04 March 2019

Unformation #nlpoli

Changes in the news media,  changes in the audience, and changes in what information organizations provide to the pubic have created the Unformation Age.  Information  -  facts, figures, data - is less important than unsubstantiated opinion assembled to serve a temporary purpose and often lacking coherence over time. This is the abandonment of  a common means of assembling information coherently that affects all aspects of society.  
"Deep Dive" is the name that Saltwire gives to its new series that is supposed to give readers more information on specific topics that are of concern across the Atlantic Canada.  

The series gives Saltwire a way to produce unique content using all its resources in Atlantic Canada, thereby lowering the burden on any one newsroom.  Saltwire hopes the Deep Dives will generate new income for the chain. In future, Deep Dives will be accessible only to subscribers.  The rest of us will be blocked by a paywall.  

It's a business model that has worked successfully at major newspapers, which have either halted declining revenue from subscriptions using paywalls or seen revenue growth to offset the losses from the old cash-cow advertising.

It might work.  The real question is whether Saltwire will produce the content that will make readers dig into their pockets.

So that makes you wonder how deep is the deep dive?

Dipping our toes in the sea of information... for a price

Well, the first instalment of the immigrants dive consisted of a lot of quotes in big fonts, a few short stories of individual experiences, and one longer piece that presumably was the meat of the whole thing.

All 700 words of it.  A quote and a few sentences from someone in each of the four provinces and a few more sentences to open, knit them together, and wrap up.  Doesn't take much.

To give you a perspective on what 700 words is, that’s roughly the length these days of a typical  daily piece in the Telegram summarising a witness' testimony at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry.  In the Globe and Mail on Saturday,  a piece on the growing numbers of students at Canadian universities from India compared to China ran about 1,000 words. A background summary on the Huawei controversy was over 1,600 words. This post is a little over 3,000 words.

Seven hundred words is not much.

That short length isn't new.  The print editions at the Telly are thinner - there's not as much in them as there used to be - and the pieces on each page don't have as much information in them compared to a decade or two ago. That's the understandable result of the drop-in ad revenue due to declining readership for much of the last decade, especially for weekday editions, coupled with the increased costs of printing.

That trend toward shorter and shorter pieces carries over to electronic editions, where editors can offset the trend to include less background or context in a story by using links to related content. All that other content, though, is usually from the same paper and is frequently just as thin as the stuff the links are attached to.  The result is that readers can do a lot of clicking in order to come up with only slightly more information than they started out with.

It's not just that pieces are shorter these days, nor is the Telly the only newspaper to go through this evolution.  A 2018 study by Public Policy Forum looked at newspapers in 20 small and mid-sized communities across Canada.  PPF found that the number of stories on legislatures, courts, and city hall fell by 36% between 2008 and 2017.  The quality of articles dropped in four out of the five indicators used by PPF.  The biggest drop - 7% - was in the presentation of opposing views in a single piece.  The next biggest drop - 6% - was in the use of illustrative examples.


While newspapers have been shifting how they cover stories, governments and businesses have shifted their approach to communication with the public as well. Facts, figures, and detail - basic information  - are less important especially in government communications.  In their place are bland statements of good intentions or claims that whatever is being announced is the fulfillment of a major  - and beneficial - promise. They want you to remember the positive claim, not the actual detail.  A decade ago, SRBP started calling this uncommunication because it is the opposite of what communication is supposed to be about.  "Uncommunication actually leaves the recipient in worse shape - at least with respect to facts, data and knowledge - than if he or she knew nothing at all."

The 2018 tax policy review committee found what happens when these separate trends - less information from government, less informative news stories, and fewer of them on important public issues - come together.  In a survey it commissioned, the committee found that between 85 and 90% of respondents were unaware of basic information like how money the government spent per person each delivering services,  how much of taxes collected into the province went to each level of government, or how much the government spent and how much it collected in revenue annually.  This result was in a province where for the preceding two years, the major public issue had been the precarious state of public finances.

Fox News CTV Vancouver and drugs

That isn't the only transformation that has been taking place.  In the competition for audience and hence for the revenue audiences can generate, newsrooms frame entire stories to garner attention based on whatever biases and prejudices exist in the audience and, in many cases, within the newsroom itself.

A recent CTV Vancouver story reported that "while prisoners can get free drugs, some patients [that is people not in jail] must fight with [British Columbia] provincial health administrators for full coverage or partially fund their own medication."  

The problem with the story is it isn't true.  The simplistic frame is designed to appeal to people who already believe that the public is suffering while government wastes money, in this case on murderers and rapists. CTV didn't show the government *is* wasting money.  There's nothing in the piece about the usefulness of the drugs in treating illness, whether it avoids other health-related expenses for government, the legal issues involved, that some of the drugs are needed to treat the results of social and health problems both inside prisons and outside prisons as well.  There are actually very few facts, in other words, to back up the claim about overspending in the prisons system on drugs.

