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News coverage

The facts, news, and opinion fed to us by the media are inevitably skewed or limited by those who influence or control the media and present it. Most of us have a strong parochial streak and are interested in very local events, especially if they include places and people that we know. This selective news coverage passively or actively shapes our opinions and view of the world. Once in our mind ideas, the ‘facts’ become entrenched, and we find it difficult to change them. To some extent, advances in technology are useful, as not only do we have access to Internet viewpoints from across the globe, but satellite TV offers a more diverse spread of opinions than national TV. On many occasions, I have heard the same events reported via a number of satellite channels and been surprised at the differences in viewpoints, even for items that are not political. This is a very positive feature of improved technology.

Not only do the foreign TV channels show that the facts behind the stories may appear very different according to who is presenting them, but also for the very parochial events in our home towns, we often have actual knowledge of the items being reported. When this happens, it frequently becomes apparent that the process of reporting, access to correct sources, time constraints, and the need to sell the papers means we rarely agree totally with the reported version. We should take this as a warning as to the accuracy and impartiality of the global and political statements, as well. Partial or incorrect information may be worse than ignorance.

Deliberately skewed or falsified disinformation is not only routine in political activities, but can be just as significant in items presented as science. Examples run from marketing, where white lab-coated ‘scientists’ make dubious claims as to the efficacy of a product, to items from high-powered laboratories and individuals. Similar distortions are built into reporting. On one occasion, I was being interviewed for a TV programme, but the TV crew were unhappy that I did not have a white lab coat, as they said it gave more credence to the work. They saw it as a mark of authority. The official ‘uniform’ is a false image, although we respond to it. In medical situations, blood pressure taken by a nurse in formal uniform invariably produces higher readings, as it raises our stress levels. These are typical cases where technological artefacts distort the information.

Intentional distortions are not rare. I have seen examples where data, known to be incorrect, were not retracted whilst a laboratory was in the process of a grant application, or ‘information’ released that was consciously intended to divert the efforts of a foreign power. None of this is surprising, since there were politics and careers involved in the examples I have detected. My main concern is to wonder how often I have missed such events and so believed dubious statements.

By contrast, reliance on the media of a single nation may be both unwittingly xenophobic and prejudiced. I recall being abroad in a country hosting an Olympic Games, which I watched on the local TV. I thought the host nation must be excelling, as the only images were of their competitors, but then I realized they were not saying where the athletes had finished in the competition, nor did they mention any winners unless their local nationals were among the medallists. They were catering to, and encouraging, a very parochial mentality.

The same pressures apply to political leaders, who must appear to be strong and maintaining the national interests when dealing with other nations. So they avoid information and decisions that would make them locally unpopular, as this might lose votes and internal influence. Their bias can equally be driven by administrations that filter information input to the front-line politicians. The common cliche is that ‘knowledge is power’, but political power comes from an electorate that only has carefully selected information (definitely not knowledge).

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