Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"Mass producers of distortion"

Worthy of note yesterday was a piece in The Guardian by author and journalist Nick Davies who has produced a book called "Flat Earth News".

In it, we are told, "An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media", his thesis being that, "An industry whose task should be to filter out falsehood has become a conduit for propaganda and second hand news".

In opening his piece, Davies gives an example of a spurious story, reported by the media about a gang of feral child bullies who had supposedly attempted to murder a five-year-old boy by hanging him from a tree. "This story was not true," he writes. "Indeed, it was obviously not true from the moment it started running."

Nevertheless, he observes, the tabloids ran all over it; and TV and the rest of Fleet Street joined in. The London Evening Standard called it a lynching; the Mail, Guardian and Times ran headlines which stated boldly that the boy had been hanged; the Independent ran a moody feature about fear descending on the boy's estate. Sundry columnists joined in with solemn comment about the youth of today and the impact of violence on television.

Analysing this phenomenon, Davies goes on to write that:

… the ingredients in this little story run routinely through a stream of other small stories, through stories as big as those about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and then into a flood of media commentary that feeds into government policy and popular understanding - falsehood as profound as the idea that the Earth is flat, widely accepted as true to the point where it can feel like heresy to challenge it.
With that we would so much agree, having experienced the phenomenon first-hand, much of which went into the writing, with Christopher Booker, of Scared to Death.

One of my favourite examples was at the height of the egg scare in 1988, when it was the perceived wisdom that salmonella infected eggs were poisoning people by their thousands in what was claimed to be an epidemic of food poisoning.

It was then that the Observer on 18 December solemnly recounted the experience of a 35-year-old construction worker, Paul Morris, who had been taken ill in early October after eating a breakfast of fried eggs and toast in the firm's canteen. According to his wife, Helen: "He started feeling ill about an hour after his breakfast. Everyone put it down to the 'flu... The doctor... eventually told me it was salmonella".

Said Mrs Morris, "I support Edwina Currie. If the egg producers sue her, I would like to get together with other salmonella victims and sue the Egg Marketing Board. I am only a housewife but I know of quite a few cases, so there must be many more than those they have told us about".

Apart from the fact that the Egg Marketing Board had been abolished years before, the most salient point was that the incubation period of salmonellosis – the period between ingesting the bacteria and suffering symptoms - is typically 18-36 hours. It can on very rare occasions be shorter but a period of one hour is unheard of. In fact, for a variety of technical reasons, it is actually impossible.

The simplest of checking would have told the Observer that the story was fantasy. Morris was doing what experienced food poisoning investigators have often found – that the sufferer blames the last meal consumed when, in the case of salmonellosis, it is most often likely to be the meal before that, or even the one eaten days before.

At the time though, as Davies points out, it did feel like heresy to challenge the prevailing wisdom. I endured many hostile interviews from clever-dick journalists who could not even begin to accept that they might be wrong and I might actually be right, that the problem had been grossly overblown.

Amazingly – for it still seems like yesterday – that experience goes back nearly 20 years, which somewhat endorses Davies view that there never was a time when news media were perfect. Journalists, he writes, have always worked with too little time and too little certainty; with interference from owners and governments; with laws that intimidate and inhibit the search for truth.

But, he tells us, the evidence he found in researching his new book, Flat Earth News, suggests that the tendency of the media to recycle ignorance is far worse than it was.

He commissioned research from specialists at Cardiff University, who surveyed more than 2,000 UK news stories from the four quality dailies (Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent) and the Daily Mail.

They found two striking things. First, when they tried to trace the origins of their "facts", they discovered that only 12 percent of the stories were wholly composed of material researched by reporters. With eight percent of the stories, they just couldn't be sure. The remaining 80 percent, they found, were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, when they looked for evidence that these "facts" had been thoroughly checked, they found this was happening in only 12 percent of the stories. The implication of those two findings is truly alarming, writes Davies:

Where once journalists were active gatherers of news, now they have generally become mere passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interest. Not journalists, but churnalists. An industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.
Part of this he attributes to another key finding from the Cardiff researchers. For each of the 20 years from 1985, they dug out figures for the editorial staffing levels of all the Fleet Street publications and compared them with the amount of space they were filling. They discovered that the average Fleet Street journalist now is filling three times as much space as he or she was in 1985. In other words, as a crude average, they have only one-third of the time that they used to have to do their jobs. Generally, they don't find their own stories, or check their content, because they simply don't have the time.

Davies's view is that, if you add that to all of the traditional limits on journalists' trying to find the truth, and you can see why the mass media generally are no longer a reliable source of information.

We have a little sympathy with the problems of time and pressure, as many journalists are indeed required to work under the most extraordinary pressure. But, on the other hand, it has never been easier or quicker to research contemporary issues. Thanks to the miracles of the internet and Google, the process of finding information and checking sources that used to take days, or longer (I once spent two weeks in a library finding the source of one half-remembered report that I wanted to refer to) can now be done in minutes.

Some of the problem is, in fact, intellectual laziness – the willingness of journalists to believe uncritically certain sources. Thus, they do not check the "facts" because they do not think they need to. Another part of the problem is that some are not very good at researching, which is sometimes more intuitive than a systematic process.

Whatever the reasons for the failures, though, we cannot but help endorse Davies's conclusion that the "mass media generally are no longer a reliable source of information". What is truly staggering though is that so many people – despite their protestations to the contrary – still believe they are.

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