The story just relies on the pre-loaded bias. There's even a partisan quote to go with that bias, even though there's no objective reason for the political quote to be in the story. "'I think Canadians would think it's unfair prisoners are getting expensive drugs paid for when many people are struggling and going bankrupt just trying to care for their loved ones,' said Conservative Party health critic Marilyn Gladu."

If there are such Canadians, though, they are very few and readily available facts confirm it. A December 2017 report from the Conference Board of Canada found that 95% of Canadians have access to either public or private prescription drug coverage.  British Columbia has one of the most generous and well-managed programs in the country.  It is very quick to approve new drugs on the market once they are approved by Health Canada and the BC Pharmcare program is also very aggressive in substituting generic drugs that have the same medicinal effect but at a far lower cost than branded drugs. For the same reason - maximum medical impact at optimum cost - the drug program also covers both biologic treatments and so-called bio-similars that are supposed to produce similar effects.

That detail isn't in the CTV story, and in this case, it's crucial to understanding there’s either no story here or one that doesn't involve prisoners at all. The young man whose parents are featured in the story is in the news because they refused to accept from the provincial drug plan a biologically similar version of the medication their son needs. He's actually got prescription drug coverage and access to both versions of a drug that will treat his illness successfully.  They just don't agree with with the amount of coverage available.

The result is not that viewers have false or inaccurate information that will deceive them.  The deception doesn't appear to be intentional:  in other words, it doesn't look like they are misinformedBut there's no doubt they will be left with a false understanding of this controversy, drug plans in British Columbia, and anything related to health care in federal prison.  The public received highly selective information on two separate issues in a way that in effect fabricates a context that does not actually exist.

No on-board memory

This is likely not just a matter of laziness or of something as simple as partisan bias. There seems to be something in this CTV story that ties to a wider trend.  SRBP first wrote in 2008 about a shift in the way people read. The owner of a used book store in Kingston, Ontario noted the change in his business.  The people who were once the students who bought his books are now the people who are replenishing his inventory as he retires.  What's changed is the number of young people coming through the door.  They just aren't buying books the way they used to.  Their relationship to books and to ideas has shifted.

People generally aren't reading like they used to.  "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” Nicholas Carr wrote in The Atlantic in 2008 describing the phenomenon that was novel at the time. "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."  Carr thought that the growing popularity of the Internet and mobile devices was changing not only what we read and how much we read but *how* we read.  He wrote:
Over the past few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

But something else changed as well.  Our attitude to knowledge and information has shifted with the new technology of the Internet and ready access to enormous amounts of information in different forms and formats.

Christine McWebb is a professor of French studies at the Stratford campus of the University of Waterloo. "I've been teaching for almost 20 years now,” she told CBC's Cross-country Check-up in 2017.  "I would say that some of the previous callers have said that students do find it hard to do extensive research. I find that has changed. They like to go to the results immediately. So, they put in their search phrases on Google and they go directly to, let's say a certain paragraph, and skip the rest of the article because it may not be relevant to what they're doing."  They read fiction in printed books, according to McWebb, but their university research tended to be the product of taking only the few paragraphs or sentences related to their topic and nothing more.

It's an approach that meshes neatly with observations by American playwright Richard Foreman, whom Carr had also quoted.  In 2001, Foreman suggested that people North Americans generally had traded the retention of knowledge internally for the ability to retrieve needed data from external sources quickly.  He did not use the term but Foreman's thought foreshadowed the idea of the Internet as a cloud in which to store information. 

"Today,” said Foreman, "I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the 'instantly available'. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become 'pancake people'—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button."

Pancake people, as Foreman colourfully called them, do not need to know anything at all. They can find the information electronically at the moment they need it.  Combine this with McWebb's observation and you quickly arrive at a world in which people assemble fragments of information that relate to one another only by virtue of whatever information and method both the searcher and the search engine used to find specific pieces of information. The only context they have is the one given to them by the searcher. They may have little or no awareness of  metadata  - information about the information  - and the notion that the way the information is stored and retrieved by the computer program affects what one is seeing.

What is convenient to believe

In modern universities, students whose research and writing follow that approach are likely to encounter professors whose own philosophy is equally rooted in the personal and the present.

