Wednesday, April 06, 2011

flat earth news

To date, 2011 has been my year of 'meaty' reading, but the more I shovel into my head, the more seems to fall out. So here I present a book review of sorts, in an effort to see if I can make the good stuff stick.

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a blog called 'The Failed Estate: Rejuvenating Journalism in a Jaded Age'. Stumbled upon may not be quite the right description, since the path started somewhere in twitter, deliberately moved to Larvatus Prodeo and possibly Grog's Gamut, before I came across a judicious link to The Failed Estate. The instant I arrived, I ate it all up. Here was analyses and critique of the shallow pap daily served up as news, and I was comforted to realise I am not the only one who is totally disenchanted with the state of today's media.

Amongst the scrutiny of programs and events, Mr Denmore referred to a 2008 book titled Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. I was pretty excited to discover the library did indeed have a copy, and I only had to wait a week or two before I had it in my hot little hands.

The premise of the book is that the majority of global media news is of dubious origin. Beginning with a review of the promulgation of the exaggerated threat of the millennium bug, Davies unpacks how many of the news stories we read are just plain untrue. In the case of the millennium bug, small time computer specialists in Canada announced there was a small chance the millennium may cause computer glitches in some old systems. Their warnings went unheeded, so they upped the anti and exaggerated the threat in order to ensure their message was heard. From there the story grew and grew... and grew, until some governments spent millions of dollars in order to safeguard their countries against what turned out to be a non-existent threat.

According to Davies, the story was fuelled by a feedback system, or 'echo chamber'. The media reported the threat, secondary sources joined in, businesses saw an opportunity to get money for computer upgrades, governments decided it was safer to over react than fail to act. Eventually people who really had no idea, but assumed the story was true because the media was reporting it, joined the band wagon and repeated the dire predictions of disaster. The media merrily reported this next wave of warnings, before finally religious nutters and kooks joined the fray and we all filled our bath tubs with water and stocked up on canned food.

The millennium bug turned out to be a bad worm, but it highlighted the state of global media - and it is not good. As little as 12% of the news stories we read are original pieces written by journalists who have investigated their story and verified the facts. The rest are a combination of wire agency reports, official government statements, PR releases and even 'strategic communications' that can only be described as propaganda (especially considering how many of the stories turn out to be false). Stories so gained may have been rewritten, but many are plugged holus-bolus into our news, ready for us to swallow them whole. Davies labels the whole process 'churnalism'.

Meanwhile the media work with a host of unwritten rules, such as 'go with the moral panic' and 'give them what they want'. One rule which particularly annoys me is 'always give both sides of the story'... even if one side is patently false (I'm talking to you, climate change deniers). I imagine the best stories combine several rules: 'always give both sides of the story' plus 'go with the moral panic' plus 'run cheap stories'. Yes, climate change deniers, I'm talking to you again. And maybe Fukushima nuclear story peddlers as well.

Who is to blame for this? According to Davies, it's a systemic problem, but rather than deliberate mind control and manipulation by media moguls, commercialism seems to be at the core of it. Fewer reporters are forced into producing more and more stories in less and less time in order to meet the media company's demand for greater output and higher profit. And all the while, accuracy and truth are sacrificed.

Davies details some pretty horrific (that may be an overstatement, but I was horrified) examples of journalistic failure, particularly in relation to the Iraq weapons of mass destruction saga, and the consequent war based on false information.

Flat Earth News was a fascinating, gripping, stomach churning reading. I've consequently cut back on reading and watching the news because I have no way of figuring out what is truth and what are lies. My New Internationalist subscription has suddenly taken on a new sheen, but even they bring their own unacknowledged brand of bias to stories.

I leave you with a pithy quote before I return 'Flat Earth News' to the library.

The media's rules of production 'tend to generate an account of the world which, while claiming the virtues of objectivity, generally suffers from these three weaknesses which are fatal to truth telling: an arbitrary selection of subjects, which fundamentally distorts reality by systemic omissions; routine use of a host of factual claims which are frequently unreliable and sometimes false; and the steady imprint of a political and moral consensus which tends to reflect the values only of the most powerful groups in the surrounding society.' (p113-114)


At 10:53 pm, April 06, 2011, Anonymous 2paw said...

That is very interesting. MediaWatch often points out re-hashed news, sometimes more than 10 years old. I pretty much stick to the ABC, I like to think they are reliable. Well more reliable than some commercial stations. Please don't disabuse me of that!!!

At 10:58 pm, April 06, 2011, Blogger cecily said...

Wow - a very quick comment, I literally just posted.

I think ABC also do this, though perhaps more online than tv. A lot of their international stories on the website are straight from wire agencies. :-(


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