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Fishing For Truth: Consuming News Responsibly

By Natasha Baulis, Researcher, Maxim Institute*

Our collective noses have been crinkling at the distinct whiff of something not quite right in the press for some time now, but this week has been a particular corker for unveiling some fishy elements of the NZ media. RNZ has unwittingly acted as a Kiwi branch of the Russian propaganda machine, Stuff reporting has been off-balance, and TVNZ is pulling the Hitler card. There are many good media professionals working hard to sort out the polluted pond, but what can we do in the meantime?

At times like these, I turn to my trusty field guide on fallacious fishes, and I thought I would share a few of the most common culprits with you. So pull on your waders and grab your rods; we’re going to take a look at some basic principles on what to reel in and what to chuck back in the murky blue depths of political reporting.

Arguing that something is true because a particular person or media outlet reported it is an example of a Latin fish called Ad Verecundiam or “appeal to authority.” Just because a purported Reuter’s or BBC article says it doesn’t make it true. It could, in fact, be propaganda dressed in Reuter scales. Always interrogate your catch and verify facts with other sources.

Check for slanting. This virulent infection has spread through schools of journalism—shaping the tone of the article to reflect the reporter's bias and influence the way you respond to the facts provided. Consider the difference between “only 600 protestors” and “a crowd of 600 protestors.”

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A fleet of little fishes all agreeing with one another does not a scientific consensus make, as Stuff has found out this week in its failed attempt to use Ad Populum (appeal to the masses) to convince the NZ Media Council that they didn’t need to provide both sides of the argument in their article on puberty blockers. Always check that you hear both sides of the story; if the particular source you are tuning into only appears to present unified voices, throw out a wider net.

Finally, if a fish quotes Hitler, outside the context of World War II, abandon ship. Cushla Norman’s Lebensborn reference was a collective catch of red herring (irrelevant points distracting from the argument), loaded question (asking a question to which there is no acceptable answer), genetic fallacy (undermining an argument by reference to unsavoury characters who may have held a similar view) and strawman (creating an effigy of an argument in order to dispute it) among others.

There are a great many more fallacious fish in the sea. Fortunately, there are some excellent resources out there to help us to identify them. If we can become better consumers of the news, we can protect ourselves against inaccuracy and manipulation.

The media are responsible for providing accurate and balanced reporting. We are responsible for considering what is on our hook before we take it home to the kitchen.

*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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