In the past, news production was a slow, meticulous process. When an event occurred, journalists were sent down to cover it, analyse it, generate articles and have them go through rounds and rounds of editing before getting them published in physical copies. Fact-checking was a crucial step in the process, but this became compromised with digitisation.
In today’s digital age, where globalisation has allowed for the prevalence and advancement in media, international media in the form of social media and digital media have enabled billions of people around the globe to “witness” the complex situations in other states in a short span of time. The traditional media we know of has mostly shifted to new media.
From bite-sized information to live updates, we are in a virtual landscape where the constant production of news vies for our attention. As much as technology is beneficial for our societies to move forward, the shift from traditional to new media has its dire consequences.
The Nature of New Media
In the past, people had to buy physical copies of newspapers to find out what was going on in the world. But that’s not very common in present times, where we can access news straight from our phones, our chat messages, and our social media platforms. So how do media companies make money now? Mostly from generating digital content — in a short span of time.
The issue with new media is its accessibility. The constant stream of new information comes with the consumer’s expectation that it will always be that way. The consequence? Increased competition among media companies since the main means of generating revenue is now through new media forms.
This means that information and news need to be out fast in order to gain more viewership. But the problem with this is that it’s seldom the case that media companies retain their usual routine that was used to generate traditional media pieces. In other words, many steps are cut from the process in order to have the content out fast. As such, levels of fact-checking, research, and analysis become compromised.
Moreover, considering the intense competition, the titling of news can get interesting. Even though the story published can be longer than the bite-sized information we see on our phone screens, chances are, readers only read the headlines, titles and captions. This means that readers can misinterpret the story, especially if the title was made to be misleading to capture attention.
Misinterpretation of Data: Numbers Aren’t Everything
What makes things worse is that the news may highlight data that are misrepresented. Hans Rosling – co-founder of Gapminder Foundation, an organisation that aims to challenge ignorance with a fact-based worldview – highlights some key points in his book “Factfulness”.
With preconceived perceptions of two polarising groups: “them” and “us”, “West” and “rest”, “developed” and “undeveloped”, “rich” and “poor”, data can depict two very extreme ends of a story, or so it seems.
When a story talks about a gap between two groups, a comparison of extremes, it is more often than not that the reality is not polarised at all. People forget to notice where the middle is, the majority.
An apt example Rosling gave was to examine the data of babies per woman and the child survival rates for all countries according to whether they are “developed” or “undeveloped”. He first reveals the following graph.
Each bubble on the chart represents a country, while the size of the bubble indicates how large its population is. The largest bubbles are China and India. Now, judging from this graph, it does seem perfect — developing countries and developed countries fall nicely in their own categories. The data shows a world divided into two groups, with a gap in the middle.
However, this chart’s data is dated back to 1965. Here’s the data from 2017:
As you can see, the world has changed. Most countries are already in the “developed” box. Is it fair to still base our judgement and knowledge of the world according to two polarising groups? Not quite.
According to Rosling, be it levels of income, access to education, healthcare or more, the situation is that there is no gap between the “developed” and “undeveloped”, the “West” and the “rest”. Today, most people are in the middle, where the supposed “gap” is.
As Rosling nicely puts it, “while the world has changed, the worldview has not, at least in the heads of ‘Westerners’. Most of us are stuck with a completely outdated idea about the rest of the world”, adding that “we should all stop using the simple pairs of categories that suggest there is [a gap between two distinct groups]”.
He goes on to explain that even a comparison of averages can be inaccurately represented. The raw data of the two groups, when analysed, could depict an almost complete overlap between the two groups, meaning the gap wasn’t that big, to begin with.
The thing about new media is that it is not spared from the tendencies of making use of polarising group labels, which is ultimately the reason why consumers need to be more vigilant of what information they are taking in, considering the context of today’s world.
Narrative of “The World is Getting Worse”
But of course, as Rolf Dobbeli shares in his book “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, the reason why such data is presented is that media companies are merely trying to cater to readers, whose minds crave novelty — succumbing to the negativity instinct.
The negativity instinct refers to the tendency to notice the bad more than the good. People rarely want to know about the status quo. It’s a natural occurrence causing readers to notice the dips than the overall improvement of a situation.
