When reading what someone has to say about the state of the world, does it matter who they are? It can. You’d expect a chicken farmer to be skeptical about vegetarianism, and a scientist to take a dim view of homeopathy. A person’s background doesn’t automatically dictate their opinion, but it helps if readers can put their views into context.
So why do some media outlets seemingly go out of their way to obscure who they are interviewing?
Here are two examples from Russia Today, or RT, a broadcaster controlled by the Kremlin:
- In an article headlined ‘Germany, not Donald Trump, is biggest threat to the EU,’ Russia Today has an interview with someone they described as “Graham Moore, political commentator,” who believes Merkel is bad and Russia is good. RT doesn’t say which think tank or university Mr. Moore works for, so I had to dig a little. Turns out, there’s a Graham Moore who has appeared on RT in the past and who uses similar phrases on his Twitter feed (e.g. referring to Muslims as “Muhammadans”). And this Graham Moore is a leading figure in a fringe far-right party called English Democrats. He may be commenting on politics, but would “political commentator” be the first way you’d describe him? No, he’s a far-right politician.
- In another article headlined ‘Award for Merkel over migration policy during 2015 crisis raises eyebrows on social media,’ Russia Today goes for the online vox pop by citing people on social media who disagree with Merkel getting the award. Both of the people they cite are actually long-time critics of Merkel’s refugee policy. One of them, a former ‘pickup artist’ called Kolja Bonke, seems to spend most of his day on Twitter bashing Merkel and refugees. Yet RT refers to them as “some people” and Bonke simply as “another person” – as if it were a random sample.
Those two articles appeared on RT’s website on the same day. It probably wouldn’t be hard to find similar examples from other days, where the people RT uses to present its arguments are carefully picked from a small pool of vocal but unrepresentative campaigners who are neither experts nor ordinary members of the public.
When reading someone’s opinions, always remember to remember to look them up – especially if the media outlet they appear in doesn’t tell you much about who they are.