Our traditional role as news/information consumers is to be at the back of the human centipede, patiently waiting our turn to get twice-digested titbits rather than be allowed a look at the good stuff ourselves. But that's changing.
The longstanding view of citizens and information goes like this: You don't really understand this; you need to have it explained to you in terms you can understand, and which are understandable to the lowest common denominator; you probably have a short attention span; and we're going to have to hold your hand and walk you through this. Facts get chewed up, digested and mangled by the people who spin them first; then they go through another set of distortion and agenda-driving, partly to correct for the first set of distortion but also to add new distortion, and then you're allowed to see them. And you're forced to consume what you're meant to, unable to look at the source material for yourself and make your own decisions.
The Wikileaks Afghanistan revelations might one day be looked back upon as the turning point for the balance of power in information - though even then, newspapers were turned to as a way of redacting the data and trying to provide a narrative, rather than just bombarding the proles with the pure facts. But the existence of Wikileaks, and that approach to information, could become a powerful way of tipping the balance of power in information towards the reader rather than the writer. Whether that's a good thing or not, whether we can really handle the truth or not, whether we're willing to do the effort or not, and whether we actually prefer to hear someone else's view of the truth rather than see it for ourselves, is not yet clear. But things are changing.
One of the things I found so interesting about blogs, which actually got me blogging in the first place, was the way in which so much more information is available to us now. Whereas previously you'd suspect that a newspaper might be telling porkie pies about something, but couldn't be bothered to spend half your life in a dusty library finding out whether that was true or not, now the proof is readily at hand. You can go straight to the source material yourself, instantly, and see for yourself. It's pretty liberating. You can see which quotes have been taken out of context, which facts have been carefully ignored, and which quotes or facts have been hammered into shape to fit the desired narrative.
Of course what that should mean is that journalism would improve - that when reporters and editors and so on know that they can be checked out by their punters, a more tech-savvy audience than before who are less believing of the media than at any time and who often have a curiosity to check things out themselves, then it's more important than ever to get things right. Unfortunately, this more ready availability of stuff has happened at the same time as vast cutbacks in all media, meaning there simply aren't the resources there once were.
There's that, and there's also a suspicion that a lot of the dead-tree press simply don't care whether what they print is accurate or not, or whether it can be proved wrong or not, because 'they know their readers' and they know the kinds of stories that they think flog papers - it doesn't matter, then, whether immigration really is a massive problem, because the readers think it is, so that's what the story is. Does it matter that the raw facts don't say that? Well, you've got one multi-million-pound industry shouting their version of the facts on the one hand, and one or two easily dismissed hobbyists on the other. It's obvious who's got the most clout. And that won't change any time soon. But still, things are shifting.
The Prime Ministerial debates, for example, were the press at their worst. A lot of them - the Tory flag-flying papers - were simply trying to tell you that you'd not seen what you'd seen. David Cameron was declared as the clear winner of the first and second debates, when the reality of the polls was very different. There's that disconnect between what you've been told you saw, and what you actually saw. It's the same when you read the match report of a football game that you've been to - sometimes that version doesn't match up with the one in your head; sometimes that's because you were both biased, and sometimes it's because people see things in different ways. But at least you have that version in your head to compare. When you're reading a report about a distant war, or a political story that you're not connected with, or some other event where you haven't seen first-hand what's going on, you're relying on the journalist to be accurate and fair. That doesn't always mean they will be, of course.
It sucks to be at the back of the human centipede. You want to unstitch your mouth and get on with life. It's not that easy, of course, and newspapers and other media provide clarity and insight - and manage to unearth stories that might not be revealed otherwise, through their investigations. But I think consumers' attitudes are changing. People are much more cynical about what they read nowadays, because there are so many sources of information - and so many ways to try and get to the bottom of a story yourself, rather than waiting it to be spoon-fed to you by someone else, who might have their own agenda, or whose employer might have their own agenda.
What's exciting about where we are now is that it's a place where information is becoming ever more available to everyone. The level of control over information is changing. Consumers are challenging the established and outdated view that some things are too complicated for mere readers to understand, and that it's best if you just let the professionals sift through it on your behalf. People are more aware than ever that they can challenge these views, and find stuff out for themselves. It will never replace quality investigative journalism, of course, but I don't think we have a choice as to whether that stays around or not; it may well fade away anyway, whether we like it or not.
Time to break free of the human centipede, then. Unstitch your mouth from the news anus and get out there yourself. For a lot of people that's a terrifying situation, and we plebs really can't be trusted - we can't handle the truth. But I don't see it that bleakly at all.