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That was the news. Happy now?

Recently, the thing I've been getting most ranty about is bad journalism. It's always annoyed me, and I've always been aware of a certain amount of the spin and hyperbole and selective editing and outright lying that goes on, but either it's getting worse or I'm noticing it more. Sometimes it's the big stuff, sometimes it's the little stuff. For instance, on Tuesday the BBC had an article entitled What do you get if you divide science by God?, which started:

A prize-winning quantum physicist says a spiritual reality is veiled from us, and science offers a glimpse behind that veil.

Now, it's not really trying to mislead - it went on to explain two lines later that the prize that the scientist in question had won was the Templeton Prize, which is an essentially an enormous cash prize for shoehorning religion into science. (It's specifically designed to pay out more than the Nobel, because Templeton thought the Nobel ignored spirituality.) The problem here is that "prize-winning scientist" strongly implies that the prize was for, you know, SCIENCE, and gives more weight to this scientist's opinion than if he'd just been dubbed "a scientist" who believes that there's a spiritual reality that's veiled from us.

You can of course find far, far worse examples of journalism than that every day, even on the BBC site, but that one niggled at me because it was so pointless, and because I still - for some reason - expect better from the Beeb.

Charlie Brooker's new series Newswipe, which started last night, is being promoted as a sort of "catch up with some of the news if you haven't been paying attention" show, but it's mostly a savage indictment of modern journalism. The first show tried to explain what Charlie had learned about the credit crunch from the news channels and shows (not much that's in any way meaningful or comprehensible); touched on media spin and how PR agencies can set the news agenda and point of view, with reference to the "Natwest Three"; and finished up with a scathing look at the coverage of the German school shooting, and how the kind of coverage it got may actually be causing more of these incidents:

The whole thing is well worth watching - as well as being intelligent and incisive, it's very funny, as always. (If you've never encountered Brooker before: there will be sweariness and probably offensiveness.) It's available on iPlayer here, or on YouTube if you're not in the UK.

There is a crisis in journalism, for a variety of reasons (general cost-cutting, sacking of journalists, researchers and editors, the need for 24-hour TV and internet rolling news to be produced, the slow death of print media in general and regional reporting specifically, PR agency blurb being used as stories, proprieters influencing editorial direction, a toothless PCC) which all feed into each other. The internet in general and, I think, blogs in particular are going to be crucial in the next ten years or so, while we're in a transition period of how the "news" works. Someone has to be out there checking facts, calling out inaccuracies, and challenging bias. People like Ben Goldacre and Mailwatch are leading the charge. The internet also lets the people involved in stories have their own say and do things like the BHA's line-by-line rebuttal of an inaccurate newspaper article. It makes it much easier for people who are angry about news stories to band together and do something about it, as was shown in the last week or two by the campaign against the Scottish Sunday Express's obscene article about the Dunblane survivors, which resulted in an unconvincing but high-profile apology and an upcoming investigation by the PCC. And I think we're going to have to use all these tactics and more if we want to have a chance of countering the waves of misleading, alarmist propaganda that the majority of our news outlets seem to produce, to some degree or other, these days.

* Title, of course, from The Day Today, which we used to think was satire.


Mar. 27th, 2009 11:15 am (UTC)
I'm not sure what I think about regulation - in one way you're right, but then if we do have a powerful regulatory body, you start having concerns about THEIR bias, whether government or industry is influencing them, censorship, and so on. But yes, I fully support representative rather than direct democracy too.

That is a concern to some degree but I think it can be countered first by having the regulatory body made up of a bi-partisan membership, of it having a certain amount of public input or membership (something like jury service, perhaps?) of its membership being regularly changed and of it operating according to a charter - ie it must justify its reasons for taking action rather than just doing so on a "we know best" basis. Any regulatory body would also answer to the government and, by extent, the electorate.

This is the problem with the PCC, it's a system of self-regulation that is partly PR and partly an attempt to control "wayward" publications in the interests of Fleet Street rather than any serious regulatory body that works in the public interest. It needs to be abolished and replaced with a charter outlaying press responsibilites and a regulator that will take action if the press ignore their responsibilities.
Mar. 27th, 2009 11:41 am (UTC)
Yeah, there are probably ways round the problems, if we can put them into practise (jury service via telephone or internet might be good for input, actually), and it would certainly be better with the PCC. Which is just bizarre, generally.


bad wolf
Notes from extinction

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