On Media and Critical Thinking

I have, at times, a rather sick sense of humour.

I have been up to my digital eyeballs in newscasts, online articles, and paper articles for the past month.   And while it does stress me, I sometimes find myself bellylaughing helplessly at the immense and dark absurdity of it all.

As a physically vocal being, with a life-long and passionate love for understanding communication, words and people fascinate me.  I am obsessed with how we use words, which words when, how and if and to which degree and which direction they reflect, distort, and belie meaning and intent.  I watch and listen hungrily to everything.  And I gather and hold and examine and cherish it all, because it’s raw data.  It’s information on two things I love dearly: information, and human communication.

These passions have led me to pore over issues and instances of human communication consistently, my entire life.  Almost unfailingly, I note everything I possibly can in a communication of any sort.  It’s not that the message is meaningless to me.  Far from it.  It is that I understand well that the medium is also the message.

Take sarcasm, for an extreme example: voicing the “opposite” of what one means.  Ironically, in order to convey what one does means.  Or, to deliberately convey nothing of pertinence, as a means of sidestepping expression of anything actual or factual.  There are other uses for sarcasm, of course, but that’s just the illustration of the point, not the point itself.

The point is, considering medium itself, as well as the message, gives rise to an understanding of the entire and actual message.  Hopefully.  Ideally and more specifically, considering the medium as well as the message gives rise to the questions, which, answered, will give rise to an understanding of the entire and actual message.

Body language, anyone?  How about tone of voice?  What about timing?  What about the lilt and the lull of the speech or text?

I guess because I am a singer, I consider the tone of media automatically.  No matter whose speech, writing, body language, I immediately note the tone(s) of communication.  Is it authoritative?  Hyperbolic?  Guarded?  Cold?  Cruel?  Critical?  Dismissive?  Sarcastic?  Argumentative?  Dictatorial?  Celebratory?  Gleeful?  Gravely concerned?  Calm?  Pleased?  Belittling?  Something else?  I could go on for so long, but I won’t.  You get the point.

The tone is the “charge”, if you will, to every act of communication.  Even in private journal writing, and self-talk.  Even when that charge is deliberately muted, as many who have ever been painfully shy will know.  (Will know because the inherent charge of the communication gets “stuck inside”, in my experience, and it is almost impossible NOT to be hyper-aware of the full range of tone and meaning intended in a simple act of withheld communication.)

The point is, what’s the tone?  What purpose might that tone serve?  Is it:

  • “tugging at my heartstrings”?
  • “appealing to my better judgement”?
  • “sobering”?
  • “a startling look” at something?

And here’s the most fun critical thinking part (for me): How does the tone prime me?  What specific state does it predispose me to, as the message is delivered?  How does it effect message’s impact on me?

As I’m considering tone, I’m noting what is being conveyed as fact.  Am I being told about a place?  A person?  A percentage?  A group?  A discovery?  A question?  An event?  What specific things am I being told, and about what?  And, because I am still sobered by realizing the implications of the Santa Clause fiasco, I ask myself: Is this true?  Is this thing, actually, a fact?

Here’s an interesting example from the past week.  I’ve noticed a shift, in mainstream media, from referring to demonstrators as “Idle No More demonstrators” to referring to Idle No More demonstrators as Natives.  Let that sink in for a second, please.  And understand the scope and impact of that shift.

Imagine, please:

“Striking teachers lined the streets today to protest Bill 145…”

being replaced with:

“White people lined the streets today to protest Bill 145…”

Isn’t it fascinating how replacing a single, qualified noun, with a racial description throws off the whole message?

Know what else is fascinating?  It completely absents the fact that not all of the participants are white.  In fact, it states the exact opposite of the fact!  Isn’t that absurd?!  Isn’t it amazing how it can happen, right there under our noses and eyes, and we, for the most part, don’t even blink at that?

Here’s another example from yesterday, #J11: While major news outlets reported hundreds having gathered in Ottawa, many smaller sources cited police as indicating that thousands were actually present.  Like THREE thousand.

Is that not a remarkable discrepancy?

But how are you to know, right?  It’s the news.  They’re paid to tell you what is what, to keep you informed, to be trustworthy, reliable, dependable.  Why on Earth would you suspect they’d misinform you?  (Hint: Odds are, any entity droning at you to trust it, is doing so specifically because you would be wise to question its trustworthiness.)

