Freedom of the press argument is deceitful

Can the public discern media bias?

dont let the media fool you

I’m surprised when I hear intelligent people express offence whenever someone suggests that “the public” might be unable to determine whether what they read in the media is the truth or whether the media is leaving out important facts and giving a deliberately biased account of the story.

I’m never quite sure whether these intelligent media commentators are genuinely offended or whether they’re just pretending offence in order to remain consistent with their ideological beliefs about free speech and libertarianism.

Surely, there isn’t a person alive that would suggest that 100% of the public are good at identifying biased media stories, is there? Certainly no sane person is going to argue that most people with IQ’s in the bottom 10% of the population are good at identifying biased media stories, are they?

So instead of acting offended and dismissing the issue out of hand why not be honest and admit that there are a certain percentage of people that will be very good at identifying media bias and untruth, and a certain percent that will be very bad at it, and that the rest of “the public” will fall somewhere in the middle, along a bell distribution curve. Surely, this proposition is indisputable!

I wish these “freedom of the press” spruikers would get real and start trying to figure out what percentage of people regularly have some difficulty identifying media bias, instead of pretending that we’re all superstars at it!

And what about the people who have difficulty identifying media bias and untruth? Don’t we care about them? Don’t they have any rights? What if there are fraudsters and con men in the media, who are out to dupe these people? Doesn’t a compassionate society have a duty of care to protect these people from the worst excesses of such con men?

And if we tried to reign in these deceitful manipulators wouldn’t they mount their high horses and proclaim themselves the champions of free speech? Wouldn’t they accuse those trying to reign them in of being a danger to our democracy and of our whole way of life? Wouldn’t they accuse this enemy of totalitarianism?

Ironically, these deceitful manipulators would spin the line that their enemy was outwardly saying that ensuring media accountability would give the public greater access to the truth, but that in reality it would lead to less access to truth for the public.

Notice, though that these media barons and champions of free speech never guarantee that their media output is completely truthful and free from bias. They just spin the old line that “the public is smart enough to know the difference” – so essentially its “buyer beware”.

I find this argument to be so ingenuous – its like saying that everybody’s smart enough to not be influenced by advertising even though, every year, billions of dollars are spent on advertising precisely because advertising does influence people.

news fit to print

What’s more, we all know that advertising is biased, and yet, to some extent, we’re still unable to stop ourselves from being influenced by it.

How much harder is it for us to stop ourselves from being influenced by news media – when, to a large degree, we assume that the media is telling us the truth in an unbiased way?

To argue that most of the time, most people can see through media bias and prevent themselves from being influenced by it is just ludicrous!

Now let me dismantle this deceitful argument from a different angle.

How am I, as a member of the public, supposed to be able to identify whether a particular media story is truthful, biased, or has left out some important facts? To do that I would have to know what the real truth is so that I could compare the media story to the real truth, right?

Unfortunately none of us are born with an internal fountain of truth that we can tap into. So the best we can do is to compare how a different media source reported the same story, right?

Does that mean that these champions of free speech expect us to buy two newspapers every day? So we can read two accounts of each story?

And even if I did, would that be any guarantee? What if both media sources have the same bias? Or what if they have different biases and they told two different versions of the same story? Which one would be the truth?

On how many different media sources do we have to cross reference a story before we can be relatively confident that we have the truth?

Is this really what these self-proclaimed champions of the free speech status quo think that members of the public are doing with their spare time? Cross checking facts in diverse media sources? Is this the flimsy pillar that their righteous argument rests upon?

Billionaires influencing government

Rupert Murdoch

Is this the insurance policy that will protect our society and prevent wealthy media barons and their billionaire mining magnate shareholders from deceiving an important slice of the population?

The awful fact is that they don’t even need to deceive a majority of the population. Elections are only won by a few percentage points, so if these deceitful manipulators can deceive just 2 or 3 percent of the population, that’ll usually be sufficient to ensure the outcome of an election is favorable to them, or at least that certain government policies will be dropped.

Therefore in order for the righteous champions of the status quo to argue that the current system is benign to democracy and our society, they must demonstrate that the percentage of the population that is influenced by biased, untruthful or deceitful reporting is much less than 2 or 3 percent.

They haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of proving that!

Their whole argument rests upon the non-existent pillar that the average member of the public is busy cross-checking facts across diverse media sources!

The solution proposed by Finkelstein inquiry may not be perfect but it is surely deceitful to suggest that total freedom of the press is perfect, and can not be improved upon!

