How to draw reliable information from the media? A practical guide

How to draw reliable information from the media? A practical guide

The opinion-forming role of the media in a democratic society is so great that it is used to being called the “fourth power”. The information activity of the media—while maintaining the independence guaranteed by the national and international law—serves as a tool for social control of the authorities. The importance of free media for the proper functioning of the state and democratic society is demonstrated by the fact that their independence is regulated by basic legal acts. In accordance with Art. 14 of the Polish Constitution “the Republic of Poland ensures freedom of the press and other means of social communication”. In turn, according to Art. 54 “(1) the freedom to express opinions, to acquire and to disseminate information shall be ensured to everyone; (2) preventive censorship of the means of social communication and the licensing of the press shall be forbidden”. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ensures—on an international level—the right to have one’s own opinions unhindered and the right to express opinions freely. This right ensures “the freedom to seek, receive and disseminate any information and opinions regardless of national borders, orally, in writing or in print, in the form of a work of art or by any other means of one’s own choice”. “The freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and disseminate information and ideas without the interference of public authorities and regardless of national borders” is also contained in Art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (wherein both the first and second treaties allow that freedom to be restricted, among others, due to the respect for the rights and protection of the good name of others and for the maintenance of state security, public order or morality).

The freedom of mass media is linked to information pluralism—indispensable in a democratic society, but burdensome for the individual seeking specific information. In particular, the Internet provides access to numerous, highly distributed and therefore difficult-to-verify sources of knowledge. This phenomenon, called information noise or information smug[1], makes it difficult to reach reliable, credible information in the multitude of reports and comments, especially with regard to events that are highly publicly opinion-based and cause great agitation. A striking example of such a disordered excess is the so-called infodemia, namely, the severity of information on the coronavirus pandemic[2]. A large number of fake news published on this subject, that is, false information of a pseudoscientific nature, which—for an average recipient unfamiliar with medicine may be difficult to verify—should be regarded as its dangerous element.

Issues strongly related to religious freedom have also lately been among the topics arousing powerful emotions. The legitimacy of the pandemic-motivated restrictions on religious worship, the alleged influence of the Church on political decisions or court judgments taking place in the country, and finally contesting Christian values and authorities justified by the crimes or moral scandals revealed within the Church are just examples of matters strongly affecting the public opinion—related to the freedom of conscience, religion and belief. Fake news based on the presentation of arbitrarily selected data (e.g. chosen legal articles, fragments of reports or certain aspects of the Church’s teaching) are easy to find here as well. Meanwhile, the full exercise of the freedom to possess and express beliefs requires having reliable information on the basis of which one can form one’s own thoughtful opinions. Access to relevant, trustworthy information is also a necessary condition for a full-fledged participation in social dialogue.

For this reason, we have prepared some guidelines which might come handy in navigating the maze of information:

  1. Remember that no media are completely objective. Editors present their point of view, usually in line with the editorial worldview (or the guidelines of the companies that finance it). Keep in mind that the authors of the texts do not have to express their beliefs directly—they create an appropriate picture of the event by selecting expert statements, photo materials or figures.
  2. Differentiate the sources. Since no message is completely objective, search for information from various sources and compare them with each other—do not limit yourself to media that represent a worldview consistent with yours. When looking for a golden mean, explore both the close to neutral and extreme perspectives.
  3. Check who the author is. Find out which editors he/she has worked with so far, what topics he/she has discussed most often and what competences allow him/her to deal with a given issue from the perspective of an expert. Do not trust anonymous or self-proclaimed “experts”. Keep in mind as well: the number of likes and shares on Facebook does not indicate the credibility or truthfulness of information or the validity of someone’s opinion.
  4. Distinguish between facts and opinions. Comments from publicists or statements by esteemed experts can provide an important context for the described events—but the more experts, the more views. Another specialist could assess the analyzed situation differently. Be careful when reviewing the figures. The data themselves provide objective information, but not necessarily the way in which it is presented. The interpretation of data depends on the attitude of the interpreter, as well as, the adopted reference point.
  5. Reach for the sources. If you come across a reference to reports or statistics in the publication, try to get to them to find out the full content. Bear in mind to have a limited trust in the interpretations of others, interpret the available data yourself and assess what picture emerges from them.
  6. Focus on the information, not the emotions. Assess the substantive value of the message, not the emotions it generates in you. Put your prejudices aside, and instead of being guided by personal likes or dislikes, examine the logic and merits of the presented arguments.
  7. If you are still unsure of your judgment, turn to a trusted expert. Present your concerns to him/her and ask for additional explanations.

 

[1] R. Tadeusiewicz, Społeczność Internetu, Warszawa 2002, 120-124.

[2] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

Autor: Kacper Witas
Date: 5 January 2021
Financed from the Justice Fund, which is administered by the Minister of Justice
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