So how do you know if what’s being presented is actually fact?  The answer is, you don’t.  You don’t know if the media outlet is giving you accurate facts.  Unless you check them out yourself.  (Is there such a thing as an audit of a media outlet?  Not a financial one, but like a practical one, or an integrity audit, if those exist…  Wouldn’t those be interesting audits to read?)

And that, to me, is one example of mainstream media massively failing us all.  If an outlet cannot be trusted to relay a simple fact like attendance, or composition of a group accurately and clearly…..  Well, geez….  Which part of informing our personal perceptions of the world around us can mainstream media be trusted with?  [Hint: the answer is only the part where it informs us that there is, indeed, something to look into.]

And of course, when ingesting media, I consider the actual words used to convey messages.  One of the things I love about words is that they each generally have a sphere of meaning, rather than just a single meaning.  There are cultural and historical implications to each word; there are synonyms and homonyms, there are distinct ties to whichever matter is being expressed.  It’s a rabbit hole, really.  A deep and fascinating rabbit hole that opens up a myriad of glorious questions about the entire truth, and so the accurate bottom line, of the message.

For example: Harper, yesterday, reportedly (note how a single word (reportedly) informs you that I don’t know it for a fact, that it’s been reported) reportedly said that he would like all Canadians to reflect on the legacy of John. A. MacDonald.  Now, I want to focus on that name.  Know him?  This John A. MacDonald?  I know OF him.  What I know of him is that as Prime Minister, he and his government created residential schools.  He also introduced the bill which made the potlatch illegal.  He publicly promised he would get rid of “the Indian problem”.  Also, I was told that he ordered the flood of an entire valley of Indian territory somewhere in/around Quebec during his rein.  Without informing the people living there.  (I have never verified this.  Would be interesting to know if it’s true.)

So, what could Harper possibly mean, making reference to this past Prime Minister?  Is a good question, eh…?  Probably a very very important question for all of us to be asking.

Another example of the use of specific words, from yesterday again.  Duncan has expressed that there will be no repeal of C-38 and C-45, the omnibus bills rammed through from conception to legislation to law, this past 2012 (bizarrely, deceptively named budget bills).  Duncan also expressed that “they” feel they have fulfilled “their” constitutional responsibilities in passing them.  Isn’t that amazing?  Note the fact, please, that the bills are literally unconstitutional.  For the swift and easy proof, see Section 2 of the Canadian Constitution, see almost any treaty, ever, and then see amendments to Environmental Protection Act, Navigable Waters Act.  Wham, done.  You can skip every single amendment and reference to the [commentary redacted] Indian Act, and even having to read the Indian Act yourself, and STILL see, plainly with your own eyes, that both Bill C-38 and Bill C-45 are literally unconstitutional.

However, Duncan and whoever his “we” is, in this case, FEEL that they upheld the Canadian Constitution.  Therefore, regardless of fact and actuality, the bills will not be repealed.

Also, most people will not know that the bills are unconstitutional.  Cause the mainstream media doesn’t tell you that.

If you are lucky, the mainstream media might have told you that some legal experts say or claim the bills are unconstitutional.  Which is fascinating.  Because, as journalists, I would think it their job to read the bills, the constitution, a few treaties, and journal the facts of the matter at hand, the matter being reported.

So, yes.  On media, and critical thinking.  That.


About (Blue) Kim Anderson

Nipissing Ojibway and Celtic singer, songwriter, writer. Permanent student of life and the natural world, two-spirited, teacher, parent, friend.
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8 Responses to On Media and Critical Thinking

  1. Thank you for pointing out not only the seriousness and breadth of federal policy itself, but also the way in which the media colludes to prevent the public from understanding the issues. The Theresa Spence smear campaign, misquoting Chief Nepinak to make him sound like a ‘terrorist’ or at best a rabble rouser, too little mention of federal fiscal mismanagement (especially with respect to First Nations) and misrepresentation of Sylvia McAdam’s comments regarding Spence… All of this serves to take the spotlight away from the real puppet masters, the destructive nature of the omnibus bills – which Harper once bashed as undemocratic – and the incredible danger facing our country and our planet, which is what Idle No More is really about. They want to make the public lose interest and support by painting us as corrupt, disorganized and divided. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  2. Kev Corbett says:

    There is no ‘the’ media, anymore than there is one point of view among the members of INM, allies, or Chiefs. Journalists are journalists, and columnists are hired for opinion. Public media *has* to air every voice on every side, and private media is there to sell ads. That’s why you check your source.

