In recent blogs on this site, especially regarding the phrase `war on terror’ and the political mud slinging of recent weeks, I have frequently seen the hope expressed that the media should be free of bias and just report the truth. A praisworthy sentiment. Can you however really handle the truth? Would you recognise it if you see it? Would you watch a news show if it really gave you the full truth about what it knows and what it doesnt? Do not presume the answer is `yes’ too easily. To illustrate how virtually everything you get fed in the news is a fabrication, I took the liberty of dissecting a couple of stories of the news of the last two days. I only concentrated on stories you could find on SBS world news or ABC news so that the overly obvious bias from certain quarters was already filtered out. Lets take some stories in random order to give you a sense of how you are being spoonfed, though I wish to stress at the outset that probably very little of the fabrication is politically motivated:
1. The financial news. The ABC headline: ‘Interest rate concerns push Aussie shares down’. Really? On an average day, there are millions of share transactions made for a whole swathe of reasons. The reasons to sell include people who need the money embedded in their shares. The reasons to buy include having money to invest. They include hopes and fear on thousands of items including the overseas economies, and the whole of the domestic economy. Given all this, how could a journalist possibly know that it was interest rate concerns that pushed the shares down? Could the journalists have talked to all the thousands of people who dealt in shares yesterday, or the millions of people on who’s behalf shares were traded? There’s no way the journalist could have done that. Where then does this story come from? Presumably from the journos talking to a couple of their mates close to the market who feed them this line. In a strict sense though, this headline and nearly every other headline containing an explanation of movements on financial markets is a fabrication. Indeed, nearly all the news regarding explanations for what goes on in the economy pretends to know the unknowable and each of us laps it up every day. We’ll let the tricky issue as to what constitutes an Aussie share lie.
2. The weather forecast. Actual weather modellers come up with many different scenarios and essentially are only able to say what the weather will be within confidence bands, subject to the assumptions of their models and data availability. Hence the `weather outlook’ you are spoonfed is simply one particular scenario, neither representing the average forecast or anything approaching an undoubted forecast. Nevertheless, words are used like ‘tomorrow it will be X degrees in Melbourne’. Pure fabrication. It gets worse. Recall seing those pressure charts on virtually every weather channel and in the paper? These things dont just ignore the uncertainty in the forecasts, but they are actually literally made up. There’s no such thing as a line going through the continent where on one side the pressure is below some number and on the other side it is above some number: pressure varies immensely locally for all kinds of reasons (spot winds; clouds, hills, buildings, etc.). Drawing a pressure line on a map is a bit like drawing a line through Australia and saying ‘the rich people live to the left of this line and the poor people live to the right of this line’: vaguely right at best. Pressure maps are strictly speaking pure fabrications, but you would not see this mentioned in the media.
3. Current international affairs? Take this headline from SBS: ‘The world’s leading economist on climate change, Nicholas Stern, has challenged Australia to cut greenhouse gas emissions.’. Nicholas Stern is the worlds leading economist on climate change? Preposterous! The man has few credentials in that field and I doubt he’d call himself a leading climate economist. He chaired a committee that reviewed other people’s work in this field and their report was successfully sold by the Blair administration in the UK to the media. The BBC website calls the fact that Blair managed to have the Stern report as headline news for 3 days ‘the stuff of Spinmeister legend’. Was the report a work of solid scientific evidence? Hardly! As a truly eminent economist, Angus Maddisson, noted in November 2006, the Stern report simply swallowed the IPCC scenarios lock-stock-and-barrel. This, even though the UK house of Lord’s report in 2005 heavily criticised the IPCC for being an unscientific political body with an agenda. Indeed, the Stern report is in some economic quarters regarded as a bit of a joke in its uncritical acceptance of the `findings’ of the IPCC. Hence, the SBS line on this is not just wrong, but shows the power of spin in other countries to influence debate here.
4. International conflicts? In the last few days, 120 Taliban were reportedly killed in heavy fighting in Afghanistan. Really? How would an Australian journalist know that these were actually Taliban? Do they all carry a little card saying they are Taliban? Of course not. How would we then know that it weren’t some local militia members, random bystanders, or even innocent men, women and children? Such numbers are usually given out by the military or local authorities. What incentives do you think these people have to say anything else than that the people who were killed were those whom we’d think ok to see killed? What should they have said in a strictly truthful media? Perhaps something like `we think all sorts of people got killed and maimed yesterday in this region (anywhere from between 50 to 500), some of whom carried arms themselves and some of those carrying arms may have been motivated by a (group) desire to resist Western and central Afghan military. It doesnt make for quite the same easy reading now, does it?
5. International politics? Take the following SBS headline: ‘Iran condemned as “provocative” comments by Tony Blair warning of a “different phase” in British efforts to secure the release of 15 detained sailors.’ Really? The whole of Iran condemned Tony Blair? All 70 million inhabitants? Or just the government? Or just the small group within the central government who puts out these statements? The latter, methinks. And did they really condemn Tony Blair or the speech someone else wrote and for which half a department is responsible but which Blair delivered? You may think these distinctions trivial, but whereas in reality it is not at all the case that the whole of the Iranian population condemns a Blair Speech, the soundbite does conjure such a bellicose image.
etc. And this is just the content of the stories. We’re not even talking about the selection of stories that make it on the news and those that dont. Indeed, without trawling through many news sites, you’d be hard-pressed to know that the biggest wars of the moment are in Darfur, Sri Lanka, and former Zaire, and together have lead to more lost lives than any of the lesser conflicts making up the bulk of the news (Israel, Ireland, Afganistan).
If you are willing to open your mind hence, the news you get fed is one long litany of made-up stories, simplifications, and outright lies. Day after day, year after year. How could you have become a well-thinking person if you are raised on such spoonfeeding? This is not to say that any of this happens deliberately, but is probably a reflection of the fact that journos have to make things simple to get their audience to pay attention and to convey some meaning. Journos have to cater to the prejudices and prior beliefs of their audience because they otherwise wont be understood and would quickly be out of a job.
The question now turns to you. Would you really be able to handle the truth if that’s what journos gave you, with no uncertainty and nuanced left out? What is the audience potential for `real news’ in Australia? And if the truth is too hard to handle, what then should we see as the ‘best possible news’?