Is it worth writing a blog on the media?

Ipsos-Mori have published a poll asking whether people are happy with their local areas. Surprisingly, at least for this country’s miserabilist tendency, is the fact that 72% of the population of Great Britain are satisfied with their local area. This could be better of course, the Netherlands have a stonking 95% of people happy with where they live, but it paints an overwhelmingly positive picture of the country.

Giles Wilkes maintained a watch on what he called the Miserabilists, those that abound and constantly reassure us the country is going to the dogs. Most people seem to think that their area is not going to the dogs and, since you know best how your area is doing, I think it is safe to presume that the country is not is as bad a state as many people would argue. Crime is going down for example, although you may not have heard about that. There is lots going for modern society: If you need another example then let me just say Tobacco Enema.

Alex Massie mentioned this in the context of a discussion on immigration he’d been holding with his commenters over on his Spectator blog. Alex Massie is a proper liberal and as with all proper liberals he broadly favours open borders over immigration restrictions. You will note in the above that the almost irritatingly satisfied Dutch live in a country with a very high population density which somewhat gives lie to the idea that immigration and population growth are a significant problem for quality of life. Likewise, Canada, Australia and the United States are all countries with a high proportion of foreign born residents.

It is often said that the Press exert a tremendous power of the population, shaping how they think, and usually against their own best interests. Think of the largely negative reporting on trade unions, the dreadful science reporting and the scaremongering over drugs, paedophiles and the nanny state. The classic example of this thinking is reflected in the 1992 General Election. After the votes were in and Labour had lost the Sun claimed that “It woz the Sun wot won it”  as it swung itself fully behind the Tory campaign in the last few days. Research was done examining the voting intentions of Sun readers and it showed a swing from Labour to Tory, ergo it was in fact the Sun wot won it.

I have a problem with this thinking. You see, it wasn’t the Sun wot won it. There was a shift in everyone’s voting intentions, not just those of Sun readers. The Sun simply backed the winner then, as usual, made venal attempted at self-aggrandisement. The Press didn’t lead the public it followed them and all too often I still think this is the case. This is quite an upsetting way to look at the country. If the press are vile and making the general public vile through misinformation, then it absolves my fellow citizens of blame. Unfortunately I don’t think this is the case and it seems people actively enjoy reading Richard Littlejohn and seek out disgusting slurs on gays and immigrants.

Unfortunately I do not have empirical backing for my claim that people view the country in a worse light than they do our local area, but I would hope that this is an acceptable assumption without further verification. If we accept that then we have a theory that people want to view the wider world in a more negative light than reality would allow. People want to see themselves as sensible so this means seeking out media which reinforces their view. This explains the popularity of papers which are quite frequently misleading, the world doesn’t give them the stories which their readers want so they make them up.

This all got me wondering whether or not we inflict the miserable quarters of our societies on ourselves. Numerous blogs have been created to monitor the media but I am beginning to wonder if they are tackling a symptom not a cause. They do great work, and I enjoy reading them immensely but blogging (and life in general) is about making an impact, and I am not sure if tackling the press directly is the best way to go about changing the press.

Chris Dillow has mentioned John Kay’s Obliquity and suggested that some tasks are bet approached obliquely rather than directly. For example, trying to boost profits by cutting staff and putting up prices might backfire and reduce them, letting your employees listen to the radio might boost productivity and profits. Ben Goldacre has highlighted some research that underlines why an oblique approach might be important in tackling misinformation.

Where you might have expected people simply to dismiss a correction that was incongruous with their pre-existing view, or regard it as having no credibility, it seems that in fact, such information actively reinforced their false beliefs.

Being told that what you believe – such that immigrants are benefits scroungers- is wrong – because migrants are in fact large net contributors to the treasury – can backfire and make you cling on to your erroneous belief all the more strongly. Media watch blogging (for want of a better name) is common. Brad DeLong does it, Liberal Conspiracy has its own blog feed for it and most bloggers have a sideline in criticising the press. So it is worrying that by pointing out the errors in the media there is a danger you will merely preach to your choir and further entrench the beliefs of those you really need to challenge.

I don’t have any original answers for improving our media, but do I think we already have a working toolkit. Challenge individual stories is important but will only ever be part of the solution. We won’t be able to end, choke, kill, grind into the dust, eviscerate (delete depending on level of vitriol) the career of Richard Littlejohn et al by showing them wrong, we can only get something approaching accuracy by removing their base  and challenging the wilful ignorance on which they depend.

That means campaigns to support migrant rights. It also means supporting LGBT rights where we can. etc. Bringing the oppressed into the mainstream and giving them the power and privilege that stop them being a profitable target is the only way to ensure that reporting will improve. Catholicism and Catholics were once treated with the vitriol which today greets Islam and Muslims but it has largely ceased. It was not because it was untrue that  it stopped, the “no popery” brigade were always wrong, it stopped for two reasons; Catholics stopped being an oppressed minority and asserted themselves and many people came to know Catholics and tire of hearing lies about them. The answer it seems is organisation, organisation, organisation. Fact checking blogs should be a part of it but I have worries about how effective they will be in the medium to long term.

