09 Aug 2018 Affirming humanity: the challenge for communicators
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world and is located between Hawaii and California. Photo: Contributed
The other day, as part of the process of subscribing to an email list, a message appeared asking me to “affirm humanity”. Or at least that’s how I read it in the split second before realising that what it actually said was “confirm humanity”. Far from encouraging me to send positive vibes to my fellow women and men, it was prompting me to convince an automated newsletter platform that I am not a robot.
There then followed a rather queasy interlude in which, no matter how hard I peered at a dingy photograph of a suburban streetscape, I couldn’t be sure I’d identified every single segment containing a traffic light. In such moments, there is always a flicker of existential doubt: might I in fact be a machine after all?
Being asked to prove one’s humanity by means of pixels rather than molecules is just one of the many paradoxes of communication in today’s world. And ever since I was invited to contribute to this 50th anniversary edition of Media Development, and to consider how communication can shape a better world, I’ve been pondering what I could meaningfully say given the enormity of the challenges that face each one of us who believe in communication as a force for good.
At one time, my response to WACC’s invitation might have included a restatement of the value of public service broadcasting (PSB) within the communications ecosystem. In the UK, PSB is represented not only by the licence-fee-funded BBC, but also by a number of commercially funded television channels. And, despite competition from providers such as YouTube or Netflix, PSB channels continue to account for a significant proportion of UK television viewing: according to research by the communications regulator, Ofcom, in 2016 85% of individuals with a TV in their household watched a PSB channel in a typical week.
The purposes of PSB were recently summarised by Ofcom, as “informing our understanding of the world”, “stimulating knowledge and learning”, “reflecting UK cultural identity” and “representing diversity and alternative viewpoints”. Yet, admirable as those purposes are, and convinced as I am of the continuing importance of PSB and the ideals that underpin it, I have also come to believe that in today’s complex web of communications, PSB, while still relevant – necessary even – offers neither a panacea for nor a bulwark against the wider challenges we face.
My reasons for thinking this are not only because of a changed technological context – though it is undeniably the case that PSB was conceived in an age of spectrum scarcity, whereas our present time has been transformed by digital technology into an age of communications ubiquity – overload, some might say. There is, for me, also a philosophical issue at play here, which I might characterise as a growing disenchantment with the belief that there can exist “a body that is somehow removed from the corrupting loyalties and bruising skirmishes of everyday life and, therefore, able to provide a more impartial perspective” as Professor Des Freedman puts it in his carefully-argued article “Public service’ and the journalism crisis – is the BBC the answer?”.
Freedman has little sympathy for the arguments of right-wing critics of the BBC, but disputes that, “Far from retaining its independence from all vested interests and delivering a critical and robust public interest journalism, the BBC is a compromised version of a potentially noble ideal: far too implicated in and attached to existing elite networks of power to be able to offer an effective challenge to them.”
Protecting the communications ecosystem
These days I find myself largely in agreement with Freedman’s analysis. But in a world of clickbait, trolls and “fake news”, I would want to go further and contend that placing too much faith in any individual media organisation or outlet, no matter how publicly accountable, at some level involves us in delegating to others responsibility for protecting the overall communications ecosystem of which we are all a part.
To take an analogy from the physical world; there can be few people now unaware of the tide of plastic waste – an estimated 8 million tons of it every year, according to the UN Environment Programme – that is choking our oceans and damaging marine life with who-knows-what consequences. Vivid images of vast slicks of plastic, and distressing footage of deformed or dying sea creatures, have played a key part in alerting ordinary citizens the world over to the deadly consequences of our plastic habit and in galvanising a powerful grassroots response that has led to changes in behaviour at an individual and corporate level.
It’s hard to think of a single image as arresting as, say, that of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to illustrate the threat posed by the pollution of the ocean of communication – in which each of us swims every day – though it’s not hard to identify ways in which public discourse has been sullied. An egregious example is the 45th President of the United States, who, while not hesitating to dub inconvenient stories “fake news”, makes an average of nearly 6.5 false or misleading claims every day, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker database, which analyses, categorises and tracks his every suspect statement. By the beginning of May 2018 he had, according to the Post, made no fewer than 3,001 false or misleading claims.
There are, though, many smaller, less public examples – which, continuing the marine analogy, we might think of as the equivalent of microbeads – plastic particles so small they pass through water filtration systems, but which nonetheless pose a significant hazard to marine life. An example from very close to home is the letter I received from my bank informing me that it couldn’t process a form I’d sent it because my signature “didn’t match our records”. Fearing that someone had attempted to impersonate me, I immediately went to my nearest branch, some distance away, only to discover that because I’d opened the account online the bank had never actually had a record of my signature.
Experience has taught me that you can tell a lot about an organisation from the way it communicates. The bank’s lack of care in giving me the full picture of what had happened left me wondering how reliable it might be in other areas. (As it turned out, my instincts were correct: not many weeks later the same bank hit the headlines when a major IT migration went spectacularly wrong, plunging many of its customers into serious financial difficulties and leading the chair of the parliamentary committee investigating the debacle to criticise the bank’s “poor communications about the scale and nature of the problems it has faced”.)
Now, it could be argued that expecting too much from a financial institution in the way it uses language is bound to result in disappointment. But, speaking with people in my immediate circle about their experience of communication within different types of organisation, I was struck by how they too immediately started to tell stories of language being used to cloak and confuse rather than to enlighten and explain.
One acquaintance, a long-time campaigner for an international NGO, told of asking in a public meeting how the organisation’s activities in a particularly sensitive region were consistent with its policy for that area. After first asserting that no such policy existed, the organisation’s representative subsequently changed tack to admit that it did, but then added “it depends what you mean by ‘policy’.”
A factor shared by all meaningless, misleading or obscure communication is the failure to take full account of the human beings at the receiving end. Far from affirming humanity, such communication frequently seeks to deny or exploit it. And while it is undoubtedly the case that the digital revolution has opened up opportunities that previous generations could only dream of, it is also changing societies and individuals in ways we are only starting to understand, and with consequences of which we are still unaware.
The challenge this represents is vast, and can surely only increase as technology makes greater and greater inroads not only into the workplace but also into our homes and what was once private space. But I sense, too, a significant opportunity for WACC and other organisations that share a commitment to communication for all.
That opportunity is twofold: firstly, to encourage and promote a far-reaching dialogue about what it means in a digital age to practise communication that affirms humanity; and, secondly, to enable people both to identify and challenge communication that works against human values and to engage in communication that is rich, meaningful and life-affirming.
Rachel Viney is a consultant and writer. She specialises in advocacy and communications strategies for cultural, media and faith-based organisations. For a number of years she was an editorial policy executive with the Independent Television Commission. She went on to run her own publishing business, producing international photojournalism magazines. An experienced chair, she led the team assessing WACC’s 1998-2002 Global Studies Programme. Rachel is the author of Teaching Contemporary British Broadcasting (BFI Education ) and co-author of the research monograph Seeing is Believing: Religion and Television in the 1990s (John Libbey).