The recent hysteria about the Swine Flu brought with it questions about the accuracy of information disseminated on Twitter. With that came a feeling that Twitter and other social media tools are inherently unreliable when it comes to disseminating accurate information, to the extent that it could even be harmful to the public. This type of thinking is not limited to a potential pandemic; Twitter itself came under scrutiny thanks to a recent study by Nielsen showing that 60 percent of new Twitter users abandon their accounts. This single piece of info caused many smart folks to conclude, without other input, that Twitter was done for.
My mind now wanders back twenty years to my senior-year Mass Communications Seminar” class at Emerson College. One of the most interesting things I learned in that class was the notion that the newspapers and newscasts in which we invest so much authority are shockingly fallible. The everyday example given: any time there is a public protest, the protest organizers and the police give wildly different attendance numbers, highlighting that point-of-view colors facts. The news organizations may give weight to one side or the other, based on a bias that is often not overt or even conscious.
What this taught me is that the audience has a responsibility to be critical, even cynical, towards any news source.
- Biases exist. They always have. The “neutral reporter,” as a utopian ideal, is a myth. Even the reporter who tries to be neutral has something in her background, education, or experiences, that results in a slant that favors one perspective over another. The responsibility of the audience here is to know the history and tendencies of a writer, reporter or publication. Would a sci-fi nerd’s review of the new “Star Trek” movie carry more weight with you than that of an old-timey critic who prefers epic romances? It might; you need to consider that.
- The Internet, especially since the introduction of blogging, has become a haven for the “public first draft.” More incorrect information makes it now, because it is more easily corrected, but this was not exactly a rare problem in “traditional” media publishing either, or newspapers wouldn’t have their (often well-hidden) corrections columns, and there would not be Web sites dedicated to the daily fact-correcting of mainstream publications like the New York Times. How do you know what version of the story you are reading? The responsibility of the audience is to do your own fact-checking by consuming multiple sources; don’t assume your favorite source is always correct.
- The “Read-Write Web” and the wiki culture bring with it a “community of editors” mentality. In the end, this means the best representation of the facts, or at least a consensus, will win out. The responsibility of the audience is to participate in this process, and become part of the mosaic that lurches toward truth.
I find it pointless to whine about the biases or inaccuracies of the media, whether it be the “NBC Nightly News” or Joe Blogger (or Twitterer). Yes, we should hold our correspondents to a high standard of conduct and precision. We cannot, however, expect perfection, or anything close to it. We can affect the outcome of our media consumption by doing what we should have been doing from the days of cave drawings; be critical, consider the source, and adjust your point-of-view to account for the inevitable fallibility of those who hold the pen- -or the keyboard.
But please- don’t take my word for it.
Doug Haslam is an Account Director at Boston’s SHIFT Communications, and blogs at DougHaslam.com.