I’ve always liked to be the sort of person who has a clue what’s going on in the World. My father always took a daily paper, which I read. I always listened to the World at One or PM on BBC Radio 4 when I was at university, and since then I’ve watched the news on the BBC and taken the papers. For many years, the husband and I had a ritual of spending a huge chunk of Sunday trawling through the papers to catch up on news and for stimulus for the work.
In the last couple of years, I’ve increasingly got my news from the web, and for the past year I’ve been less and less plugged in. I’ve been rather introspective since Pops died.
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Then I read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, and I decided I had to do something about my news consumption, so I recently renewed my subscription to a daily print paper, and I haven’t looked back.
The problem is that there are still problems with what news is delivered, how the news is weighted, how it’s presented, what constitutes opinion and so on. Some of that stuff is easy to figure out, because, for example, we all know which papers lean in which political directions. I take papers from both ends of the political spectrum for that very reason, and, once upon a time, I used to take a tabloid, but I simply can’t stand it any more, so I now stick to the broadsheets and berliners.
The rest, you just have to work out for yourself, but I’m going to talk about two bits of news in the papers over the past couple of days.
Every so often there’s a catastrophic act of God in the World, and we all expect to hear about it. We expect it to be front page news.
Would it surprise any of you to learn that 95 people were killed and three hundred are missing after a massive landslide in Guatemala on Thursday? It surprised me. I read a newspaper every day last week and this piece of news never crossed my path. I finally read about it four days after the event in the gutter of page eighteen of the Guardian in one column that was less than half a page long, and there wasn’t a picture accompanying the report. Two thirds of that column was given over to human interest as it was a truncated interview with one victim’s distraught family.
A hill falls into a town, and apparently that is no longer front page news. Four hundred people are dead or missing, and that isn’t front page news.
I was baffled. This was a pretty big news item, and it was damned easy to miss.
I turned the page to a double-page-spread of photographs of flooding: pictures, mostly of stranded cars and of people wading in water. This was another act of God, and a serious one. There was one full column of text on the outside of the page where it could be read, rather than buried in the gutter. Two British journalists and the French President, Francois Hollande were quoted in the text.
I do not wish to trivialise the flood. It caused devastation and chaos and a good deal of damage to property. It was also responsible for sixteen deaths, and five people are missing. This was a horrible event.
I wonder, though, what the differences were from a reporting point of view.
We know there are pictures of the event in Guatemala; I’ve seen them on the internet, but none were used in the report in the paper. Two pages of pictures were used of the chaos on the Cote d’Azur. Do we care more about the rich? Europeans? a favourite holiday destination? Is it easier to relate to a location we recognise? With streets, a sports stadium, cars? Is it simply because it’s not hard to find a British journalist in the South of France or to get one there quickly?
Honestly, I have no idea what the reasons, but this didn't feel balanced to me, and it rather made me wince. On the up-side, once I knew about the disaster in Guatemala, I was able to get more information about it on the web.
The Sunday papers are a slightly different animal from the dailies, and tend to cover subjects that are wide open for editorialising, and that’s fine, but there are times when it’s a good idea to be a critical reader.
This Sunday there was a piece in one of the papers with the heading Teen Vegans put Health at Risk. What followed was an article about teenage girls and diet, and it included some of the following statistics:
- More than half of 11 to 18 year old girls lack magnesium, threatening their immune systems.
- 20% of teenage girls lack vitamin B2, risking fatigue and anaemia.
- 45% of girls have low iron levels.
Well, it’s not hard to see how all of that is bad. We care about our kids, and we know that they run into all sorts of problems with image and self-esteem. We are also only too aware that kids are under any amount of pressure from all sides to conform to certain standards of beauty.
Here’s the thing, though: What this article doesn’t tell you is that, in the UK, at least, and according to the latest Food Standard Agency figures, the proportion of the population that is vegan is 0.3 percent. According to the Vegetarian Society the proportion of the population that was vegetarian in 2012 was 2 percent.
Even if you decide that more teenage girls than any other section of society chooses to be vegetarian or vegan and you triple those figures, that’s still only 1 percent of teenage girls choosing to be vegan and 6 percent choosing to be vegetarian. If all of those vegan and vegetarian teenage girls were being irresponsible with their chosen diets they’d still only account for a small percentage of the teenage girls who are essentially malnourished. A massive number of meat-eating girls, many, many more than their vegan and vegetarian sisters are not getting the magnesium, vitamin B and iron that they need out of their diets. And no one appears to be addressing that problem, at least not in this article.
I’m not going to talk about how fickle teenagers are, and how fads for veganism and vegetarianism generally run their courses very quickly. I’m not going to talk about those very serious, dedicated teenagers who make lifestyle choices, stick to them, are extremely sensible about their diets and have some of the healthiest minds and bodies. And I’m not going to shame all the teens who live on pizza, burgers, haribo and red bull, and never see a piece of fruit or a vegetable, never mind eat them.
I am going to suggest that while this might not have been an irresponsible piece of reporting it was errant nonsense, and that it’s worth being critical of this kind of thing. It’s worth picking arguments apart, and balancing statistics with thought before you decide for yourself what you choose to believe.
Being in touch with the World is great, and one of the best ways to do that is to read a daily news paper. The web will filter what it thinks you want rather than give you a neutral platform from which to choose. The fact is, though, there is no such thing as neutral news. You just have to bring your thought processes to bear on the stuff you choose to read.