A recent collection of essays on indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, expressly rejected the idea that one should construct an accurate record of events built from different types of verifiable evidence that mutually reinforce one another in a systematic, logical way

Addressing Ingeborg Marshall's 1996 A history and ethnography of the Beothuck, Fiona Polack dismisses Marshall's "magisterial" work for its conclusions about the Mi'kmaq presence in Newfoundland as "blinkered by contemporary political boundaries."  Polack specifically attributes Marshall's interpretative mistakes  - that is, conclusions that are contrary to Polack's desired otucome - on her adherence to a "positivist" approach.  That is,  Marshall got it wrong - to Polack's way of thinking - because she wanted some facts and evidence to support a claim.  

While there's no small measure of hypocrisy in Polack's reference to contemporary politics - Polack's book is entirely about such things - what we should notice is the ease with which the scholars arrive at their desired outcome by rejecting the major premise of the western intellectual tradition that underpins modern knowledge. They reject science.  

In the process, they do more than breathe new life into old, popular myths about massacres of Beothuk that scholars in Newfoundland and Labrador examined and dismissed long ago primarily due to the lack of physical or documentary evidence to support them in the first place.  They create for themselves an intellectual cloud in which their desired goal can never be achieved.  As surely as they dismiss an approach that does not currently agree with their desired conclusion, they embrace a way of thinking that can never produce the political result they want.  After all, if there is no requirement for evidence,  then anyone may capriciously reject their view even if archaeology or some other evidence emerged that supported one or another of their claims about the presence of Mi'kmaq people in Newfoundland before the arrival of Europeans.  If we abandon a shared intellectual framework within which to create a shared understanding, the result can only be chaos.


Either of these factors taken individually might not amount to much.  Shortened news stories are not an issue if there are other sources of information that readily provide context and background to anyone looking for them.  But when government - taking probably the most significant example in society - is also providing less basic information than it once did, there is not as much background for someone to find.

The shift from print to electronic reading is meaningless in itself except for the future of paper.  What makes the difference is the fragmentation of information in which books and essays are regarded as nothing more than elements that may be reassembled for a highly individualized and passing need. 

That passing need may not be a problem if there was a shared framework or frameworks that provided some coherence to the fragments.  But that intellectual armature too has been eroded steadily for the past two decades by the notion that all propositions are equally valid.  

This is the triumph of egocentrism, the victory of subjectivity over anything else.  It is built on the notion that an individual view - labelled not only as truth itself but as "my" truth - is supreme. 
This is the world in which alternative facts and fake news thrive. 

To combat these ideas, some journalists contend that newsrooms must become ruthless advocates of facts.  Jennifer Maguire and Michel Cormier argue in  "The public broadcaster's role in the fake news era"  that the CBC's mandate to "inform, enlighten, and entertain Canadians,"  means the corporation must provide "comprehensive and critical coverage of local and provincial institutions from city hall to the courts and to legislatures."  The CBC and its journalists, the argue, have a "responsibility to be beyond reproach when it comes to credibility."    As such, they must "invest ever more in fact-checking, in-depth reporting, and investigative journalism," say Maguire and Cormier.

This is motherhood and butter tarts, to use the Canadian version that American aphorism. But it is true for not just the CBC but for media generally.  Unfortunately for Maguire and Cormier and for the rest of us, the news media are not immune to the wider social trends that create and sustain fake news and alternative facts in the first place.  As the CTV Vancouver story shows in just in one example, news media are themselves affected by the virus that has altered its DNA just as surely as it has altered the broader social matrix in which we all operate operate.  

There are other examples of this same phenomenon..  Whether we look at the accusations of bullying in the House of Assembly or of political interference in the SNC prosecution in Ottawa, every news outlet in the country has presented opinion as facts and accepted that one person's interpretation of events,  labelled "my truth", is not merely a single perspective out of which a reliable and factual understanding may be built but is the whole and complete truth.  All other views are dismissed as not merely false but malicious. 

The intellectual approach that Maguire and Cormier advocated would be very familiar to journalists once not so long ago and to academics as well.  But those days are gone. 

Donald Trump is the finest example of how these forces work together to produce the modern world of Breitbart and Fox as purveyors of reliable information.  He has no consistent world view that anyone can find.  He assembles thoughts and comments at random, often contradicting himself from hour to hour, day to day on the same subjects.  He tells his truth relentlessly, even if his truth is never the same truth twice.

American officials,  responsible for providing him with intelligence briefings daily, have decided to try economics as a language - as a perspective on the world - that he may understand.  They will likely be frustrated.  How does one put data, facts, figures - information - into a pattern that will be accepted and understood in something that works on a completely different basis, something as unformed as Donald Trump's head? One cannot any more than organizations that themselves deal less and less in facts each day can suddenly become the bulwark against fake news.

We all live in a world of unformation and must adapt to it as best we can, according to our own truth.


Revised - spelling, sentences structure, new paragraphs, new links - 01 June 2019