Unfortunately, this is why when things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. Instead, consumers of new media are subjected to way more bad news, which gives them a systematically too-negative impression of the world.
Dobelli notes that coupled with their business models where advertisers buy space and finance the news with the condition that their ads will be seen, “everything subtle, complex, abstract, and profound must be filtered out, even though such stories are more relevant to our lives”.
Climate change reaching a point of no return, extreme poverty, high numbers of fatalities, the man who committed heinous crimes on his family, the list goes on. It is easy to be updated of all the bad things happening in the world.
Nonetheless, Rosling emphasises that it is crucial to understand that more bad news doesn’t necessarily mean more suffering in the world, or that the world is getting worse. It could simply indicate that there is better technology and resources to allow for the surveillance of this suffering, which ironically connotes that the world is getting better because more awareness is being raised.
In fact, in the midst of all the bad news, there is actually human progress. Rosling highlights that extreme poverty levels, specifically the portion of people living in extreme poverty, has almost halved in the last 20 years. The share of undernourished people has decreased from 28 per cent to 11 per cent from 1970 to 2015. The share of the Earth’s land surface that are protected as parks and other reserves have increased from 0.03 per cent in 1900 to 14.7 per cent in 2016.
Some may start wondering and point fingers at journalists for this. Why are they putting out such gleam, chaotic news pieces to us in the first place? It’s because journalists are just like consumers. They are also captured by bad news over good news.
The Human Flaws of the Journalist
Besides being subjected to the negativity instinct, journalists also have preconceived concepts about the event or story they are covering, based on past stories.
These perceptions and images then colour the way the journalist writes about the story, which means whatever the reader is reading could have possibly already been framed in a certain manner that guides readers to come to a certain standpoint that is of the journalists’ unintentionally.
In today’s world where new media takes the lead in the dissemination of information, identity politics also poses challenges. It refers to the usage of ethnicity or religion to label a conflict that results in dire consequences in terms of how the situation is viewed in the eyes of the international community, and could result in certain responses like intervention.
In the past, identity politics was used during the war in Sudan, where the media portrayed it to be a war of religion and ethnicity between the Islamist government and the Christians of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of African descent.
This led to the result of a clear misrepresentation of the actual reality where the conflict was really more so due to structural violence than divisions between ethnicities and religion, strengthening information stereotypes as well.
Due to the very nature of new media which prides itself on speed and attention over accuracy and reflection, identity politics that were of an issue since historical times have not been rectified. This is because most journalists tend to reuse narratives that have been put out in the past to explain current situations, which is understandable, since it is increasingly difficult for journalists to come up with completely accurate and comprehensive information on the situation within such a short time frame.
Taking into consideration current situations such as the Ukraine crisis, the ongoing narratives of the crisis include the idea that it is abnormal for such a conflict to occur in Europe, compared to the middle eastern or African regions where war is said to be more of a “normal” occurrence. International response to the Israel-Palestine conflict as compared to the Ukraine-Russia conflict further shows the effects of information stereotypes and identity politics as the international community questions the lack of response in other conflicts compared to the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
In addition, there is almost no way a journalist can get comprehensive information that is a 100 per cent accurate, especially if it was an occurrence of parachute journalism, where the journalist is sent down to cover the live event and then leaves after covering it. This is because access to war zones or the event being analysed can be restricted, which limits the amount of information that the journalist can receive.
How can the news accurately depict what is happening when the journalist themself is unable to speak to the victims?
The Need for Discernment
In order for the planet to progress, there must be international collaboration based on a shared and fact-based understanding of the world. The current lack of knowledge on how the media can distort that is therefore the most concerning problem of all.
The thing is, despite the flaws of new media, how else can the world be updated with the events around them?
Consuming the news is important, but what is most crucial is the ability to discern. This means reading the full articles, not just the captions you see on Telegram messages or Instagram posts. This means fact-checking. This means doing your own additional research.
Ultimately, we must keep ourselves educated on the stereotypes present, the possible biases that were unintentionally embedded in news pieces, and the way in which the news was produced.
As Dobelli says, “nothing beats books for understanding the world”, and I couldn’t agree more.