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DECOLONIZING FAR AND NEAR NO.6
 

Most people today use a combination of mass media and digital sources to get information. That includes current events, opinions, and critical analyses related to racism in our world. But as misinformation runs rampant and even our smartest friend might accidentally post a fake news story, it’s imperative that we know how to distinguish implausible facts from believable falsehoods. This newsletter does not go into detail about the moral-ethical conundrums of the global mass media: questions concerning access to news and digital resources; censorship and propaganda; invasion of privacy; the dearth of diversity in news organizations; the systemic racism that determines which topics and crises get covered and which get ignored. Those will be revisited at a later date. Today we ask: How can we make sure the information we are reading and sharing is accurate?

 

[Full disclosure: the author of this newsletter worked for four years as a journalist at a major Japanese news organization. Bias based on this experience will appear in the words below. Reader discretion is advised!]

 

Also, stay tuned for information about FAR-NEAR Vol. 3, releasing later this month!

UNMASKING THE MASS MEDIA:
A MINI MEDIA LITERACY GUIDE IN A MISINFORMATION MILIEU
December 08, 2020 · Curated by Ariana King

What is trustworthy information? At a time when “fake news” is a bipartisan mantra, when we eschew the television and newspapers in favor of our phones, and when “question everything” means “trust nothing,” old-school news media get little love. 

Yet, for better or for worse, traditional reporting continues to occupy a place in society. Public support for freedom of the press is increasing in many places, despite (or perhaps because of) a documented decline in press freedom. When it comes to uncovering corruption and abuse of power, news media publish details that would otherwise be buried in confidential investigation reports, shoring up public pressure for justice. We read and share articles that inform us about conflicts we’ve never heard of and ask, “why is no one covering this?” And we forget that sometimes getting those details in the first place was a life-or-death endeavor.

There are innumerable valid reasons to distrust our current sources of news. But our response should not be to reject the press outright. Acknowledging the role that our media play in democratic societies, we can recognize biases — including our own — and become responsible consumers of information while applying checks and balances. 

Companies, Bylines, Bias

The most important first step is to know where the story comes from, starting at the top. Political slant of news companies is well documented. Hidden interests are often less obvious. Western mass media companies are led largely by wealthy white men and part of oligopolistic conglomerates with international reach. Good journalists will usually disclose background information and personal or legal connections to the story that may be considered a conflict of interest. These conflicts are becoming hard to avoid as mergers of telecoms/media/entertainment giants of recent years have further consolidated Big Media empires.

But most reporters endeavor to act independently of their employers and not everything is determined by a shadowy puppet master. Whenever you receive information from a print news source, check the dateline and byline. Who is responsible for the story: Is it a beat reporter with expertise on the topic in question, or a staff reporter assigned to pick up overflow work? Does that person have any personal ties to the story? Where is it being reported from? On the ground or from a newsroom 5,000 miles away? A missing byline, although not uncommon in some places, is a red flag for media watchers.

Finally, media literate readers have a responsibility to fight confirmation bias when seeking out information. Even the savviest news consumers are liable to believe inaccurate reporting that aligns with one’s own beliefs. Be open to speculating.

Sources and Reporting Methodology

One advantage of traditional media is that most companies have and enforce ethics and transparency policies. If you have a preferred news source, find their policies online and understand their commitment to transparency and ethics. Among the most important elements to understand is the investigation process: particularly with regard to data collection and info sources. NPR’s transparency guidelines offer a good example of a clear policy towards acceptable and unacceptable source- and info-gathering practices.

Classic journalists follow the rule of double confirmation (meaning information should be validated by at least two sources) before publishing a story. As a news consumer, look for any telling indicators about the story’s sources. If the sources are identified, who are they? Do they come from one side of the spectrum or are a variety of opinions represented?