    • When I say “the media”, I refer to the sum of various media outlets. It would seem I was not clear enough with that?

      When a newscast, or a newspaper, or any other news outlet presents themselves to the public as exactly that, though, a news outlet, then I am definitely of the opinion that that outlet has a responsibility to report facts. Not meaning columns, or editorials here, but news.

      I do find your assertion that “Public media *has* to air every voice on every side,” interesting, because I am finding a lack of balanced representation even there. I’m curious to know if you personally see it as being balanced.

      I agree with you, as you’re saying exactly what I’ve said: verify, know the facts for yourself.

      • Kev Corbett says:

        Hi there,
        I think they really try (disclosure 1: I’m on your side, absolutely not trolling; 2: I have a very close relationship with public media). I find, particularly when we’re getting followed around the farmers’ market on our day off, that many people up and down the spectrum think that ‘the’ media is of one mind, that there are partisan marching orders being given from on high, and if one hears something not in their own words or in line with how they feel, then ‘they’ must be against us, biased, etc. The most egregious example being that on the day of the first INM rally in my town, we were warned that there was a media blackout, which reflected little more than a misunderstanding of how it works: first, INM hadn’t worked itself into the phenomenon it is yet and there’s a ‘national day of action’ about something or another every second day here; second, my person’s never been told not to cover anything and wouldn’t listen to that regardless, especially if it meant scooping another outlet; third, public media is more disposed to be on our side than perhaps any other as it’s for all of us; fourth, they had cameras along the march route and at the speeches. The ‘blackout’ was, no doubt, informed by worry because this is a thing we all really feel and believe in. Nonetheless, this happens. We get this from all sides, about politics, the music played, discussions are often too right or too left depending on the perspective of the listener. But the people (and they are) who work there believe in the intrinsic democracy of the job – that if you like or dislike everything you hear, that they’re not doing their job; but they really do try. Every show has their own story meeting, tries to get whom they can (and a counterpoint) to address this or that. They’ll bend over backwards to get Pam, Flanagan, Wab, Judy Rebick and Brazeau all on, because they’re all voices that are germane to the ongoing discussion. Or as happened today, the Commish from the OPP saying he wasn’t inclined to bust up blockades because they’re peaceful and based in genuine grievances. Incredible tape, which Sun took to mean that the OPP supports terrorism, y’know? We may want to hear nothing but progressive voices, but when we do, I think we don’t notice and count it as much as if we hear the guy from the Cdn Taxpayers’ Fed, for example, or the dragon dude. We notice people increasingly pay attention to the facts that matter to them. But what good journalism does is set a big buffet out for you to pick from, and not tell you what to think. My person would tell you that INM is fucking awesome for so many reasons, but chiefly, because it’s democracy at its very best. Which still includes putting members on, allies, AFN chiefs, other chiefs, those opposed and those on the fence.

        Love, respect, and solidarity,

      • Kevin:

        When I talk about mismanaging actual facts, I do mean that, truly – the actual facts. Misrepresenting the nature or composition of a group is a serious problem. It sways public opinion away from the facts, and it’s damaging; both to the movement and to the readers looking to understand the issues.

        As someone who values communication a great deal, I do understand how hard it can be to relay the truth and nature of a story in a story-sized body; and to even collect the facts and views in the first place.

        Increasingly, I see #IdleNoMore being presented as an Indigenous movement. Worse, as a First Nations movement, which excludes Metis, Inuit, and non-status people, not to mention environmentalists of various ancestries and cultures, as well as scientists, and even politicians who are not Indigenous.

        As to whether they really do try, I can only say I am in slightly envious awe of your conviction, and your faith. I do believe that some try. I do believe others do not. Again, I hate to harp, but when it comes to things like rally attendance, composition of supporters, I find it challenging to assume good (or even neutral) will when something so relatively easily verified is misreported.

