Have I got news for you!

Following the news is a useful practice, says Caroline Roddis, but beware of unreliable sources

Social media platforms such as Facebook are becoming increasingly involved with the production of ‘news’ stories
(©Thomas Ulrich )

There’s a journalist I know who has recently deleted the news app on his phone. He’s so tired of Brexit that he has decided to simply avoid all of the news, all of the time.

To my horror, he told me this in an entirely matter-of-fact way, as if he were discussing an annoying fly that he’d swatted to get rid of the buzzing noise, rather than a decision to impose a total blackout of everything happening in the outside world, for an unspecified but potentially very lengthy period.

Now, I’m not saying that reading the news is essential to being a journalist, but it’s probably helpful. Being a journalist and not reading the news is a bit like working at Burger King and not having an interest in how to cook… ok, that’s probably a terrible example, but you know what I mean.

If you ignore the news, you miss out on the really important, epoch-defining stories of the day, such as this recent gem from the BBC, headlined: “Migrating Russian eagles run up huge data roaming charges”.

As the article went on to explain, and I feel this bears reproducing in full: “Russian scientists tracking migrating eagles ran out of money after some of the birds flew to Iran and Pakistan and their SMS transmitters drew huge data roaming charges.

“The journey of one steppe eagle, called Min, was particularly expensive, as it flew to Iran from Kazakhstan. Min accumulated SMS messages to send during the summer in Kazakhstan, but it was out of range of the mobile network. Unexpectedly, the eagle flew straight to Iran, where it sent the huge backlog of messages.”

 Isn’t that wonderful? It could only be more perfect if the eagles had used up their pay-as-you-go credit by phoning into talk shows mid-flight, or perhaps through too much swiping through the avian dating sites (or do they use Twitter for this? Answers on a postcard please….)

Of course, aside from the joyously silly stuff that takes our mind off what’s really happening in the world, the real concern is that he could also miss something important.

As children, we subconsciously learn about and (mostly) buy into a social contract related to news: we all have a duty to keep ourselves informed about what’s going on in the world so that we can engage with it in a responsible and civilised manner, and thus move the whole world forward in a positive direction.

Deciding to avoid the news is a violation of that contract, a signal that you don’t care about what is happening around you and have no intention of working to make it better. It’s like working in Burger King and deliberately not looking for the dirty surfaces that need cleaning – oh, wait, never mind. 

Yet the world we live in now makes these choices, and consequences, less clear cut than ever before (aside from the hygiene bit, obviously…) Whereas in times past engaging with the news was an active decision that involved picking up the newspaper or switching on the TV, in today’s connected society it’s almost impossible to avoid the news or, more troublingly, the ‘news’. 

Even if you delete the news app on your phone, only watch Netflix and avoid all newspapers (much harder when you consider that also means eschewing takeaway fish and chips), there’s still an almost endless barrage of news coming through social media. 

Not that this is always a bad thing. As I’m sure you have also experienced, being part of online shooting and countryside communities means that I see posts about important stories that aren’t deemed important enough for coverage by the mainstream media. 

My favourite of these in the past few days has been the news that antis not only hacked into the NFU’s online system for tracking badger cull contractors, but then highlighted this to the police in an attempt to have those conducting the cull arrested for operating without anyone knowing whether or not they were acting in accordance with their licences.

Without my friend Richard Taylor pointing this out, I’d have been entirely oblivious to this latest display of the antis’ criminal cheek as it wasn’t deemed newsworthy by any media outlets – even those local to the event in Devon and Cornwall. 

While I’m fine to let people whose judgement I trust, like Richard, have a hand in curating my news, there is always the risk that, as with anyone or anything that spreads news to others, they’ve been supplied with misinformation. And now that we are allowing more people than ever to curate our news, this risk can only increase.

Two new curators of news just entering the market are Facebook and Apple, both of whom are partnering with large news outlets to provide readers with a selection of ‘relevant’ articles. Based on the adverts I usually get served, that’d be lots of coverage of weight loss options and booze, only one of which I’m properly interested in. (I’ll let you guess which…) 

For journalists and publications struggling to compete in a digital age, the emergence of these new, giant publishers seems like a lifeline, especially because they can stalk their latest crush while checking their articles – oops, I mean, be reassured that senior journalists like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Kornblut are in charge of picking the stories to feature. 

There are, of course, problems too. Facebook News, currently being tested in various parts of America, has already come under fire for, as the Independent reported, picking as one of its news sources: “Breitbart, which aligned itself as ‘the platform of the alt-right’ under the leadership of Steve Bannon”. Is Facebook news the Fourth Estate or the Fourth Reich? You decide… 

On top of questionable partnership choices, in its own press statement Facebook suggested that their criteria will “evolve over time to make sure people are seeing sources that are valuable to them and that we’re including reporting across these topics.” 

Should we be letting Facebook decide what’s valuable to us? Sure, thanks to software developed by Cambridge researchers, a stranger can know your personality better than a work colleague in just 10 Facebook likes, and with 300 likes they’ll know you better than your spouse (not a joke, this is true), but there’s every chance they’ll use that information for what’s best for them – financially or politically – rather than you.

Both Apple and Facebook are commercial entities led by CEOs with personal views, views that might lead to bias. It’s hard enough to stomach people like Rupert Murdoch with the power of traditional media – just imagine a Packham-esque figure with the access to billions of impressionable minds…  

And even if that bowel-wateringly terrifying scenario doesn’t happen, being in a bubble of news that fits your own views is no way to live, even if it is more comfortable and you do get great insight into badger-related hacking events. 

Avoiding the news entirely might be irresponsible, but giving huge, unaccountable entities power over what comes up on our news feeds might just be even worse. No matter how good the new iPhone is – though be careful of those roaming charges…

‘Shooting In The Media’, is an opinion article in which journalist Caroline Roddis explores topical issues.

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