Be wary also of news reports that lack independently verified information, which copy or cite other news reports. In addition to the possibility of false information being repeated in multiple places, like a game of telephone, some details may get lost in interpretation when a news outlet didn’t get their facts directly from the original source. This pattern of citing other reports is particularly common among smaller media companies which lack the resources to carry out their own investigations. A simple workaround is to always seek out the original publisher of a breaking report (assuming it’s not behind a paywall). Similarly, be careful with data and statistics. As everyone knows, 102% of statistics are made up on the spot. Make sure that a consistent and scientifically sound methodology was used to gather the figures, and don’t be fooled by flashy infographics of high production value that lack proper citations.

Digital Media + / - Traditional 

As any Trump-watchers will know, sometimes the news breaks on social media first. In 2018, social media eclipsed print as a news source among U.S. media consumers, according to Pew Research Center data. Not too long ago, pundits claimed digital media were leaving traditional sources for dead. Many saw an opening for a robust citizen journalism-led media landscape. Certainly, there have been positive outcomes of the rise of the internet infosphere. Digital media have provided millions with an opportunity to finally be seen and heard by the world. Virtual communities encourage political activism. Voices on social media can be disruptive even where the state restricts the flow of information. Just as pressure from a well-timed exposé is able to push the public opinion needle to encourage certain legal outcomes, grassroots-level public pressure emanating from social media has been a force for change, as seen through movements like #MeToo. And according to a Pew Research Center study, 23% of U.S. users surveyed said social media led them to change views on an issue. 

But without enforceable journalistic ethics and a late adoption of fact-checking protocols, social media spaces have become a playground for trolls. Facebook has been heavily scrutinized for failing to rein in hate speech against Myanmar’s Muslim-minority Rohingya population, spurring outbursts of violence and lending support to a military campaign in the country’s Rakhine state that has been described by international observers as genocide. Small yet consequential acts of chaos also add up. More recently, a fake tweet from U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris voicing support for protesting farmers in Delhi was circulated, causing a political stir in India. While tech companies struggle to monitor disinformation, the structure of traditional news outlets serves as an imperfect foil to the relative anarchy of social media. 

Using Media Literacy to Undermine Racist Structures

In the words of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “People across the world are witnessing a dramatic increase in access to information and communication. While some people are starved for information, others are flooded with print, broadcast and digital content. Media and Information Literacy (MIL) provides answers to the questions that we all ask ourselves at some point. How can we access, search, critically assess, use and contribute content wisely, both online and offline? What are our rights online and offline? What are the ethical issues surrounding the access and use of information? How can we engage with media and ICTs to promote equality, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, peace, freedom of expression and access to information?”

In an interview on UNESCO’s website with Ramon R. Tuazon, president of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication in the Philippines, Tuazon discussed the case of the media stoking anti-Chinese sentiment in the Philippines. This widespread mistrust has been compounded by news reports of illegal activities of migrants, stories suggesting that migrants are “competing for limited job opportunities among Filipinos,” and news about Wuhan, China as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But in Tuazon’s words, Media and Information Literacy “provides competencies needed for discernment, expression, and action to mitigate harmful media messages and effects which promote or perpetuate intolerance, negative stereotyping, and spread of discrimination and prejudice.” MIL, he says, empowers individuals “to assess media misrepresentations and disinformation which are purveyors of discrimination and hatred and incitement to violence (based on religion or belief).” The Philippines is the first country in Asia to make MIL part of the high school curriculum.

