Let me tell you first (of course) about my personal experience with it...When I was growing up (and as a grown up) in Argentina, many times I had no access to news because the government blocked it out. So if I went by the news I heard on the radio or read in the papers in 1982, Argentina was winning the Falklands War! Of course, every Argentinean knew about it, so we all tuned to "Radio Colonia" from Uruguay to hear the news in the same way that Uruguayans tuned to our radio to hear news about Uruguay. Sounds crazy, but in a society which is highly politicized, access to news is considered very important.
When I came to America I was struck (among other things) by how much information is available to the American people in a complete uncensored way. But then I realized, that most Americans do not have the training I got living in a society where you need to get more than one source of information if you want to have a chance to learn the truth.
The amount of information available to us here is so great that it becomes overwhelming, so people make choices about what they want to hear. Here are some examples:
Choice 1: Blocking out the news...Who cares what is going on? If something is happening that is really important, I'm sure I'll learn about it...
Choice 2: I read the papers. This gives me not the total range of news available, but only that which the paper chooses to publish. I also gain access to the Editorials, where the pundits give me the pre-digested version on how to interpret what is happening, thus making it unnecessary for me to get the full information on the issues, since I "already know" what the pundit of turn tells me.
Choice 3: Forget the papers; I only watch TV News, and in one hour I learn eveything I ever wanted to know, pre-digested and interpreted for me so I can hold my own in an intelligent conversation with others about current events.
Choice 4: The Media is so biased! - I rather check the Internet, where there is so much more information on the issues I really care about! and all these wonderful organizations who tell me everything I want to hear! They give me all the news I care about. Of course, they do not give me the full spectrum of information either, but they are on my side, so they tell me what my side needs to know...
So what's wrong with these choices?
Every one of the choices is the consequence of information overload and the lack of time to sort through the mountain of news and make sense of it. They just represent different ways to deal with the problem. They all imply "filters" of some kind. We let somebody else decide for us what is that we need to know. In the immortal words of Mark Twain (a Journalist himself): "In this country, if you don't read the papers you are uninformed; and if you read them you are misinformed"
Every media outlet, be it written broadcasted or webcasted, filters the information according to what "sells". They feed the reader watcher or websurfer with the information that will keep them coming back so they can augment their audience, that great commodity that helps to sell advertisement.
This is not to say that we need to follow the first example listed above and just block out information, since in the words of the philosopher: "If being born is becoming aware of the world in which we live, many people die without ever being born". We need to know what is going on. Being Human is being aware. But this leads me to a different philosophical disgression...
Knowledge and information are two different and distinct subjects, albeit connected. I can be informed without being knowledgeable while I cannot be knowledgeable without being informed.
To be informed, I just need to open the paper, turn on the TV or surf the net. Being knowledgeable means to be able to make sense (not necessarily expert sense) of what I read, see or find in the Internet. Each media is governed by its own rules, however. For example: giving the same weight to a book and to an article on the internet on the same subject is denying the fact that the lack of regulations and ease of access to publish articles on the internet makes it less reliable than a good book. And for good reasons: not only are the regulations for the printed word stricter, but the financial investment to publish them is also higher, so the publishers want to make sure they're not taking financial risks for garbage...
To be knowledgeable means to be aware. We need to be aware of the reliability of the information we receive; we need to be aware of alternative interpretations of facts; we need to be aware that news do not happen in a vacuum but as part of a social and historical process. News happen to people, they are not abstract pieces of written (or broadcasted) material.
The more complex the issue, the more time we will have to dedicate to understand it, or to reach the conclusion that our understanding is not complete...and yet the more complex the issue, the less patience most people have to learn about it.
One of the consequences of the informational overload is that we become conditioned to expect the "one liner explanation", thus becoming potential victims of emotional exploitation. More and more, journalists of all walks of life (and ideologies) taylor their news to appeal to our emotions rather than our intellect. It becomes news not because of what happens but because of what emotions the information awakens in the audience. In other words, the journalists "play the audience" as much as actors or other performers do.
Few issues in our western world (and Arab world) today excite more the audience's emotions than the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and yet few issues are more complex than that conflict. Why bother with learning about the evolution of the conflict when I can just call up the emotions by screaming "Apartheid!" or yelling "Holocaust". If I can paint my oponents with the color of something so despicable that people will shy away from them, I can probably win the argument, so accusations of Hitler and Nazis fly back and for between Israelis and Palestinians or between groups within each society (for example).
If I can get "the other" to loose control and react in a purely emotional way, I can also win. So I try to hurt them as badly as I can by attacking their dignity and/or their sense of identity. None of this is news, none of this deals with the facts of the conflict, but it replaces the need to interpret the news or even reading all of them.
So what can we do to be well informed? Surprisingly this hasn't changed...we need to read the news, get access to as much information as we can handle, and recognize that understanding and therefore knowledge, come after a long process of seeking information for a long while so we can follow the movie instead of looking at a photograph.
We gain understanding from the flow of events, not the momentary situations. Example: "Israel is occupying the Palestinian Territories" is a statement of fact that nobody can deny, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Why is Israel occupying those lands? How did it come to be there? What alternatives did it have? and so many more questions that can only be answered when you dedicate the time to follow a story long enough to gain understanding rather than just being informed...
We are blessed with Freedom of the Press and we are cursed with Freedom of the Press. The only way to sort out one from the other is to use our discernment as a tool to separate the grain from the straw, the facts from the hot air...
It is not easy, it is not quick - but nothing worth having is. And the alternative is to go down Argentina way and be content with what others allow us to hear...
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