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Comments (9)
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  1. Well put, Lau.
    I find one of the greatest ironies in an issue full of irony is that many in the conservative media – often calling themselves libertarians – have so much in common with the extreme postmodernists they profess to despise. Some sectors of both deny – with some justification, it has to be admitted – that there is any such thing as objective truth, which makes it so difficult for ordinary people to feel they can trust the media when it diverges so wildly from what they themselves think they know. Whenever I’ve been the subject of a media story I have spotted one or two things wrong, some fact missed or misinterpreted, though as a toiler in that particular kitchen I’m prepared to put up with the heat of minor errors. The difference, of course, is that hard-core postmodernists deny there is such a thing as objective truth in any situation whereas libertarians only believe it when confronted with interpretations opposite to their own. Their own truths, miraculously and by dint of hard years of working as a journalist, are always correct!
    Keep on biting.
    David
    http://dogbitesman.net.au
    PS One wishes that other professions such as engineers and pilots were as perfect as journalists. Even a respected journal like the Sydney Morning Herald devotes less than 10 column centimetres on Page 2 to corrections or “clarifications” – out of the hundreds of thousands of words they print each day. My doctor is brilliant but I wish she had that success rate!

    • Lau Guerreiro:

      I’ve recently started thinking that maybe as part of their licences agreement they have to make available a certain percentage of space to be used by an independent “Media Watch” type organisation/regulator. This would be a source of interesting free content for the the media proprietors – something they’re always keen on.
      You could even have some sort of rating system so that media outlets that had a higher infringement rate would have to provide a greater percentage of space than media outlets that have a low rate of errors.

  2. Dino:

    You are making sense !
    The joy of the internet is being able to cross check.
    The time consuming effort at balance or ‘truth’.
    Fact is, few can enjoy this pastime.
    What is surprising, in my travels, is how many people actually do.
    If journalists only knew…

  3. jane:

    Great post Lau. You make a lot of sense. Far more than those from the Murdoch press squealing about “freedom of the press”.

    I don’t mind the Australian printing the lies, misinformation and Liars Party campaign fables; however, I object to them dishing this stuff up as factual unbiased reporting. If there was a disclaimer to that effect in very large bold font at the head of each article and opinion piece, they could print away.

    Most people expect that the media will inform them accurately, fairly and unbiasedly and take what they see or hear reported in the dead tree or electronic press as gospel.

    If the msm wants the right to print or broadcast without interference, they have to accept that their side of the bargain is to inform their consumers truthfully and without bias. If they’re not prepared to do so, they’ll have to put up with an independent judge!

    • Lau Guerreiro:

      Maybe we need some sort of colour coded labeling system (like we have on some food items) that would indicate the degree of opinion and bias. It would apply to individual items but also to a media organisation as a whole. Possibly even to authors themselves – if they have a history of spouting lies then whenever they appear on tv a little red circle appears at the bottom of the screen to indicate they have a history of inaccurate comments. That would certainly be an incentive to tell the truth!

      Not sure how we’d implement something like that, but at the moment I’m more interested in getting people to think about what would be the ideal solution – once we have a clearer picture of that, then we can concern ourselves with implementation issues.

  4. Andy:

    Lau,

    So then, who are the people who decide what is biased?
    You? Me? Some govt administrator no one voted for?
    Would you be pleased if I ‘reported’ your site for ‘bias’ and you were forced to address this issue by either taking down your website or having to print an apology at the top of your home page about your site’s bias? I bet you wouldn’t.

    Your suggestion that some people need to be helped to spot bias because they are not intelligent enough is ridiculous: who decides which people are intelligent enough? Would we have to take a written test? Would you, Lau, be pleased if it was decided that you weren’t intelligent enough to spot bias?

    If you don’t like a newspaper, don’t buy it. It is not up to you or anyone else, however, to decide what other people read. To restrict what others read is censorship, pure and simple.

    You’ve got my email address. Please get in touch.

    • Lau Guerreiro:

      Thanks for your comment.

      Actually I wouldn’t mind having a note on the top of my website saying that the articles in my site tended to take one particular side of the argument and that there are many other people who take a the completely opposite side of the argument.

      Where it gets a little bit harder is if they forced me to say that my articles left out important facts, and lied about things. That might actually get me to write my articles differently – I’d make sure I put in those relevant facts, but I’d explain why I believed they didn’t apply. And I’d make more effort to make sure my facts were correct.

      This is the whole point of the exercise – we don’t want to make everyone agree on everything – but we do want them to present the argument in a reasonably balanced way – we don’t want them to present it in a completely lopsided way. Of course it can be a little bit lopsided but not completely lopsided. I don’t expect the regulator to act if things are just a little bit lopsided.

      Regarding your question about who decides who is intelligent enough to spot bias: I think you’ve misunderstood my point – I’m not suggesting that anyone needs to make that decision – I’m saying that it is obvious that some people in the population are much less able to spot bias than others. Do you doubt that?

      Therefore we need a system which prevents serious bias, this system should apply to everyone so that there’s no need to test people to see if they can spot bias.

