The Search For Truth And Meaning In Media Analysis: Reflections on Connections, Evaluation, Context

Author: A. Hannah Spadafora

Recently, I posted a copy of an activity I used to teach in The Shared Classroom forum within The Human Chat section of The Conscious World. For this activity, students evaluated media productions—what stories are being told? To what intent and effect? By who and for whom? Is it true? Is it not fully true, or questionable, but meaningful and still valuable to study? [Alongside the important question for class objectives: Does it connect with a bunch of concepts they learn about in the class?]

Image Source: Unsplash

The Conscious Critic is intended to be a section for media reviews, but media reviews of what kind? Every idea has been delayed so far due to the complex unpacking that deconstruction of any performance requires. We live in a world that is multilayered and interconnected, but also in a world where information sources intended as straight-facts or pointed commentary or satirical ruse or imaginative retelling, as well as may be capable of deception, prone to flawed reasoning, or misinformed. Evaluation is no short task.

The first essential questions to ask thus are: What kind of media is it? Is it intending to be informative, persuasive, comparative? What forms of evidence does it draw on—first hand/direct, second hand/indirect? What kind of publication is it—newspaper, web, magazine, academic article, Facebook meme post? All of these require different standards for the goal, form, and content they present, and thus may be evaluated quite differently from each other. Some strive for plain facts to be delivered, so much as that is possible; others are rooted in evaluating the evidence and taking a stand. Op-ed magazine pieces are, unlike the strictly informative articles of news sites, meant to engage audiences with perspective, point of view, and/or nuanced evaluation of information presented by multiple sources, strung together into the story of overall phenomena characterizing connected events.

Even in cases where an author presents the intention to just deliver facts, these facts and evaluations of evidence can and are themselves often touched by some level of subjectivity—is it a terrorist or a freedom fighter, a welfare queen or a struggling mother, a woman introduced under her own credentials or so-and-so’s wife, daughter, sister? Does the speaker’s background or worldview influence their connection to a subject—can the self-proclaimed conservative Christian who created a Udemy Course on 'Why Buddhism is False?' be claimed to provide objective information?

This brings us to bigger questions. Is there objective information, since all information is filtered through human eyes and related through human language and molded by human hands? And a more answerable question (maybe) (maybe not, with technology): How do we know what is true? And at what point do we set aside the question of truth, and just approach the meaning stories people tell about their lives, histories, ideas, and communities (true or not)?

Secondary source vetting has its’ own complications. Major news networks and officially funded organizations of impartial devotions are front-line reliable places to find larger breaking stories. Scientific studies and scholarly papers also often have greater weight behind them than more simplistic reporting. That being said, there are many smaller scale publications who utilize valid sources, vet their sources, and present valid stories to the world—from direct news to more sly satire to perspectived op-ed pieces. Discounting all news outside of the major networks may overlook events at a more local scale. Further, the use of non-official channels—from hand printed zines to more formal online publications—has long been used as a form of protest. There is a critique of the media by some marginalized groups to be the ‘fourth branch of the government’—reporting that claims objectivity but ultimately maintains the status quo by cherry picking the stories covered and often has unacknowledged slant.

Next in the consideration of truth, philosophical systems of critical thinking stress the need to avoid fallacies. These falsities in argument are great guides to evaluating claims for valid method-of-argumentation sake. The ad hominin fallacy is a good reminder to not attack a person during an argument rather than address the claims they make. There are limits, however, to the helpfulness of removing a person from what they believe in. It is a critique from anthropology, gender, race, and other identity studies that there is no objective news or information, and that it is better to search for, acknowledge, and own your subjectivity than to claim that your background doesn’t affect the way you think or that you didn’t grow with certain preconceived notions. It is not irrelevant that someone who is prejudiced against immigrants supports the use of deportation or torture. It is particularly telling if business men profiting off loose regulation are vocal in dismissing exploitation, environmental degradation, or low pay in discussion of worker’s rights. It’s not irrelevant that ideas in literature and philosophy influence social and political conversations while the ‘canon’ that most people get in school or early college regardless of their later ambitions is populated by works primarily written by authors sharing gender, race, national origins, home area of the world, age range, and other diverse or marginalized voices are given limited to no platform.

