The Singapore government has just announced the formation of a Media Literacy Council. I will argue here that what the government has done over the last few decades is to promote media illiteracy. It serves their interests. Consequently, I am skeptical that they have found a new religion.
I will begin my argument by giving you a very specific example. It’s like this: On 25 July 2012, a story Foreign worker told: “If we kill you, there won’t be any witness” was published on the website of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an advocacy group and charity that seeks fair treatment for migrant workers. (Declaration of interest: I am on the executive committee of TWC2, and have direct oversight of the website. The article in question however was not written by me, but it was passed by me for publication.) In a nutshell, the story told of a worker from India who reported quite scandalous treatment by his employer. He was so aggrieved that it became unviable to continue in the job; he was even fearful for his life.
Through social media, readership of that article climbed exponentially. It was also highlighted by The Online Citizen on their Facebook page, on which were over 35 comments. Most expressed outrage at the treatment meted out to the worker, for example:
“Shame we treating them like we are in a third world country.”
“I hope MOM is seriously looking into the issue and giving this case further investigation than just superficial report. How about the other workers in the same company? . . . MOM shouldn’t sit idly by and allow mistreatment and human abuse of workers. . . “
“How come companies who abuse their workers are never penalised?”
“It’s always sad to hear stories like this and this modern day slavery or bonded labour where the workers are in a vulnerable position has to stop.”
However, one comment stood out. It came from Kien Lee who wrote:
“I believe a proper article covering this topic IS ONLY legitimate if the writer/reporter also does some research into whether the work conditions are indeed true. Take some pictures, add some real investigative reporting…. as it stands, it sounds much like one person’s word against another.”
[italics added by me; these phrases will be referred to below]
At the same time, Kien Lee wrote on TWC2’s Facebook page:
“What? So the TWC2 writer doesn’t need to do even a little investigation at all? I mean, he/she can go to said workplace and see if workers are indeed treated under such conditions and take some photos. Just because it’s online media doesn’t mean the journalism standard cannot be up to par. IMHO.”
[italics added by me; these phrases will be referred to below]
At first glance, Kien Lee’s comments sound completely reasonable. The standard that he has set appears unassailable; they sound like words of advice towards media literacy. But in my view, they are deceptively dangerous. They lead to uncritical minds and, yes, media illiteracy.
I’m not saying he is being uncritical. Quite the opposite. He is approaching the issue with a critical mind. It’s his prescription I take issue with. It’s his prescription that dulls the minds of others.
Journalism is not the only standard
The first error he is making is to fail to differentiate the various uses of media. In using the term “journalism standard”, he reveals that he saw no distinction between a corporate website like TWC2’s and a newspaper website. TWC2 is not a news organisation. It is an advocacy group, arguing certain points of view and highlighting evidence that it has that supports its point of view.
A better analogy for TWC2’s website would be websites of other advocacy groups such as Greenpeace, Save the Children or Amnesty International.
If others, especially opponents, have additional facts that serve their arguments, or have a different interpretation of the same facts, then it’s for them to publicise their point of view on THEIR website. Neither side has any obligation to provide the neutral, balanced reporting that Kien Lee was suggesting, because neither side is a newspaper (whether online or print). Greenpeace is not going to give equal space to why you should destroy natural habitats. Amnesty International is not going to give voice to death penalty enthusiasts.
Such websites have no need, no obligation to argue against themselves, to poke holes in their own theses. This is for others to do. Their obligation is to use reasonable tests to ensure that what they say is founded on evidence, and is not false. And if it is an opinion expressed, that opinion is grounded in reality (which, as I will explain below, Kien Lee’s opinion is not). The objective of such advocacy websites is to persuade.
TWC2 writers do test what they hear from workers. Stories should be supported by evidence, such as documents, records and injuries. They must be internally consistent and are often expected to parallel similar experiences of other workers in order to pass at least the smell test. But in any case, what is so illegitimate about giving people a voice? To let them tell their stories from their subjective point of view? If information is culled simply because there’s a lone voice with no corroboration yet, then we’re going to be poorer for it. Sometimes that lone voice is the first warning of trouble.
Taking photos and investigative reporting
Precisely because an advocacy group like TWC2 is not set up as a neutral news organisation, to expect its “reporters” to gain access to the employers’ place of business and “take some photos” is completely unrealistic. Few employers will let workers’ rights representatives in if they can help it. In fact, few employers would even let the mainstream media in to take pictures of their operations without prior appointment and first sanitising their spaces; what chance of advocacy groups and their volunteer reporters getting entry to take pictures of abuse going on?
To then say, oh because you haven’t gone undercover for investigative reporting, or you haven’t got the pictures to prove it, your story is not “legitimate”, is to set rules that are effectively impossible to overcome. By itself it creates a bias against the disempowered and their stories, because it’s the other side that controls entry into the workspace.
Why it’s deceptively dangerous
I said above that applying a prescription that all media (even corporate, political party or advocacy media) must be neutral, balanced and objectively proven is deceptively dangerous. Strong words? Let me tell you why I say so, starting with a diagram:
In demanding that all media must aim to be balanced and neutral, one will in effect be expecting media to aggressively filter information for readers. A readership weaned on such media is dulled. He lazily expects media to have filtered out unreliable or illegitimate information and thus to tell him the “truth” — as if there is only one knowable truth.
The government’s decades-old rhetoric about licensed mainstream media being more “trustworthy” and online citizen media being full of “half-truths” and rumours is part of this conditioning process.
In Model 2, different media carry different facts, interpretations of facts and viewpoints. Few pretend to be neutral and balanced, or for that matter “objective” — another buzzword from our ministry of propaganda. In such an environment, the reader hones his own critical faculties. He judges information and thinks for himself.
If Model 1 is bad enough, a corruption of it, shown here as Model 3, is worse. It is when a population is dulled into trusting filtered reports, but in actual fact, there is a hidden bias in the filtering. As indicated diagrammatically, the green and lavender facts are poorly represented by the “balanced” media. But the reader may not realise it, and has little access to the raw information to correct his views — given a prevailing media landscape that frowns on, and a social environment that delegitimises, partisan media.
This is why I say all these ardent calls for balance, objectivity or neutrality are trojan horses for the closing down of minds. We should revel in highly partisan media, for the truism is this: A challenging environment sharpens our adaptive skills; too much spoonfeeding of pre-digested mush leads to mental flabbiness.
The constant calls for only a certain kind of media practice should be seen for what they are — the road to illiteracy.