Nick Davies has been writing about the phenomenon of Flat Earth News for years now, documenting the way technology has been used by media owners to recycle and churn stories for a 24-hour rolling news cycle, with ever-decreasing standards of journalism and almost a brazen lack of care for the consequences.
Media power has been concentrating in the hands of fewer and fewer conglomerates in the last couple of decades, for example…
- Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation & Sky Television networks across the globe
- Axel Springer and Bertelsmann are based in Germany but extend across all of Europe in newspapers, publishing
- Silvio Berlusconi’s TV (Mediaset) Publishing (Mondadori) and Advertising (Publitalia) interests control 3 out of 7 national TV stations, and through his role as head of state, he can influence the 3 state-owned RAI channels
- Richard Desmond in the UK owns two national daily newspapers and Channel 5
- Time Warner, Sony BMG, Walt Disney… the list goes on
There’s no a priori reason why this concentration should necessarily degrade standards. Concentration occurs in many if not most capitalist markets, but I Reckon that in the media environment it has resulted in stripping our costs (fewer journalists) and ever-faster turnaround times (more stories of whatever quality presented more quickly, but having less longevity).
Most significantly, this has led to a culture where almost everything that anyone says is reported, regardless of their significance. (Even) the generally world-class BBC isn’t immune to this. BBC Radio 5 Live has been reiterating its approach for at least a year, that they will present…
…Your views on the stories that matter to you.
Sorry to disappoint the BBC, but that’s not what I expect or want from a news broadcaster. I’m looking for facts, and some clever, interesting, important and relevant people to interpret those facts for me. This is something the BBC has historically been pretty darn good at. I don’t want to hear what John from London or Diane from Leeds thinks about bankers’ bonuses or house husbands. I have a reasonably good idea in my own mind What I Reckon about most things. And if I don’t, I’d prefer a learned expert to inform me, rather than Susan from Wrexham.
Increasingly, 24-hour rolling news in 2011 is characterised by churnalism, by which organisations with an agenda can reach an increasingly large audience increasingly quickly. Greater concentration of media outlets means fewer contact points for news aggregation services like AP or Reuters. Broadband technology & social media mean that ideas spread more quickly than ever before around the globe. Stories get reported, re-reported and spread virally before anyone actually stops to ask if they are true or accurate, let alone interesting.
Richard Peppiatt, a reporter from The Daily Star in the UK, resigned this week, in a very public outburst. He openly acknowledged fabricating stories to fill pages.
Daily Star favourite Kelly Brook recently said in an interview: “I do Google myself. Not that often, though, and the stories are always rubbish. “There was a story that I’d seen a hypnotherapist to help me cut down on the time I take to get ready to go out. Where do they get it from?”
Maybe I should answer that one. I made it up. Not that it was my choice; I was told to. At 6pm and staring at a blank page I simply plucked it from my arse. Not that it was all bad. I pocketed a £150 bonus. You may have read some of my other earth-shattering exclusives.
‘Michael Jackson to attend Jade Goody’s funeral’. (He didn’t.) ‘Robbie pops ‘pill at heroes concert’. (He didn’t either.) ‘Matt Lucas on suicide watch’. (He wasn’t.) ‘Jordan turns to Buddha.’ (She might have, but I doubt it.)
But churnalism means that stories are reported and regurgitated blindly without any semblance of fact-checking. Brands. companies, pressure groups, Government Departments, Media Owners with an agenda can secure massive coverage incredibly quickly. This contributes to and facilitates an environment in which The Politics of Fear can operate and thrive. Two examples…
Richard Peppiatt complained about an anti-Muslim agenda at The Daily Star. Its rival The Daily Mail also seems to pursue almost anything it deems to be ‘different’. Different = Threat. In November 2010 The Daily Mail ran an article that was ostensibly complaining about incomplete food labelling of halal meat products, but in lurid terms decried the ‘cruel’ slaughter methods of this Islamic practice, and that this meat was now being served in ‘schools, hospitals… and famous sporting venues such as Ascot and Wembley are serving up halal meat to unwitting customers’.
In no respect does the article comment on any other form of animal cruelty, such as battery chickens or industrialised milk production, but instead plays on the fears of its readers that halal = alien culture = threat, but under the guise of cruelty to animals. The Daily Mail defends Christians the right to deny homosexuals a room in their B&B, but portrays halal slaughter as barbaric. It’s a one-sided, biased article that warps a tiny issue about food labelling into a major threat to ‘our way of life’.
Around the same time, in November 2010, rolling TV news in California reported a ‘mysterious missile’ off the coast near Los Angeles. The local TV station first noticed it, and reported it with measured tones…
Military Mum on nature of ‘Big Missile’ … a possible show of US military might… officials are staying tight-lipped …
And they trot out a former defence secretary to ask him what it might be, based on one grainy bit of unidentified footage. And then the TV news gets holds of it. And then the internet got hold of it. And the TV network commentators complained about the lack of comment or clarification from Government sources. In fact, the lack of comment was because nothing had actually happened. There was no missile or show of strength. Eventually it turned out that the contrail was consistent with what might be seen behind a large aircraft if you happened to spot it at sunset from the unusual aerial angle of a TV helicopter. In other words, it was probably an optical illusion.
But by the time that came out, the news channels have filled a couple of hours, and then moved on to whatever’s next (sports, probably). No one is apparently accountable for the rubbish they’d been previously touting as ‘breaking news’. No one apologises for any concern they may have caused to viewers. No one stops to think if maybe, just maybe it might be better not to conduct journalistic fact-checking on live television.
As this brilliant visualisation illustrates, the media have had a decade or more’s experience at making mountains out of molehills, from the looming apocalypse of The Millenium Bug, where aircraft could fall from the skies, to the plagues of SARS and Bird Flu which could wipe out tens of millions.
These stories come and go, but serve to reiterate a sense of threat and unease in our society. This can cause problems for Governments, who are forced to defend their planning for unlikely future disasters (if pens got hot…?). However, Governments also exploit this in turn either to promote their own agenda (the all-pervading yet rarely realised threat of terrorists lurking next door) or indeed to hide behind – notably the infamous email at around 2.55pm GMT (09.55 EDT) on September 11th, 2001 from Jo Moore, then advisor to a British Government Minister.
Now more than ever, we cannot believe everything we read: not necessarily because more people are lying, but because more people are saying things that are being reported more quickly, with less scrutiny and less accountability than ever before.
Coming next – the role of social media: how technology and twitter have made this even more complicated, and how law-makers are struggling to cope.