Anything that has passed through a human filter — even purportedly “objective” news reports and AI-generated content (which is ultimately programmed by humans) — will be imbued with some level of subjectivity. That’s not to say that a subjective take is bad or wrong, but it certainly won’t provide a full picture. Mass media is intended for the masses, but passive consumption without critical reflection allows those in control to serve their own interests with impunity. In a structurally unequal society, that means upholding a status quo that favors the rich and privileged at the expense of marginalized people everywhere. By recognizing the inevitability of inherent biases and distinguishing the benign from the malign, we can learn to trust again. And more importantly, we’ll know how to demand the truth that we deserve.  
Quote, Think, Read, Listen

Isoko Mochizuki

Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki's persistent and hard-hitting line of questioning make her a maverick among journalists in Japan. An award-winning movie, Shinbun Kisha (「新聞記者」/  "The Journalist"), based on her 2017 book of the same name, was released last year and is currently being adapted into a Netflix series. Despite this recognition for her work, her reporting style has created challenges for her. She has been critical of the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and is frequently sidelined during official press conferences.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

Local journalists in places where freedom of the press is not defended often face high stakes when reporting on issues in their own countries. Burmese journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were sentenced to seven years in prison under Myanmar's Official Secrets Act after uncovering a massacre of Rohingya men and boys in the village of Inn Din. They were released after more than 500 days in detention. The two were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their work.

Ben Bagdikian on The Media Monopoly

Best known for his work unveiling the Pentagon Papers as a reporter for the Washington Post, Armenian-American journalist Ben Bagdikian (January 30, 1920 – March 11, 2016) was also a staunch critic of Big Media. His 1983 book, "The Media Monopoly," warned of the dangers of media consolidation, a phenomenon that has only intensified in the nearly 40 years since the first edition of his book.

"It is normal for all large businesses to make serious efforts to influence the news, to avoid embarrassing publicity, and to maximize sympathetic public opinion and government policies. Now they own most the news media that they wish to influence," Bagdikian wrote for the Center for Media Literacy.

Media Literacy Lessons from Facing History and Ourselves


Global non-profit organization Facing History and Ourselves offers an extensive library of educational resources to approach media literacy from a racial justice perspective. Though intended for educators and largely focused on the U.S., these lesson materials, on topics like determining the credibility of sourcescombating confirmation bias and verifying breaking news, are applicable in a global context.
Reflections
  1. Before speaking on current events, ask yourself, where did I get this information? Do I have a full picture or just one side of the story?
     
  2. What are your most trusted media sources? Who owns them? Who speaks for them?
     
  3. Do you diversify your media intake? Do you fact-check or cross-reference multiple sources before sharing an article?
     
  4. Do you find it easier to believe shocking information when it aligns with your views?

We are currently working to develop an online forum for discussion. In the meantime, we encourage you to share your responses to these questions, thoughts and feedback with info@far-near.media. We may request permission to post your response on social media.

A Little Joy – Photo and Art Archives We Love to See
Curated by Lulu Yao Gioiello
Media literacy aside, great primary sources are hard to find. It can take hours just to find a new image on the internet (read: one that hasn't been circulated thousands of times on Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest). Here are some of our favorite platforms that focus on sharing unique and often rarely seen archival imagery and work, with proper citations and everything.

South Asia Archive

Curated by Sanam Sindhi, South Asia Archive features contemporary work from South Asian artists as well as archival cultural images. She also periodically hosts guest curators. 

Black Archives Co.

Curated by Renata Cherlise, Black Archives is a multimedia platform that brings a spotlight to the Black experience. These emotional images will keep you from scrolling by. They have also recently launched an online editorial compilation.

Japanese Avant Garde Books

A secret favorite of ours, Japanese Avant Garde Books is run by a Japanese couple that collects and sells hard-to-get books and magazines featuring mostly Japanese photographers and illustrators.

Asia Art Archive

Based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and Brooklyn, Asia Art Archive is an independent non-profit organization co-founded by Claire Hsu and Johnson Chang in 2000 in response to the urgent need to document and make accessible the multiple recent histories of art in the region.

Habibi Collective

Let's not forget film archives. Habibi Collective is a digital archive and curatorial platform for women’s filmmaking from South-West Asia and North Africa. Roisin Tapponi, curator and founder of the collective, guest curates this year's film list for volume 3 of FAR–NEAR.

Moori Films

A newly launched film archive dedicated (but not limited) to female and queer-identifying filmmakers from Korea.

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