Anyone who believes there are no alternative facts needs a lesson in media studies

media-studiesA PICTURE might be worth a thousand words, but when someone adds 140 characters of context its meaning can be distorted. By now most of us are aware that not every meme is what it seems, and that a headline can never tell the full story – but in a world of viral soundbites and instant outrage, how many of us take time to stop and check, or even read on? And if we aren’t willing to put in the background reading, do we get the “truth” we deserve?

By now, all but the most ardent supporters of Donald Trump have been forced to concede that his inauguration was a bit of a damp squib. White House press secretary Sean Spicer dug himself into quite the hole trying to argue that black was white (or rather, that the inauguration of the nation’s first black president was less well-attended than that of the 44th white one). In doing so, he confirmed the fears of many Americans that the new administration isn’t afraid to bluster, obfuscate and outright fib.

It’s starting to feel like Donald’s dastardly deeds are to 2017 what celebrity deaths were to 2016. Yes, there will be a lot of them, but some people seem a bit too eager to add to the list

In this context, it’s little wonder Trump’s every utterance is being heavily scrutinised – but it’s starting to feel like Donald’s dastardly deeds are to 2017 what celebrity deaths were to 2016. Yes, there will be a lot of them, but some people seem a bit too eager to add to the list; to point to the latest tweet of doom and say “See?”. Last year the loss of a frail sitcom star who hadn’t worked in decades was seized on as evidence of the same curse that claimed pioneering entertainers in their fifties and sixties. Now, a video of Trump apparently making his wife sad gains as many re-tweets as a picture of him restricting access to abortion worldwide.

Instances of the new US President being unchivalrous speak to his character – and highlight the contrast between the incumbent and his predecessor – but they tell us nothing new. This isn’t a slick, Blair-like politician who’s been hiding behind a rictus grin up til now. Trump spent the whole of last year frowning, glowering, pouting and making babies cry.

What matters now isn’t who he is but what he does – and here, in the messy business of legislating, implementing and evaluating, there will be a lot less certainty. The impact of most political decisions cannot be easily demonstrated by some side-by-side comparison photos,or a 10-second reaction video. Here, the concept of “alternative truth” is not quite so easy to dismiss.

I don’t wish to suggest that Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway is a philosophy scholar rather than a bullshit merchant, but…

I don’t wish to suggest that Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway is a philosophy scholar rather than a bullshit merchant, but while we can see with our own eyes that turnout was low in Washington DC last Friday, strictly speaking Spicer’s claims about global audiences are unverifiable as opposed to untrue. Estimating will always be a thorny business: after the Yes march in Glasgow last summer the police said 2500 to 3000 people had attended, while organisers confidently asserted the number to be at least 5000. Two very different estimates, but no evidence that anyone aimed to deceive.

When George Osborne said an independent Scotland could not use the pound was he telling a lie, or playing politics? What about when Alex Salmond said the 2014 referendum was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to vote for independence? The distinction between truth and lie, fact and fiction might seem clear and comforting, but the reality is that we must review the available evidence and decide for ourselves what to believe. Of course journalists can help, by reporting on what’s happening, putting the news in context and offering analysis. But those who dismiss all newspapers as “biased” and therefore worthless, and retreat into social media echo chambers, fail to recognise their own role as critical interpreters.

A proper grounding in media studies is essential to understanding how the news is reported, recognising where choices have been made and considering why

Media Studies has unjustly earned a terrible reputation, becoming a byword for the “Mickey Mouse” university course and being dismissed as lazy students watching TV while their more intellectual peers toil away in the library reading politics, philosophy and economics. But a proper grounding in media studies is essential to understanding how the news is reported, recognising where choices have been made and considering why. It prepares the reader, listener or viewer to engage and debate, rather than to be spoon-fed “facts” that require no further contemplation.

The facts might be, for example, that the Scottish Government has missed a target, but the meaning of this will depend on who set the target and why, what factors affected performance and what action is being taken next. Reporters have a duty to relay such information as target success or failure, along with some of the Punch-and-Judy soundbites from parliament, but it’s up to voters to decide what matters, based on their own values and priorities as well as the available evidence.

If we can learn anything from the tospy-turvy world of contemporary US politics, it’s that bad news travels fast. A screen-shot of a broken web link may appear to show that Trump’s administration has “deleted climate change”. The reality – that the White House website has been archived and only some pages reinstated – is still symbolic, and still troubling, but not quite so sensational.

So let’s not allow the big debates about Scotland’s future to be reduced to #SNPbad or #SNPgood, or earnest debate to be shut down with fresh cries of “Project Fear”.The truth, in these uncertain times, is that we have a lot to discuss.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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