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6 thoughts on “Is it worth writing a blog on the media?

  1. A personal bug-bear of mine is the myth that these are the worst of times, it needs to be challenged at every step of the way. Much of the source of it is the press but whether or not blogging on it does owt whatsoever, I must say, I doubt it really does.

  2. I think its true that the media only follow the public. This is highlighted by the celeb culture which if the public soak up and which the media is only to happy to feed. However the media do lead in a little way and that is through their editorials and columnists. This is not to feed their columnsists’ egos but to highlight the fact that some issues are raised by them. And it is these issues which grab the attention of the public.

    I believe the reason why you sometimes can’t argue with someone who holds views opposite to yours is that any “facts” that you use to further your own cause are not seen as true facts by the opposition. They believe that your facts are twisted half truths and the fact that you are stooping to using such lies is further proof that their own belief is the one and true one.

    I believe the way to persude someone to your beliefs is to go someway to the opposition’s view so that they think you are on their side and then to slowly work your views into their consciousness.

    One example where false beliefs are being reinforced by the use of direct attacks is by Richard Dawkins. He is attacking the ID believers by stating that their religion is bunk. In effect he is stating that his religion of atheism is the one and true belief. This is attacking at the heart of the beliefs and all it does is make them fight back stronger. I believe that Dawkins should instead fight them on scientific principles, and in simple steps. Starting from some non-contentious issues which they both agree on then but which provide the foundation for other facts which start to pick apart the ID believer’s false beliefs.

    The same strategy can be used in many other situations. For instance in teaching left wingers that libertarianism is the one and true political belief! ;-)

  3. I don’t neccesarily think your reasoning is entirely sound here at times. For example, your assertion that people lead the press rather than vice-versa implies that somehow people are naturally against something – like immigration or homosexuality – and that they seek to reinforce these innate prejudices through their selection of media. The media therefore do not create these prejudices, but they simply provide material for a market that exists through nature, not nurture.

    I think this is wrong. Hatred of a concept, person or group, I would argue, is almost always a behaviour that has been learned. It can be taught by peers, parents or more generally by the culture that the child is raised in. Are you really suggesting that the media has played no part in creating these learned attitudes and that they are merely reflecting public opinion which has somehow been formed without media influence, in isolation as it were?

    I work in an area that has an immigrant population of less than 1% and an ethnic population of less than 1%, yet a worrying amount of young people voted BNP and were convinced that immigrants have taken all the jobs and so forth. Is this innate? Do these views have nothing to do with the media?

    I blog because it I hate the fact that children are being exposed to toxic lies everyday through direct contact with the media, and through the media consumption of their parents and peers. What I do may not make a difference to many, but for some it provides confirmation that the media really is terrible and that they’re not alone if they don’t hate immigrants or human rights or whatever other targets the press go after.

  4. “I don’t neccesarily think your reasoning is entirely sound here at times. For example, your assertion that people lead the press rather than vice-versa”

    I don’t think it is an assertion. On a large number of subjects, such as the question of who to vote for in the 1992 election was not, the press really do just follow public opinion. To what extent this can be extended to all matters covered by the press is another question; but I think it is safe to say that a large amount of the press’s output, particularly the churnalism, is simply offering people what they want, without attempting to manipulate them.

    “I work in an area that has an immigrant population of less than 1% and an ethnic population of less than 1%, yet a worrying amount of young people voted BNP and were convinced that immigrants have taken all the jobs and so forth. Is this innate? Do these views have nothing to do with the media?”

    This is something which I agree with. I was somewhat polemical in my blog above. I do agree that the Press has a pernicious effect in these areas. Greater contact breeds familiarity and acceptance.

    “I think this is wrong. Hatred of a concept, person or group, I would argue, is almost always a behaviour that has been learned. It can be taught by peers, parents or more generally by the culture that the child is raised in. Are you really suggesting that the media has played no part in creating these learned attitudes and that they are merely reflecting public opinion which has somehow been formed without media influence, in isolation as it were?”

    I agree that there’s nothing natural about it. But the press are just part of how it is propagated, I think focussing all ones energy there is not the best way to minimise those lies in the medium to long term.

    The press certainly reflect some of the public’s attitude and forms some of it, sometimes a feedback builds up where a market is created for anti-asylumseeker nonsense which builds upon itself.

    “I blog because it I hate the fact that children are being exposed to toxic lies everyday through direct contact with the media, and through the media consumption of their parents and peers.”

    I think that’s incredibly admirable and I don’t want my slightly polemical piece to put you off. Its important to know and find the truth but I don’t think the world we want to realise will come though exposing errors and lies. I think it will come from positive exposure to the alien and the realisation that it is not that alien after all. Its important, but I think demographics and political agitation are more important.

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