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Allan BonnerThe expression that beauty, or art, is in the eye of the beholder means that it’s the viewer who decides. The same is true of the beholder of news stories.

More simply, new research shows us, again, that news consumers see what they want to see. The latest research data comes from the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Before this current war, there was also violence, conflict, and academic study. There were also ideological divisions, with a portion of the “Russia-leaning” Ukrainian population hoping to rebuild relations with Russia while rejecting their own government’s legitimacy.

The research by Joanna Szostek of Royal Holloway, University of London, also shows that “rational individuals purposefully decide what to watch or read based on personal needs, interests, or predispositions.” Many want their own opinions reinforced. Other strong factors in news consumption are the time available, convenience, and the “social or family environment.”

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For me, this all means that if you watch the news in a union hall, university common room, fundamentalist Church basement, or gun club, you’re going to have some other strong influences besides the actual news. When the media outlet and content agree with the opinions of the particular audience, the news is considered credible. The news is incredible if there’s disagreement – cognitive dissonance.

There are other divides. Regular people have “everyday” ways of describing their experiences in conflict zones, which are often quite different from the descriptions that elites use. Think of how wars from Vietnam to the Gulf to Afghanistan were described on American TV channels versus the experiences of civilians amid those conflicts.

And how discerning are news consumers? Not very. Szostek’s research found that many consumers favour the news on the channel playing their favourite soap opera or a movie. News media consumption might result from “one-off decisions taken years ago – such as the choice of an Internet browser, a home page …” or bookmarking a website. Up to half of news consumers may just browse spontaneously and don’t really care about the source of information. Many others get mad at coverage and opt-out.

What do we say is the solution to a polarized electorate and strident, partisan media? I hear the phrase “Do your research” – mainly from people who have not done much research. That may not be a solution, though.

In this study, the Russia-leaning group “accessed sources linked to the Russian state that are associated with deliberately misleading reporting.” So, the advice to engage in “cross-checking” advocated by those who promote media literacy does not necessarily lead to media literacy.

As a potentially civil society, we have a lot more work to do than advocate media literacy, research, and education. It may, in fact, be those very things that got us into our polarized and angry state.

Allan Bonner was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book is Emergency! – a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.

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