With a free press there’s enormous scope for reportage that’s deliberately misleading, unbalanced and biased
The press. Print media. Newspapers, magazines, journals. It’s where most of us get most of our information about news and current events most of the time.
So it’s crucially important that the press is free to report on news and current events without interference or censorship from government or other controlling regimes. Unfortunately, in many countries, this isn’t the case. In places where government rules with a tight fist, often in the form of dictatorships, the general population is kept in its place with very careful control of the information they’re fed by the local press. This works because people generally believe what they read.
Around the world, 3 May is World Press Freedom Day (WPFD). This was first proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993. The WPFD website states that the day is “an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty”.
In wealthy, developed nations like Australia, we’re lucky enough to have a healthy freedom of the press. But there are two sides to this coin. With freedom comes responsibility and press freedom doesn’t automatically guarantee press integrity. With a free press there’s enormous scope for reportage that’s deliberately misleading, unbalanced and biased. And this is most dangerous (and effective) when readers are blissfully unaware of this duplicity.
While much of Australia’s print media operates within a reasonable margin of bias, there are also many publications that deliberately seek to mislead its readers for political and/or commercial reasons. After all, there are hearts and minds to be won out there.
There are many ways a dishonest newspaper can mislead its readership. Here are a couple of the more common tactics to watch out for:
What they’re not telling you
It isn’t just what they say, but also what they don’t say. Often, deliberately leaving out some of the facts can change the premise of a story completely.
Location, location, location
Whereabouts is the story? In a prominent, right hand position near the very front? Or buried somewhere in the middle where it’s less likely to be noticed? This probably isn’t accidental.
Size does matter
How much space has been given to the story? Does it dominate the page, or is it just a few inches of column space?
Watch out for emotive language. It’s very easy for a publication to give a skewered version of a story by using subtle language cues designed to manipulate the reader’s emotions. This is something that tabloids are particularly fond of doing.
But surely most people are too smart for all of this, you’re probably thinking. Unfortunately, (and inconveniently) it’s more complex than that. It isn’t just a question of being smart, but of being aware. Virtually no-one is thinking of any of this when they’re scanning the printed pages. And dishonest publications rely on this lack of presence.
It’s like advertising – most people think they’re immune to it, but it still works on most people. There’s immense persuasive power in the written word, especially when it’s directly in front of your eyes. We absorb it on an unconscious level. And the print media knows this. All too well.
So what’s the solution? As readers, the best way to avoid being manipulated is to get your information from as wide a variety of different sources as possible. This dilutes the ability of a dodgy publication to deceive you. Social media is a great tool here, as no one person controls it and it represents a relatively free flow of information and opinions from multiple sources.
So educate yourself about the political bias of the corporation that owns the newspaper. This is easier than it sounds. Some publications already have a reputation for being politically biased. If you’re not sure, just look at the kind of stories it covers and/or ignores, the tone it adopts and the placement of the stories. Throw in a good dose of healthy skepticism, and questioning the possible motivation of the stories then starts to become second nature.