The idea that a publication with a slant is a problem is only a problem if you don’t care to listen to other views—most of these aren’t meant to provide informative writing, so much as they are offering an evaluative framework based on principles central to the cause they support for events that are occurring. The key to truly listening to an argument is knowing precisely what is being said, to being able to reconstruct the argument with authenticity—though, as most scholars know, great debate often ensues among scholars equally convinced their interpretation of the same dead text that never changes its precise wording has quite different meaning. Walking the line of how to read and write about other’s writing, performance, or expressive production requires knowing what medium you’re writing for.

When I was teaching, if I was asking my students to write a paper, I required they list specifics, be detailed, and don’t gloss anything over or assume the reader knows. In the classroom, too much quotation feels intellectually lazy. Some students like to overquote because it serves as page filler; then they don’t have to learn to paraphrase things into their own words and cite seamlessly into the writing. A good rule I carry on from a former teacher is: ‘You should paraphrase, unless something is too beautiful or precise to say it any other way’ [without losing significant meaning in summarizing or synthesizing the mention into the work.] Not everyone agrees; as always, much rests on context—in looking at ethnography or first-hand journalist stories, quotes may make the story, it being irresponsible to not quote or paraphrase too much, lest you change the meaning of what is meant from direct sources or lose the main voices that are essential to the story.

This is also true in academic work that is specifically responding to the written work of other authors. Opinion pieces may examine evidence but ultimately are serving as a response to it; on this site, sources are linked. Writing for the web, we sometimes link in other stories without providing the details in the same article unless they are directly relevant to the story being told; it’s a ‘there-if-you-want-it’ source or related story of interest for readers to explore if they are unfamiliar with the topic brought up or wanting to know more on sources consulted. Context matters. Ultimately, something we must confront when doing second hand research is the need to trust or to understand those who do first hand research. Journalism, anthropology, and philosophy take different routes to finding truth.

In journalism, truth statements of people you talk with must be fact checked via data collection, fact verification, and reliance on trustworthy sources. For journalists, direct sources can be easier or tougher to check, depending on if these direct sources are people who you’d have to chase down and ask questions to ascertain validity or if these direct sources are publicly available, say, checking to see that something reported as trending on twitter is actually doing so by checking twitter’s trending feed directly. The advent of ‘fake news’ is a strange absurdity—moreso because most times the words ‘fake news’ are engaged, it is a denial from conservative sources and Donald Trump of something that is real news. This is confounded by the pick up of the term of those on the left to denote pseudoscientific publications, false news channel mimic sites, and uncited stories claiming authority.

This points to yet another issue. Not all scholarly and research sources of information are equal. Simply being on google scholar does not make something more valid. If you are not steeped in the changes of a discipline that have taken place over time, there is a possibility of falling for outdated work or pseudoscience that has since been disproved. The McKeown thesis (1998) often cited from the 1970s—still—saying that maybe diet and nutrition did more for the world than medical advances or vaccines has been challenged and disproven by many over time, but it technically is a peer reviewed paper in a journal you can still find today. The acceptance of direct source information without consideration of author background or field critiques of the author’s work—the other side(s)—is an un-studious, flimsy place to stop at. That said, there are things we give more weight to—expertise, replicability, other forms of evidence. But again, how do we sort evidence, or reports of evidence?

In website vetting processes, it’s customary to look at whether there is an address, personal listed, when the site was last updated, links to accreditation, testimonial quotes, images, and if the site is functional, safe, and informative in a way that provides specifics; also, if the writing makes sense and isn’t just some generic text that fills space. Businesses may be checked via sites like better business bureau, manta, or state public licensing records. The thing is, someone can make a site with all these things, so it’s necessary to click on the links. The other thing is, someone can have a site lacking these things, and still be legitimate; a non-money making online magazine or forum may not have a physical address; an early days publication may not yet have testimonials; and some non-profits are notorious for disorganization in terms of professional presentation online (and generally, in practice, though there is a gradual rising of standards for non-profits to business-like practices the more money takes over everything, much like schools becoming businesses.)

