why the main role of the press in a democratic society is that of a watchdog. In theory, the press enjoys the freedom to observe and comment on the government without fear of reprisal and provides the people in a democracy with truthful accounts of political events. The ability to criticize government policies and give the people a voice on key political issues is the cornerstone of both press freedom and democracy itself. Protecting the independence of the press is essential if democracy is to remain strong. This is probably why people of extreme wealth tend to have an interest in owning newspapers and producing their own news media, which are used to form opinions consistent with the policies they want to promote. It is also why authoritarian governments pressure national agencies to be “fair,” which is an interpretable expression.
Investigative reporting, of course, exists both as a hypothetical category and in practice. While I think it’s undeniable that investigative reporting is, by and large, good quality reporting, it has its own peculiarities. The very name refers to a deeper, more analytical approach to a news story, an issue, a phenomenon, or a person. In a highly simplified way, one could say that “normal” reporting is just a sharing of information, while investigative reporting “digs” beneath the surface. What makes investigative reporting so special is an eternal dilemma: Is the role of a reporter simply to pass information neutrally from the source to the addressee, or should journalism seek to explain, or even “correct” reality based on sound professional, ethical, and moral criteria? The investigative reporting figures I revered a few years ago were, in hindsight, biased. But the problem is that we all are. We cannot speak of ethics or morality without admitting that we are biased toward this or that ideal.
In my exchanges with people around the world, for example, we are concerned about the news we receive about the war in Ukraine. None of my interlocutors doubt that Putin is displaying strange rhetoric, especially considering the catastrophe of the 20th century, which was the bloodiest century in history, and the unprecedented introduction of weapons of mass destruction. We thought empires were dead and cooperation between sovereign states was the way forward, with trade relations providing a unifying element that ensured a sense of interdependence in securing a sustainable future. The problem, I suppose, was that this idea was born out of Western individualistic notions that were deeply critical of collectivist and authoritarian societies. However, the modern idea of a policy of approval over all else, as though opposites do not supply the kind of tension that is conducive to creativity, is not what the west has been about, nor can it be. The question is, how militant will the opposition be?
The news is often a mixture of opinions based on information of varying quality. We have to constantly verify the information we receive and are often unable to comply. In trying to comply, we either lack reliable sources, or we know that the source we have is biased, or we conclude that no one is completely correct and postpone a decision. The less conducive alternative to democracy is to turn away and find another occupation that we enjoy more, or to subscribe to a conspiracy theory based on shaky evidence that has no substance other than being someone’s opinion. So, what do we do in such a situation? Perhaps you could tell me in the comments.
I have the strategy of using various sources and basing my decisions on my own moral compass. It helps to have a partner with whom I can talk about decisions we have to make, with whom I have built a 45-year partnership and who I know like no other person. Family and friends can also contribute, especially penfriends, with whom you have a habit of exchanging views, just as the occasional acquaintance that you come across can provide a different perspective. Therefore, the news is filtered through these conversations, and provide a basis to work on. The fact remains that it still remains preliminary and a tentative approach to what will turn out to be the truth.
I’d be interested in hearing opinions.