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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:
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.
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.
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
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.