      You said “If you don’t like a newspaper, don’t buy it.”
      What if there are only 2 newspapers in your area and they are both biased? Where shall I get my news then?

      Isn’t it important for the efficient running of a democracy that people have access to the news?

      Isn’t it also important for the efficient running of a democracy that the citizens are as well informed as possible so that they can vote in the best government and support the best government policies? It’s not in the best interests of a society if large segments of the population are not sufficiently well informed (or are being misled) about import issues.

      “Freedom of the press” isn’t the ultimate goal.

      Why do people want freedom of the press?

      They fight for freedom of the press because they believe that if the press is free then the truth and good ideas will become known.

      And if truth and good ideas will become known then the they will be acted upon resulting in a better, happier society.

      So a better happier society is the ultimate goal and freedom of the press is just one strategy that we think will get us to the ultimate goal. But it’s not a perfect strategy – it doesn’t guarantee that the truth and good ideas will get out and the society will be better.

      So I believe it’s wise to try to come up with other strategies that will be more effective at achieving the ultimate goal than freedom of the press is.

      It sounds like you’re suggesting that we shouldn’t do that. It sounds like you believe that “freedom of the press” is the best of all possible strategies and that nobody will ever come up with a better strategy. Is that right?

      If you haven’t read my other post “What’s better than freedom of the press then I suggest you do as it explains my point in more detail.

      Looking forward to your response.

  5. Andy:

    Lau,
    Thanks for replying.
    A couple of things from your reply I’d like to address/query:

    “but we do want them to present the argument in a reasonably balanced way”
    Who decides what is balanced? What may appear balanced to one person may seem completely unfair and one-sided to another person.

    “What if there are only 2 newspapers in your area and they are both biased? Where shall I get my news then?”
    Those papers are only biased from your frame of reference. They might seem fine for someone else. If you want an alternative to those two papers, then you can get on the internet (a resource that has changed all our lives).

    “It sounds like you’re suggesting that we shouldn’t do that. It sounds like you believe that “freedom of the press” is the best of all possible strategies and that nobody will ever come up with a better strategy. Is that right?”
    I don’t believe it’s a matter of inventing another ‘strategy’. Instead, it is just allowing anyone, whoever they may be, to have the facility to write whatever they want. Ultimately, if you start trying to police written work for bias, then you will have to pretty much censor everything – any half-way decent historian will tell you that every written source has some element of bias inherited from its author.

    So, I ask you again: who will be the people who decide what is and isn’t biased and who is and isn’t intelligent enough to identify bias themselves?

    • Lau Guerreiro:

      “Who decides what is balanced?” A little bit of imbalance is ok – it only has to be “reasonably balanced”. You only have to mention the most relevant facts that a person with the opposing viewpoint would mention. It’s not that hard for an intelligent person to figure out what they would be.

      Getting your news from the internet doesn’t hold up. What website should I go to if I want the news about Brisbane? There are plenty of blog that give opinion on the news, but they are blogs writing opinion pieces and therefore don’t have to be objective.
      Are there any internet sites that aren’t owned by the big media players that you could trust to report on what happened yesterday in Brisbane?

      There are certainly more viable choices if you are after world news, but is there anything that’s reliable for reporting on Australian news, or state news?

      To my question, “It sounds like you believe that “freedom of the press” is the best of all possible strategies and that nobody will ever come up with a better strategy. Is that right?”
      you answered, “I don’t believe it’s a matter of inventing another ‘strategy’.”

      That sounds like a “yes” to me. You believe that we don’t need a new strategy – that freedom of the press is as good as it can get.

      I don’t think the Finkelstein model is the best. I think that instead of banning things that warnings need to be placed with links through to the ruling on the regulator’s website. The ruling would be a well structured document with numbered paragraphs and good logical presentation of points and facts.

      Attached to the ruling, members of the public could comment, as we are here, but comments would be moderated into two comment streams – really worthwhile comments for either side and abusive or repetitive comments that don’t add anything new. Both comment streams would be publicly accessible but the good one is shown by default.

      The comment stream would be broken up into sub-comment streams each addressing a particular point of the issues that good points don’t get lost.

      Then there would be summaries of the comments that would give an overview of the points that had been refuted and those that were still in dispute etc.

      To make it more efficient many of the comment streams would be re-used across many articles. So if there are 20 articles on climate change then many of the sub-comment streams for specific points would be common to all articles – so you don’t have to keep re-arguing the same point over and over.

      In this way we would build up a central repository of information and debate that people could refer to for a more in depth view of serious topics.

      I think the model I propose is more true to the goals of free speech – it gives truth the best chance of being heard.

      In the next couple of weeks I’ll write up a proper post explaining my proposed system in more detail.

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