Friday 1 May 2015

Mind what you read

The first draft of this article was binned because it had turned into a media studies lecture on audience theory and passive versus active consumption of media messages. What I propose instead is to offer a few tips on how to improve your media diet by changing the way you consume the messages that are fed to you.

It seems too obvious to be worth saying that you can improve your media diet by varying it; by seeking out alternative and challenging sources of information. But you can also extract more intellectual nutrition from media messages by consuming them differently.

Always bear in mind that media messages - and here I am principally referring to political material - are presented to you in a particular way for a purpose. That purpose is not necessarily malign or mischievous. But the message is always contrived so as to be understood by the audience in a particular way. The secret to being an active consumer of media messages is to always seek your own understanding. 

There are some very simple tricks which can help. People tend to think of the headline as a means of flagging up what the story is about. It is better to think of it as an insight into the prejudices and intentions of those presenting the message. The headline tells you, not so much what the subject matter is, but how it is intended that you should understand what you are about to read.

The order in which material is presented can also be a powerful way of manipulating the way it is understood by the casual consumer. Those presenting the message know that few people will read beyond the first two or three paragraphs. The stuff they want you to have in your head will always come first. Not least because, even if it isn't all you read, it will colour your understanding of what comes after.

You can confound any devious intent by the simple expedient of reading the final two or three paragraphs first. In a typical politics article in a unionist newspaper such as The Scotsman, this will usually be the paragraph which begins, "A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said...". Essentially, it is the bit that the newspaper is obliged to include in order to justify a claim to "balance".

Another approach is to filter out everything other than the part of the message which can be characterised as  meaningful information. You may be surprised by how little factual content you find, even if you are being generous in your interpretation.

This is part of the process of analytical thinking, which can easily become a habit with a little perseverance. As well as breaking the message down into its component parts and considering how these relate to each other and create meaning, thinking analytically involves questioning everything - including your own assumptions.

Never accept the obvious meaning. But, while seeking your own understanding, beware of creating a meaning which is not justified by the content.
Watch out for weasel words and trigger words. Words and phrases which seek to obfuscate or provoke an emotional reaction. Know them for what they are, and you will be immune to their effects.

Mind the gap! Look for what is missing in the message. What is omitted can be every bit as meaningful as what is included.

Beware the quagmire of statistics! When the message you are presented with is that "nearly half" are against something this is because it is avoiding saying that the majority are in favour.

All of this is intended to provoke thought rather than provide a comprehensive list of rules. The purpose is to encourage a more mindful approach to media messages. To those who would have preferred the media studies lecture I offer both apologies and pity.

This article was originally published in The Grist - #Issue 3.

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