20 January 2011

Currently Reading: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

"The ethic of honesty has been overwhelmed by the mass production of ignorance."

This is essentially the overriding theme of the book. And the main reason given for this trend is the lack of time and resources with which journalists can play with. News agencies and PR agencies are feeding through their news items, many of which are being fed to the "news consumer" at the speed of lighting without really taking the time to verify the facts. How much are WE responsible for this, those of us on the other side of the page (or the screen)?

Reading the book I was reminded of the importance, as news consumer, of taking the time to read through the news item (and not be swept away by the headline) to understand what is being said and just as importantly, who it's being said by.

And this goes double (or triple!) for studies and medical research. The scientist in me gets woken up every time I hear 50% of blah and a recent study shows that blah - what size was the group on which research was carried out? In the field or in the lab? Who was the study commissioned by? (At this point and allowing myself to digress, I'd like to recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre - link below.)

Back to Flat Earth News. Of course, as important as what gets reported, is what does not get reported. This is where I'm enjoying the book the most, although it might have more to do with my "gossip" side of the brain (that which likes hearing stories) than my intellectual one. It is horrifying to think how much our experience of the world we live in is shaped by the media. And now that we have access to what is going on in most of the world, I sometimes have a false sense that I know about the world I live in.

But of course I don't - citing an example from the book: take Guatemala. Have you heard anything about Guatemala lately? In the same summer as Hurricane Katrina hit Kansas, an earthquake also hit Guatemala, leaving 120,000 people homeless (0.9% of its population more or less, in the spirit of putting numbers into context). I never heard about it. I rarely hear anything about what happens in Guatemala.

So I do recommend Flat Earth News, it's a good reminder to take responsibility for our own view of the world. And as those of you reading this blog will know, I do like responsibility and I like accountability.

4 comments:

  1. Yo comento en español...

    Es vergonzoso como muchos medios de comunicación se han visto humillados tras publicar información sin haberla contrastado. Internet es una fuente infinita de información, pero no toda ella es válida ni real.

    La idea "porque lo vi en televisión" o "lo leí en el periódico de turno" sin ánimo de ir más allá es la tendencia de la masa. Una masa que está desinformada, pero a la que no le interesa cruzar esa línea. Está cómoda en su posición de ganado y allí se queda.

    Es cosa de mirar los Trending Topics del día, del mes o del año. Comprobar la cantidad de estupideces que se dicen en blogs, redes sociales, etc. Y todo, con una libertad asumida por cualquiera para decir lo que se le ocurra y de la forma en que le parezca, olvidándose de cuidar cosas mínimas como la gramática, el decoro o el respeto.

    Y lo de Guatemala es un buen ejemplo. ¿Paraguay? ¿Surinam? ¿Qué hubiera sido de Islandia si no fuera por el volcán? Muchos ni siquiera hubiesen imaginado cómo era...

    En fin, muy buen tema. Quiero leer el libro y trataba de encontrarlo para mi Kindle, pero en EE.UU. no está en e-book...

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  2. Muchas thank yous Tomas!

    I'll translate this for the English readership tomorrow. Ironic - it seems that it's pressure that has made some journalists less thorough but laziness that tends to make the masses misinformed.

    You're right - Flat Earth News doesn't seem to be available in Kindle, not in .co.uk either.

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  3. "I usually use Paraguay as an example of a country we know nothing about...there is no general mental image of the country, its people or its politics...it's in limbo, between Argentina and Brazil, two giants that overshadow both Paraguay and Uruguay (although, generally speaking, Uruguay has the image of the poor man's Argentina or Argentinean's holiday resort, however incomplete or far this image is from reality).

    I've generally given up on the news and the media at large. News corporations are bound by their own interests and politics and their associations with other corporations and politicians worldwide. So much so that we'll never obtain a true picture of any situation.

    In any case, What is a true picture anyway? There are as many pictures as people involved in any given situation, biased inasmuch as everyone is biased or conditioned by their upbringing, family situation, "side of the fence", personal and professional interests, etc.

    I vividly remember the day I watched the film "Barrio" (Fernando León de Aranoa, 1998, Spain). It tells the story of some inner city kids in Madrid and the reality they live in. Without giving the story away, the film ends with the "TV news headline" of one of the stories told in the film. A clear example of the distorted truth we live in. Any news item, for a number of reasons, leaves out the essence of any event, reducing everything to a catchy phrase that will draw you in, though you are never given a full picture of what's going on behind the piece of news even after the headline (and much less so once it's no longer a "news item").

    Another issue is journalism as a trade. However worthy of respect as it is, there is a trend for journalists to write or speak about everything and anything, however far from their field of specialisation, if indeed they have one.

    In any case, no event is isolated from its immediate and not so immediate surroundings. There is an entire chain of events that lead to a given outcome, and there is no time or space to look at all of these events in detail. One might say that to look into any event we would even have to go back to the advent of man. A butterfly flapping its wings in Europe may indeed eventually cause a tsunami in the Pacific.

    However, the media alone are not to blame. As users of the media we must demand details and not a mere skim over the surface. But, who has the time? Or the inclination, given that our lives are busy and complicated enough?

    We must learn to be as critical as possible of any information we're given in order to obtain an "objective" picture (though still tainted by our own bias). We must also learn to care. In a democratic world in which we take everything for granted (even democracy itself), where our mind is numbed by news flashes and marketing (or are they the same thing?), we have lost the ability to care about what's going on beyond our immediate surroundings. There is only so much information our brains can process so we've simply switched off and turned on the auto-pilot. A very dangerous thing indeed. Guilty as charged, I now live in dread.

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  4. (same anonymous)

    not quite irrelevant to this topic inasmuch as it deals with our own lack of perspective, is the opening post for the "Out, not Up" blog:

    http://outnotup.blogspot.com/2008/12/its-small-thing.html

    interesting read!

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