I will be very happy if we ever reach a time when people are no longer naïve enough to say: ‘It must be true, I read it in the newspaper’, but I am not holding my breath. While complete falsehoods and fabrications may well be the exception, opinions being expressed as facts is a very common phenomenon. And, of course, even when factual information is presented, how it is presented can be very significant. For example, consider the difference between: ‘The team achieved an impressive success rate of 82%, a slight improvement on last year’s major achievement of 81%’ with ‘The team failed in almost 1 in 5 cases for the second year running’. The facts are the same, but how they are delivered is very different, of course. Presenting information in a written form (especially to a mass audience) is not a politically neutral or value-free undertaking.
But it isn’t just newspapers that this applies to. The written word tends to have more power and influence than the spoken word in most situations. Putting something in writing can deliver the message more forcefully and therefore more effectively in the majority of situations. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we are not allowing the written word to influence us unduly.
For example, I have many years’ experience of teaching critical thinking skills to students and, in doing so, impressing upon them the importance of not taking texts at face value, of being prepared to look beneath the surface, to examine assumptions and so on. But what I have found in those situations is a significant proportion of students who struggle with this and, when asked why they are finding it so difficult, their responses have indicated that they did not feel confident enough to challenge the authority of the written word. Sadly, this opens the door to all sorts of abuses, as it means that anyone who has the wherewithal to get their views into print has a degree of power that needs to be scrutinised (in the sense that all use of power needs to be open to scrutiny in a democratic society), which escapes such scrutiny because of this tendency to assume that the written word is not to be questioned.
Writing something down does not make it ‘the truth’, but nor can we assume that it isn’t true either – these things need to be weighed up carefully, with neither undue reverence, nor undue cynicism. As in so many things, it is a matter of balance.
The advent of the internet has made this even more of a pressing issue, as far more people now have the opportunity to make what they write available to a wider audience (as is reflected in the problem of ‘trolling’ that has caused so much pain and distress for so many people). This means that we need to be especially sceptical about what we read online and especially careful in questioning its validity and verifying its source. It is all too easy for people to use the internet to put their views in writing in biased, distorted and potentially harmful ways – that is, to use the power of the written word in illegitimate ways. Communication is power in action, and so we need to make sure, as far as we can, that such power is used in legitimate ways.
This isn’t about being paranoid, it is about being sensible, using our intelligence to ensure that the power of the written word is not being allowed to create problems for us or for others.