Sunday, June 12, 2005

Misinformation v. Enlightenment

Here’s a piece from Sunday’s Advocate discussing Louisiana talk radio and alternative internet sites. The article describes users of alternative media as those with “distaste for liberals”, “disgust over taxes” and “disdain for politicians.” Noting that alternative media such as talk radio and internet have the benefit of promoting discussion of public policy issues, “the downside,” the article argues, “is that a lot of the discussion misinforms instead of enlightens the public.” There's no institution in Louisiana dedicated to tracking media, fact-checking it and ensuring that “just the facts” are distributed to the general population. And I'm disinclined to jump into to breach. But as a student of mass communication and a regular consumer of both mainstream and alternative media, I offer a few observations in response to the Advocate article: First, “misinformation” is a loaded term, implying the perpetuation of information known to be false. On a related note, given recent developments in American media, the claim that mainstream media only “enlightens” is on increasingly shaky ground (See Newsweek-Koran debacle; Jayson Blair at NYT; and Jack Kelley at USA Today). Second, just because they aren’t promoted by large media institutions, opinions expressed in fora outside the established “mainstream” of Louisiana (or national) media are no less valid than those expressed by the major papers and other media outlets. I have no statistics to prove it, but I suspect that errors creep into mainstream media as often as they do alternative media. In fact, a few examples of errors found in Louisiana’s more traditional media in recent weeks include: a) coverage of SB 321 suggested the bill was defeated in a hearing. In fact, it was withdrawn by its author before a vote. b) the announcement of Steelscape’s establishment of operations at the Port of Shreveport-Bossier. One publication reporting the announcement (scroll down to center) named the company as Steelcase – a company based in Western Michigan that makes office furniture. c) Coverage of PAR’s statement about the governor’s proposed cigarette tax suggested the institution didn’t support the proposed tax. A more nuanced reading indicated PAR didn’t like the tax as proposed but was still open to it in another form. Some analysts studying the advent of alternative media sources actually suggest that non-traditional media formats have a natural tendency to be self-correcting – meaning that inaccuracies are quickly identified by consumers and corrected by the blog or website that initially had the wrong information. This characteristic is often contrasted with the small print corrections blurbs run regularly by traditional newspapers. The question is one of visibility of corrections and right now it looks like alternative media might be better at it. When it comes to discussion of alternative media and the misinformation-enlightenment debate, perhaps he who is without sin should cast the first stone... Mohandas Gandhi once observed that, “In true democracy, every man and woman is taught to think for himself or herself.” Given Louisiana’s poor performance on a litany of public policy indicators, that a growing number of people in Louisiana are thinking for themselves can only be a good thing.