As Phillip Davis writes (reprinted in the IMS Bulletin), scholarly authors are driven to publish in journals because that is the way to have their work noticed and readers read journals because these provide some measure of quality assurance. Davis is wrong, however, on multiple counts, when he concludes: “This system is not intended to be fair and democratic, but it saves the time of the reader and functions to help consensus building in science. For those who feel that this perpetuates hegemony, let them eat cake.”

The academic publishing system is intended to be fair; the current system (though better than nothing) performs poorly as a time saving tool for the reader; “consensus forming” (i.e., suppressing non-conventional thought) is not a legitimate function of a scientific communication channel; and, finally, there is no reason to dismiss people who are unhappy with the current system with “let them eat cake”: there is a better way to run the scholarly publishing system.

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The functions of mass media

December 30, 2008

When considering the form that democratic media could take, it is important to consider whether mass media – with its inherent potential for non-democratic effects – has any useful functions that are not anti-democratic. This question is akin to the question of whether government has any functions that are not oppressive. In an analogy to the anarchist position which claims that any governmental activity is necessarily oppressive, one could claim that the only functions of mass media are anti-democratic, i.e., those of allowing a privileged minority influence over the rest of the population. That position would claim that all mass media should be abolished (in the same way that the anarchists want to abolish government altogether) and people should rely exclusively on non-mass (or intimate) forms of media. In this view, the best that a democratic control structure over mass media could produce would be neutralizing those anti-democratic functions, leaving the entire organization useless.

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The term “censorship” describes the act of suppressing certain ideas by those who control some distribution channels. Despite regular attempts by interested parties to limit the term to describe very restricted or extreme cases of suppression of ideas, the term is usually, and very reasonably, understood to cover any attempt at reducing the circulation of an idea, by any person or organization. The negative view, which most of the population, as well as official ideology, take of censorship therefore encompasses any such activity. According to this view, the desirable media system is democratic – i.e., one which allows all people an equal opportunity at presenting their ideas and having them considered by others.

The implicit universal rejection of censorship notwithstanding, much of the communication patterns that dominate Western society are inherently censoring activities. The members of the elite group that influences (to varying degrees) the content of wide circulation media – publishers, broadcasters, advertisers, editors and reporters – routinely make decisions that amount to suppressing some communications, containing certain ideas, in favor of other communications, containing different ideas. Those decisions, although usually purporting to reflect only objective accepted standards, are in reality almost completely subjective. They therefore reflect the ideas and biases of the very select and atypical group of people who make them.

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Objectivity in journalism

October 20, 2008

I was never a strict believer in objective journalism, the best definition of which I heard from a photographer in Little Rock who told me, “Before I go out to take a picture of someone, I just stop at the city desk and say, ‘Do you want him gazing out toward the sunset or picking his nose?'”

Calvin Trillin

Sources: 1, 2. Referred to in a comment on the blog Crooked Timber.

ORB vs. IFHS in U.S. Media

February 1, 2008

On January 28th, the British polling firm Opinion Research Business (ORB) released an update (via Deltoid) of their previous study estimating violent deaths in post invasion Iraq. The update claims to confirm the previous findings, that about one million Iraqis have died violently following the U.S.-British invasion.

Today, about 3 days later, there are 91 hits on Google News for the combination “opinion research business”+iraq (counting duplicates). The one major mainstream U.S. outlet among the 91 is Reuters. At the same time, searching for articles covering the three weeks old release of the IFHS study shows 295 hits (using the combination iraq+”new england journal of medicine”+151000 OR 150000, and counting duplicates), with all the major mainstream U.S. new outlets represented (The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, CBS, USA Today).

Another matter: There is much of interest in the ORB study. Detailed tables give various breakdown statistics: 17% of households surveyed experienced at least one violent death; in Baghdad, that proportion is 36%; of the violent deaths 40% were by gunshot. It would be interesting to compare (in a different post) some of the data to what is available in the IFHS.

Whatever is beyond our senses is not self evident. Much of the information about the non-self evident world is distributed through mass media. This, clearly, raises the possibility of manipulation, or at the very least, bias. The public is very much aware of this possibility – only about 25% of Americans state that their level of trust in newspapers and television is “a great deal” or “quite a lot”, with the rest opting for “some”, “very little” or “none”. The level of confidence has fallen over the years – 15 years ago the percentage of people with confidence in mass media was above 30.

The problem, however, is that there are many things about which there are no readily available alternative sources of information. The only simple alternative to trusting all the information in the mass media is therefore not trusting any of it. Trusting some of it and not trusting the rest is difficult because there is no easy way to distinguish between the credible and the suspect.