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What is your favourite source?

Access to enormous amounts of information has become the norm. Access to pertinent information that has a meaningful impact on our professional lives, and ultimately our careers, is quite another challenge, writes Walt Hawtin.

What is relevant and what is gossip?  What should I be ignoring, and what should I act upon?

My daughter is struggling to understand why the news she reads in the newspaper or sees on television is not always the ‘truth’. The truth is an important concept to a ten-year-old.  It is interesting to witness a child trying to interpret the world, while the grown-ups are, at the same time, warning her not to believe everything she reads or sees on the news.

Yet, that same information comes from the grown-up world, the world of her parents, of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and even to some extent Jesus Christ and Mohammad.

Despite our impressions, though, most of our news comes from a secondary or tertiary source. Very little authentic news is provided to us by the primary source, otherwise known as the source present at the event.

Recently, a radio conversation took place between Australian public broadcaster, Mark Colvin, and veteran journalist, Paul McGeough.  McGeough covered most of the conflicts in the Middle East from the first Iraq War in 1999 for the Sydney Morning Herald. McGeough’s insightful and pragmatic interpretation of the dramatic events he witnessed first-hand, in his years as a hotspot journalist, shone real light onto what were highly confusing, dangerous and conflicting situations. He also brought a viewpoint to Herald readers that often ran counter to governments of the day.

He was a primary source, and this made his interpretation invaluable.

Our access to news, as we have known it, has changed to such an extent that we may have, in some respects, actually regressed many years. Any of us genuinely interested in what is happening in the world are now surprisingly doing what journalists used to do for a living. That is, sifting through a range of sources in order to gain a broad and balanced insight into an event.

With few exceptions, mainstream news is now reported with poor story prioritisation, limited relevant detail, and little context.  For anyone who wishes to gain a meaningful view of a significant event, whether it be local, national or international, one must literally research across a range of self-selected source material to get anywhere near a balanced bigger picture.

Of course, this needs to be assessed in the context that public media institutions and commercial media agencies are working with diminishing operating budgets and resources, so the necessary research, journalistic rigour and thoroughness that brought the balance to a news story in the past, is no longer being achieved as effectively nowadays.  This is not true of corporate PR departments, though.

Old-school journalists did the same thing we have to do now, except we face the mass democratisation and increased availability of information and this has allowed us access to an enormous range of information resources. This also means that selecting what is relevant and accurate has become much more difficult to achieve. Misinformation is deliberately spread, for party political reasons, in the case of many western democracies and for more nefarious reasons in countries controlled by authoritarian regimes.

It could also be that unbiased information flows have always been difficult to come by; after all spin wasn’t invented by Alistair Campbell, media advisor of  former British PM Tony Blair, or Karl Rove, who advised President George W. Bush. Political and corporate spin have been with us since we first consciously formed a group of two or more people.

Any executive working within a large corporate environment, will observe how an internal or external event will be interpreted and communicated by their own company in a particular manner. The aim of most companies will be to minimise any negative connotations and maximise anything positive. The audience will have been dissected and channelled into senior executives, middle and junior executives, the remaining line staff, investors and shareholders, analysts, the business press, and sometimes the broader general public.

The potential risks of putting too much spin, or departing too far from the facts of an event, is increased greatly by the number of potential sources and channels now available, which means that a particular story can be spun slightly differently and its meaning reflected and interpreted in a completely different manner by the audience. The original message can disappear altogether. The game of Chinese whispers, where each relay-point may have its own particular agenda or value, can render the final and intended story into a meaningless state, compared with the original author’s intended message.

Journalists are no less susceptible than the rest of us to being spun by institutions, especially governments and large corporations, most of whom usually out-resource the journalist’s own employers. The challenge of disseminating and understanding news may be in our acceptance that we consume drastically increasing numbers of secondary and tertiary material. That is, material that does not come from a primary source.  Examples of these are opinion pieces in newspapers, or a radio commentator, who specialises in commenting on events of the day with a particular style that attracts audience numbers.

These sort of people are not at the source of the story or the event, and often rarely move beyond relaying an opinion that either totally resonates with, or runs totally counter to, their own beliefs. Anything in-between is just not news.

The sheer volume of reported events is increasing, thanks to the very broad availability of modern capture and dissemination technologies; camera phones, instant media uploading and publication, etc. but that just adds to the confusion.

So if we accept that most of our news comes from a secondary or tertiary source, this must mean that we will usually see a filtered and often skewed version of a given event.  That is why Paul McGeough’s pieces from Afghanistan and Iraq were invaluable for bringing an authentic, shared-values viewpoint to a western audience in Australia; an audience who, like the citizens of other US-led Coalition Forces countries, were receiving a government dominant view of their respective country’s participation in those conflicts.

Okay, so let’s accept that in relation to the Iraq War, a respected reporter like Paul McGeough, not only provides balanced and credible copy, but he also shares our collective values and reports in a way that connects with us. But would not an Iraqi-born Al-Jazeera reporter’s version have been more insightful, more authentic, during those events? Perhaps the insight would be there, but if a correspondent’s values do not connect with us, do we neutralise the message, rendering it meaningless because it does not engage us emotionally?

Our increasingly broad access to the news of local, national and world events, is going to be skewed and filtered to an extent that sometimes renders what we read and see to a meaningless stream. If we take some time to read across a range of channels and work hard to contextualise and wash out the bias that the information provider inevitably holds, while at the same time trying to get as close as possible to the primary source of our news, we may succeed in finding for ourselves some meaning and understanding of our world. A greater understanding of our world gives us invaluable insights within our working lives. We gain context, and we gain accurate and insightful information.

Understanding how information is used to influence perception is a highly valuable tool for any executive to utilise when making decisions. The more an executive understands the full context of each announcement or communication, the greater will be that person’s ability to plan and develop within a corporate environment. It takes a lot of work, but the rewards become evident quite quickly.

Read more of Paul McGeough’s output here.

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