Media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy. Words like truth, freedom and justice are supposed to be synonymous with journalism. Today, we have greater access to news and information than ever before in history of mankind. It becomes essential for journalists and the public at large to pause often and extract the real stories behind screaming headlines. In their slim volume, the late Dr Richard Paul and Dr Linda Elder delve deep into the need and ways to steer clear of prejudiced perspectives while sifting through the inexhaustible data bank of news and information, writes Junaid Kathju
‘How to Detect Media Bias and Propaganda’ offers us in-depth analysis on how media over the years has fed its audience what it deemed fit for consumption, and how the public has unquestioningly lapped it up.
The 48-page gem co-authored by Dr Paul, director and Dr Elder, president, of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, USA is designed to help readers lay a foundation for critical assessment to avoid being mindlessly swept away by news media pronouncements.
“Our hope is that we can aid readers to become more independent, insightful and critical in responding to the content of news media messages and stories,” the authors have written in their opening chapter note.
Though much of the book refers to the functioning of media houses in the United States of America, yet it can give Indian readers inkling to the understanding of their own media for it is no better. How the Indian media more often than not succumbs to creating propaganda rather than strive to offer equitable, true sequence of events with multiple perspectives can be better understood after reading this work. This can also be corroborated by Kashmiris, or people from the North East living in Delhi.
Lack of sincerity is evident in the absence of follow-up stories of atrocities towards Dalits, women and children, natural and man-made disasters after the initial round of sensationalism!
The sensationalism created by certain sections of the electronic media over the JNU row in Delhi or the NIT clashes in Srinagar in recent times are a few examples of how Indian mainstream media simultaneously misrepresents facts, vilifies innocent people and misguides the nation.
In one of its chapters titled ‘Democracy and the News Media’, the authors argue that if the readers do not recognise bias in their nation’s news dissemination, to detect ideology, slant, and spin at work, and to recognise propaganda when exposed to it, they cannot reasonably determine which media messages have to be supplemented, counterbalanced, or thrown out entirely.
Only a relatively few are able to detect one-sided portrayals of events or seek out alternative sources of information and opinion. At present, the overwhelming majority of people in the world, untrained in critical thinking are at the mercy of the news media in their own Country. Their view of the world which countries they identify as friends and which as enemies, is determined largely by the media houses.
These ‘few’ such people obviously need to increase in size or critical mass to offer some sanity!
The book also talks in length about the need for multiple perspectives.
There are (typically) multiple points of view from which any set of events can be viewed and interpreted. Openness to a range of insights from multiple points of view and a willingness to question one’s own point of view are crucial to “objectivity”.
Objectivity is achieved to the extent that one has studied a wide range of perspectives relevant to an issue, obtained insights from all of them, seen weaknesses and partiality in each, and integrated what one has learned into a more comprehensive, many-sided whole.
Learning to detect media bias and propaganda in the national and world news is an art that takes extended time to develop. Yet it is also an art essential to intellectual responsibility, integrity, and freedom. This thinker’s guide presents a starting place for the development of intellectual analysis and assessment applied to news stories. As one develops this art, one experiences a progressive shedding of layers of social indoctrination and ethnocentricity.
In reference to slanting stories to favour privileged views, the book dwells on how journalists routinely select words that reinforce the prevailing views among the readership or audience for whom they are writing.
We plan…They plot. We are clever...They are sneaky. We form strategies…They conspire. We have convictions… They are fanatics. We are proud…They are arrogant. We stand tall…They brag and bluster. We build weapons to defend ourselves…They build weapons to threaten us. We intervene… They invade… We are freedom fighters… They are terrorists. We violate treaties when they are obsolete…They violate treaties because they are irresponsible, untrustworthy and unethical.
On the sensitive and challenging topic of reporting on the national Government, the authors note that the media, almost on default mode, risks becoming Government mouthpieces unless it takes guard.
News media are typically apologists for the policies and acts of the national Government. Much national news is given to news media through high Governmental officials and agencies. For these reasons, news media personal hesitate to criticize the national Government in certain fundamental ways.
Similarly, in the chapter of ‘Buried, Ignored or Underreported stories’, the authors have noted how out of the millions of events only a tiny percentage are made into news worthy stories.
Stories selected typically confirm the dominant cultural viewpoint of the society. Stories that discomfort the dominant cultural viewpoint are ignored, under-reported or buried. Keep in mind that all countries’ media project a favourable self-image of their own culture through a selection of what is and not covered and what is given a positive spin or negative spin.
One of the activities that the Foundation for Critical Thinking has been involved with passionately over the years is lobbying for greater emphasis on critical thinking in schools. This booklet should be made essential reading for students of journalism in class-rooms across our country too.
In order to become a critical consumer of the news, the book has emphasized on four main points that include:
1.Understand the basic agenda of “news story construction”.
2.To deconstruct stories in the news and then to reconstruct them imaginatively with alternative biases and slants.
3.Learn to define issues, access alternative sources, put events into a historical perspective, notice and assess assumptions and implications.
4.Learn how to identify low-credibility stories by noticing vested interests or passion associated with content.