Again, context and intent of investigation matters; there are other questions than truth to debate when evaluating performance, visual media, or speech. In philosophy, the questions range from what is true (metaphysics) to how do we know the things we believe to be true/what is the source of our knowledge (epistemology) to what is meaningful (existentialism) to what is good (ethics) to what is beneficial for society (social-political) to what truths are contingent on global-local experiences (continental) to what can be found to be true through reason, observation, etc. (logic) to what is beautiful (aesthetics.) Anthropologists search for evidence in different ways, depending on the subfield they practice within; physical anthropologists (biological, archaeological anthropologists) look for tangible proof, investigating the physical world—our bodies, our built environments, the things we produce—from acquisition of material to production to distribution to use to disposal (to unburial/reburial, sometimes) while social cultural anthropologists study people via interviews, focus groups, network analysis, participant observation, official/historical document study, and/or comparative studies of an issue or institution across different cultural settings/locations—and linguistic anthropologists may study speech, text, or symbolic communication—past or present. These are very different types of evidence seeking, but they feed each other; if a society believes in starving it’s poor, it will show on the bones. A wealthy country feasts; a poor country faces famine, an unequal country does both, depending on where people live, which often translates to a separation of burial space. If a treatable or vaccine-preventative disease breaks out, it says something about either the value of or access to treatment for the affected population.

In this time of evaluation, found artifacts, remains, and edifices are put through replicable scientific processes based on observable principles found in the natural world—precise (or sometimes precise-ish) ways of measuring and evaluating rates of decay and conditions of changed states to provide more information on people via everything humans leave behind as time passes. These aren’t just objects though; they are stories, and the truth of these stories is also held in the people featured in them as much as the researcher or reading audience.

In social-cultural studies and journalism alike, truth statements of people you talk with or sources used may be fact checked, but for ethnographic conversations particularly, there’s something more to be gained than truth; sometimes the truth value of what our participants tell us is irrelevant to the goal of learning something about the way people in the studied community think. Setting aside veracity of what’s being said can yield valuable information about what significance the story has to the speaker. This is why anthropologists can set aside their own beliefs during research, much like journalists, with the goal of not wanting to affect others answers and to truly get to know people outside of any context of them feeling judged or evaluated rather than heard and understood for the things that matter to them. I don’t have to believe in the same thing as participants to believe that they believe in it, and to hold respect for that in sincere attempt to understand how that belief helps them guide their lives or shapes their interpretation of occurring events.

This is why, in short (long), every human event and speech and performance are multilayered, interconnected, made up of our physical selves, our built worlds, and the stories we create—whether these be informative, opinionated, creative, informed. Seeking truth, meaning, and significance is why listening is so important--sometimes to songs within songs, sometimes to an ensemble of voices, and often across a lot of noise.

Hannah Spadafora is the founder and editor of The Conscious World, and a researcher currently focused on economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) She is trained as an applied social cultural anthropologist (M.A.) with a heavy background in social political philosophy (B.A.), comparative religion (B.A.), English (minor), psychology (minor), and journalism/mass media (HS), and has experience across the ground level of office, academic, publication, and service industry professions. Previous research projects have focused on justice and human rights, and music fandom. Former classes taught include introduction to anthropology's four subfields (biological, archaeological, social-cultural, linguistic) and student success/first year program classes; these featured themed content on history, performance, ethics, imperialism, biographies, media, and contemporary events. Manuscripts in the works include a fantasy/sci-fi influenced dystopian novel series, as well as non-fiction writing projects on Buddhist/anthropological ethics and public policy; visual anthropology and community performance; and a more informal funny/self-help centered book, How to Fail at Buddhism.  These are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly. 

Article: The search for truth and meaning in media analysis: Reflections on connections, evaluation, context Column: The Conscious Critic

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