Friday, May 14, 2010

Information doesn't always add up to knowledge

It is said in business that, over time, relationships must please both buyers and sellers. In negotiations, we examine the other side to understand their objectives and we seek ways to merge our interests with theirs in a mutually satisfactory way. Whether we stop to consider it or not, our skill at evaluating the needs and motivations of others is a key to everyday success.

That skill applies whether you are trying to get the best deal on a purchase, trying to inspire your teenager to achieve a task or encourage your spouse to whistle a song by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields.  In public affairs, we examine the objectives of people we evaluate but first, we need to  pose questions about our own learning and consider the knowledge set we use to judge. By example:
  • Where do we get information, is it sufficient and is it filtered fairly and objectively?
  • What are the motivations of our knowledge sources?
  • Do we consider multiple and alternative points of view?
  • Do we ourselves process information with reasonable objectivity?
I started thinking about these issues recently when I noticed what seemed to be a sudden surge of remarks criticizing Alexandra Morton in online comments and letters to editors of community newspapers. This coincided with her Walk for Wild Salmon and there was a sameness to content and style even though the writers' names varied. A number of those were untraceable and a few were connected with the salmon farming issue. Another was a technician in a community college who was has a record over some years of making pro-industry contributions, using the college name for prestige even though he lacks demonstrable expertise in the subjects of his contributions. I concluded that an organized effort was underway trying to mitigate the public relations damage Morton was causing the open net fish farming business.

We are going to see more of this technique because, feeling wounded by alternative media, industry whipped out their chequebooks to establish opinion factories specialized in new media manipulations.

The HST campaign is a perfect example of old media fairness, or lack of it.  When polls indicate that 80% of the BC population objects to HST, I find it amusing to have the corporate media regularly roll out business spokespeople to promote the opposite view. It would make sense to have a proponent and an opponent debate each other but what we get is a parade of one side's opinion. CKNW Radio is particularly guilty of leading a one sided debate as are the Canwest newspapers. They have demonstrated repeatedly that their role is to uphold the corporate agenda while minimizing expressions of consumers. Global TV News is Vancouver's ratings leader but earns that status by avoiding hard news and focusing on life style and human interest stories. It is more or less pointless to include them in a discussion about news.

I accept that people are entitled to put forward whatever points of view they wish but it is an old confidence game to salt the samples, to mislead by trying to create an impression that something is more or less than it truly is. Canwest Newspapers did this by misrepresenting the numbers attending Alexandra Morton's rally at the Legislature. Radio programs are manipulated by flooding the phone boards with callers who share common persuasion and producers routinely select participants to reflect the aims of the station message. Information consumers need to be vigilant and observant. Nowadays, there is much information spread around but it does not always add up to knowledge. Caveat emptor.
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