Creating Meaning in an Age of Disinformation

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Art by Barbara Kruger © and photo by Cathy Carver from the 2012 installation Belief+Doubt

This week I had an opportunity to be part of a conversation about mass media, disinformation and journalism with media specialists from Morocco and Africa.

I was excited to talk with an international group about issues I confronted as a Fulbright Scholar abroad last year.

For example, I read local newspapers constantly and was struck by the numbers of stories about Indigenous communities: something I rarely see in mainstream US news.

Typically the stories lacked hyperbole: Native folks were depicted as normal, rather than abnormal, and as ordinary, rather than exotic.

And while I wasn’t posted in Africa, peering outside the lens of my home country and seeing our values reflected back is an illuminating exercise.

In a similar vein, several of the speakers wanted to know how journalism is faring in the US, and we shared that—while traditional mainstream channels, such as local newspapers, are starving for advertising revenue—social media giants, such as google and facebook, are making unparalleled profits.

Although we couldn’t solve the dilemma of disinformation (outright lies) or misinformation (skewed or deceptive discourse) I learned our journalist guests from overseas find themselves in the same news cycle jam: who to trust for truth?

The Age of Disinformation Program, hosted by World Oregon, gave me a chance to hear from journalists living on a distant continent who are working diligently to offer citizens useful and factual news, often in an environment that restricts their access and entrée.

That helped me appreciate our norms of press freedom and offered a sliver of hope as we grapple with a new paradigm of social discourse.

Here’s a recap of my brief talk:

Thank you for the invitation to join you today.

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that my family and I live in Portland, Oregon, on territory that is the traditional home of Indigenous communities, including the Multnomah and the Clackamas, the Cayuse and Yakama, and many, many others.

Bonjour mesdames et messieurs. C’est un plaisir de vous rencontrer et de vous voir. J’espère en apprendre davantage sur vos propres histoires et merci d’avoir écouté la mienne.

Today I’d like to tell you a few, little stories that have shaped my understanding of communication.

We’re all here today because we’re interested in how we create meaning, and how we craft stories.

With this in mind, I’d like you to think about three items:

The Dance  (La Danse)

The Magician  (Le Magicien)

The Snake  (Le Serpent)

But first: I’d like to share with you a story.

One day my daughter—who was about six years old at the time—and I were in a small college town where we lived, and where I landed a job as a communication professor.

We had just finished having our tea and a muffin in a cozy shop.

When we walked outside, it started pouring rain.

Fortunately I had an umbrella, and we decided to head to the bus stop and go home.

While we were waiting for the bus in the rain, we were stopped by a woman who asked if she could take our picture when the bus arrived.

She identified herself as a photographer for the town newspaper.

I said sure, and asked her how she’s like me and my daughter to stand.

She said that she could not direct the picture: she could not choreograph the shot because it would be unethical.

We needed to—just be our real selves.

That moment stuck with me because the photographer was not trying to create meaning but rather capture it.

This lesson was formative in guiding my work as a communication researcher.

My job, I decided, was to investigate how we try to shape reality.

May I share three of those lessons about shaping reality with you today?

First: The Dance (La Danse)

The most effective form of communication is one-on-one, which allows two people to listen and to speak, and to have a transaction.

One scholar called interpersonal communication a dance: an appropriate metaphor, where we take turns to talk, like taking turns to dance.

Your step, my step, your step, my step.

Second: The Magician (Le Magicien)

The least effective form of communication—if you want to change attitudes or change behavior—is journalism.

All of us wish that we could write a story that would change someone’s life—for the better.

But study after study show the news media are poorly equipped to shift opinions and actions.

That said, journalism can be an excellent course of information, especially when a reader or viewer has no experience with an issue.

And number 3:

The Snake (Le Serpent)

Social media—facebook, twitter, instagram, and more—can be effective at disguising special interests behind many of the stories we read.

Like the clever snake in tales we heard as children, there is often someone or some organization or some cause that benefits from the story, whether the intent is to have you buy a product or vote for a candidate.

And sometimes the “who” behind the story is heavily disguised.

To wrap up—communication can feel like a dance, perform like a magician, or slither like a snake.

That leaves us with a question:

What is our responsibility as communicators?

My view is that, like the photographer who worked at a small-town newspaper, my responsibility is to tease out of the story and extract the purpose of the narrative.

Not invent the narrative.

Is the purpose to persuade an audience? Get them to buy a product? Is it to inform?

Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu offered a perspective on how to think about communication: something he called reflexivity.

Bourdieu encouraged us to strip bare our communication, dig down to the core of our intent and discern the real.

Be reflexive. The best we can do, he says, is to simply…tell the truth.   ###


With thanks to World Oregon

With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations























About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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