        And I want to point out that I do not hate the media as a whole. Not even mainstream media. But I do feel it vital not to trust the media as a sole means of informing one’s self. You’ve listed some really good reasons why it’s simply not possible, in some cases, for various outlets to present accurate information to its consumers/readers/viewers. In that case, though, as much as it can be frustrating to read it, I do feel it vital for news outlet a, b, c, or what have you, to highlight the gaps in information at the time of presenting it.

        “…what good journalism does is set a big buffet out for you to pick from, and not tell you what to think.” I find that a particularly interesting assertion. Because, I think there’s a massive misunderstanding of that. By and large, from what I’ve gathered by speaking with others, there’s this concept that news outlets inform people on the issues; but the truth, I think, is something closer to: news outlets inform people of the information they’ve been able to gather with respect to the issues. And I know, that may seem fussy, but the fact is, there’s a big difference between telling what there is to tell, and telling what I know of what there is to tell. I recall a news tweet from a reporter in which I was particularly interested, so I asked for more information on it. As it turned out, the reporter had already given all the information s/he had, and was unable to supply more. So as much as it was irritating to me (because I am ridiculously and abidingly curious), I really respected the fact that the reported responded simply and honestly that he didn’t know the answers to the questions I was posing. (It might even have been you, come to think of it, #J11, so hah.) And the reason I bring that up (and have told others about it) is because I think it is incredibly valuable to have an idea of what questions still remain. I tend to think that that leads people to check the facts, to follow up on the opinions and views presented, and really get involved in informing themselves.

        For myself, as I mentioned in the post, I do see most media as a means of getting started. It can’t tell me what’s going on, in most cases, but it can give me a general outline that something is going on.

  3. I confess I’m having a hard time looking at the media coverage any more, but . . .

    I’ve been to almost all the Idle No More events here in Edmonton — I didn’t go to today’s “Day of Action ” Pappaschase blockade of Highway 2 and I missed two events at West Edmonton Mall. I’ve noticed a few things:

    Idle No More events get huge turnouts, no matter the time, location, or length of notice
    events associated with Chiefs get very low turnouts
    Idle No More events get massive non-Indigenous participation

    Today’s Chief-called Pappaschase blockade, as I understand it, managed to get about thirty people out. There was a rally I attended at the Legislature a few weeks ago in support of Chief Spence and it had the lowest turnout of any Idle No More associated event I’ve attended.

    I was at a very short notice Idle No More rally at mid-day, mid-week on a very cold (but very sunny) day a week or so ago at the University of Alberta that had a very good turnout, I’d say a few hundred. An elder led a bilingual (Cree and English) prayer ceremony with the entire multi-racial crowd taking part and then the whole crowd of young and old Idle No More participants went off to the round dance. Most of the crowd was White. Many were First Nations. And there were Asians and at least one trio of young African-Canadian women in hijab having a wonderful time dancing in the snow.

    I kinda doubt those details were reported.

    In my opinion, the leading tool of Idle No More is the round dance rally. Certainly, education of the public is necessary, but the way to be attractive is through the round dance. As I was leaving the last rally here at Canada Place, I was waiting to cross the street and a voice behind me said “Is that Idle No More?”

    I turned around to face the well-dressed career woman who had asked and said “yes, it is.”

    “You know,” she said, “you hear about it on the news, but — It’s so powerful!”

    I encouraged her to come out some time. “It’s so happy and welcoming! I mean, I’ve just come from there and I’m a White Guy!”

    I’ve blogged a little about Idle No More as well: http://behindthehedge.wordpress.com/tag/idlenomore/

    Again, thanks for this As a friend of mine said back in the Cold War days: “At least in the Soviet Union you *know* that most of what you read in the paper is lies!”

  4. Kev Corbett says:

    Hi Kim,
    Clarifications: I’m not a reporter. And my ‘faith’ isn’t faith, rather experience of how some people in a particular news meeting do work to reflect all sides as accurately as they can in the two or whatever minutes they have on any given night (as you say in your 2nd paragraph), because they want to get it right. My experience applies to no other show in that network, to say nothing of everyone else who works in the field. That’s a huge spectrum.
    See y’at the Round,

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