Seeking Out Truth in Globalised Times

A conversation with St Andrews students on the subject of news.

photo: wikimedia commons

My grad class went on a trip to Los Angeles last May. The hotel we were staying in delivered a copy to the LA Times to each room. My friend and I had some time to kill one morning, so we read it over several cups of coffee.

Most mornings at home, I skim the first section of the Globe and Mail, the major national Canadian newspaper. It’s slightly left of centre, like arguably most of Canada, and reports on both domestic matters and international news – probably because Canada doesn’t have enough domestic news to fill a newspaper. (I kid… mostly.)

The difference was immediately apparent with the LA Times. All of the news was centred around domestic issues, or how international issues affect the US. I understand that the US has far more people and far more clout and thus has far more news, but it was jarring nonetheless.

In our world of globalisation, most people do get international news from the internet, but we find ourselves with another problem: the political echo chamber. Social media algorithms suggest content based on what you’ve recently read. If you mostly read liberal news, you will have to go out of your way to find anything right-wing, and vice-versa.

St Andrews inevitably inspires cultural comparison, especially between the two majority representations: the US and the UK. Canada (and the other anglophone commonwealth countries, Australia and New Zealand) finds itself somewhere in the middle on most issues.

Having noticed the fairly major differences between American, Canadian and British news, I thought it would be interesting to talk to some people of different national and political backgrounds about where they get their news. I asked four people – two Scottish, two American (one from each coast) – how they source information and about differences the Americans have noticed between US and UK news.

Where are you from?

Grace: Denver, Pennsylvania.

Sasha: I was born in Hong Kong

but grew up in the Scottish borders.

Anonymous: Edinburgh.

Kenalyn: Los Angeles.

How would you describe your political position?

Grace: Shockingly liberal considering my hometown and family; a Democrat, but fairly central.

Sasha: Marxist, probably.

Anonymous: I’m pretty left, I tend to support Labour or the Greens.

Kenalyn: I’d probably say independent.

Where do you currently get most of your information?

Grace: The internet, mostly The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and Reuters.

Sasha: The Guardian, the New Statesman, the BBC, friends in conversation.

Anonymous: I tend to go to BBC news or The Guardian.

Kenalyn: I use Twitter as a sort of hub for links, articles, etc., and then I also look at National Geographic, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and The Economist. I also look at specific organisations’ Twitters for more specific stuff (for example, envinmental and wildlife news).

Do you usually go straight to the source, or click on articles suggested by social media?

Grace: My social media generally suggests articles about Kylie Jenner to me, which I do not read (Facebook, do some better ad research).

Sasha: A mix of both, but I normally get news from the news websites.

Anonymous: A mix, if I have time, I go to the source. I have the apps on my phone, but I also tend to click on things that look interesting on Facebook or other social media.

Kenalyn: I’d say 60 per cent (social media, mostly Twitter)/40 per cent (source).

How has your news consumption changed since getting to the UK (if at all)?

Grace: It hasn’t really changed. I already vaguely kept track of British news, so I continue to do that. The only major change is that I probably follow US news more closely here than I did at home because people around me aren’t talking about it, so I feel the need to seek it out more.

Kenalyn: I’d say I kept the old sources, but new ones were added.

Have you noticed differences between news sources in the US and those in the UK?

Grace: I feel like US news is higher quality and that British news sources tend to be gossip-oriented. Maybe that’s because I’m not looking in the right place, though. It’s also very hard to find a British news source that doesn’t have an obvious political agenda.

Kenalyn: Not blatantly, no. How do you decide whether sources are trustworthy?

Grace: Honestly, I look at the adjectives they use. If they seem like they’re trying to explain or describe a situation, rather than provoke a visceral emotional response, they’re probably more trustworthy.

Sasha: Typically if a story appears in one paper, there is a version in another paper. Also there’s a press complaint office in the UK and generally newspapers don’t outright lie (although some certainly have).

Anonymous: I don’t really, I tend to just assume that a lot of stuff is biased in one direction at least a little and try to take everything with a touch of salt.

Kenalyn: If I’ve heard about an article or source spoken about in class or with my friends or family, or if it’s linked from a source I already know and trust, then that helps me gage if a source is more trustworthy than others in my opinion.

How do you feel that our generation differs in our news consumption from our parents?

Grace: Actually, it’s not that significant. My dad gets most of his news online as well. We do get local newspapers at home, and the only TV news my parents watch is local news, which I don’t do here.

Sasha: We have more access to news, but it tends to come out closer to the event so it can be less accurate when first published. People also use blogs and such for news as well, and these tend to be incredibly biased, often not reporting large stories and misrepresenting important ones.

Anonymous: I feel that because of online news sources, we are able to access a broader range of opinions because we don’t have to pay for them. I, for one, am much more likely to go to a source I know is biased against my views if I don’t have to pay to read it and go out and buy a physical copy of a newspaper.

Kenalyn: For us, there’s a lot of different opinions and takes being spread on one issue, while before I imagine there was less variety in things to read and consume about one topic. Rapid updates and media makes it necessary to filter through what we’re given and I think we have to be more careful and selective than our parents. Also just being more digitised now than before, and I imagine for some of our generation, we get more attached/picky on who we listen to, watch and read sources from, based on that person’s opinions (for example, listening to a specific person’s radio show or reading a blog). I think the readership, sometimes unknowingly, gets attached more to their source on a more personal level.

What do you think could be improved to make news more reliable/consistent across political boundaries and national borders?

Grace: There’s no way to eliminate bias completely, but I do feel like international news is generally reported in a way that reinforces stereotypes people hold about the country. For example, news of US school shootings is always very dramatically reported on in British sources.

Sasha: In the UK specifically, I think the advice of the Leveson inquiry in 2012 should have been enacted. Generally speaking I don’t know, because making it easier for people to sue newspapers is a good way of dealing with the harassment that can be seen by the tabloid press… but it also makes it easier for rich individuals orcompanies to attack news sources that publish articles showing corruption.

Anonymous: I think there should probably be more checks on the reliability of the sources that news providers use and less polarising language used that gives people certain impressions before they even have the chance to read the full story.

Kenalyn: Less bias, fewer opinions… and then I think news should first cater to that country’s citizens and issues within, but still have an international awareness.

For a more international spin, I also asked Belgian postgraduate student Laurens Calcoen for his take on the differences between Belgian and British news.

“I think Belgian news is quite similar to international news. There is a very diverse range of newspapers (cultural, economic, fashion etc). Belgian news is, however, more axed toward European news for obvious reasons.” he says.

I see myself as slightly left of centre (slightly conservative in comparison with other Canadian 18-24 year olds, but unnervingly liberal for my Albertan, oil-and-gas business family), and I generally get my news from The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC. Every once in a while, I’ll check in with The Globe and Mail, but not much changes in Canadian news.

We are living in the first age where it is possible to get high-quality news from nearly every location and political standpoint. It may take some effort to sift through the vast amounts of information we have to work with, but if we do, we will be equipped with information that simply wasn’t available to past generations. Finding the truth, or at least our own truth, is our privilege and, cliche as it may be, our responsibility as global citizens



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