Saturday, August 30, 2014

On Being Misinformed

“If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.” Mark Twain
When you consider the immense challenges and problems that lie ahead of us, which include climate change, peak energy and resources and ecological overshoot, you might begin to wonder why this isn’t front page news day after day. Indeed, after flicking through a few newspapers and surfing a few television news channels and finding not much beyond celebrity news, sports updates and political commentary, you might indeed begin to wonder whether the issues discussed in blogs like this one are not merely something for people with too much time on their hands to contemplate, or worse, a paranoid illusion. This naturally begs the very reasonable question: if our civilisation is indeed circling the drain then why isn’t it in the news very often?
This is a very interesting question and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no single easy answer to it. Some people might insist that there is a global conspiracy to keep ‘the real news’ out of the reach of ordinary people, but having worked in several news rooms I can easily discount this from first-hand experience that no such conspiracy exists.* Instead, the answer is far more complex and nuanced and has its basis in herd psychology, money and the religion of progress. 
Taking the first of these three, herd psychology is probably the most obvious driver of the content that appears before our eyes in the form of newspaper print and television images. News organisations copy one another, and there is safety in numbers. The news media is traditionally a system of information dispersal that is hierarchical in its structure and relies upon a network made up of nodes of information providers that includes government spokespeople, company PR departments, experts, politicians and a bewildering array of people who claim to have a piece of unique information. Near the top of the food chain are news agencies who gather this diffuse information and sell it on down the network to other news organisations, who either republish it without modification, or else shape it to fit the style and prejudices of their particular audience. Thus a bland piece of information which states that the economy grew by 0.1% in Q3, can be interpreted as either a disaster or a cause to pop open the champagne bottles depending on whether the ownership/readership of the news organ supports government policy or not. 
When twisting information in this way to create a narrative there is an inherent danger. Propaganda, defined as the act of deliberately and one-sidedly shaping communications in a way that changes the thoughts and opinions of the target, has probably been practiced ever since humans learned to communicate by speech. Originally defined in religious terms—it derives from the Latin verb to grow—its use has become far more widespread and covert in modern times, with various techniques employed to ensure its efficacy. Two of the main techniques used today include omitting relevant information, and repeating the message ad infinitum. A prime example of this is the well-funded oil industry which uses propaganda to try and influence public opinion towards a belief that climate change is not real. It pumps money into key nodes in the upper echelons of the information hierarchy, notably small but influential think tanks and columnists in the right-wing news media, who then focus obsessively on small contradictions and anomalies in published climate science articles, creating doubt in the mind of the news consumer. By repeating this message over and over, the reader or viewer comes to a conclusion along the lines of ‘Well, if there wasn’t some truth in it then why's it all over the news?’
Of course, we're right in the middle of such a spectacle right now, with virtually all of the western media focusing dutifully on the official narrative that Russia is poised to launch a war against the peace-loving west. This is proving to be highly successful from the point of view of policy wonks in Washington, but disastrous to anyone who cares for the truth and enjoys living in a peaceful world. 
This kind of mind manipulation is not always sinister in the Machiavellian sense, but it does go to prove that messages can be hammered home effectively if the power structure and money is there (the west spent some $5 billion funding the overthrow of Ukraine's democratically-elected government, although you don't often see this fact published in the everyday media). It also leads to the creation of journalistic narratives, which are the bane of objective journalism. A journalistic narrative is a lazy way of conveying information that relies upon the fact that human beings love a good story. Journalism text books state that every story must have a human angle, which is a way of saying that nothing outside the human world is relevant unless it impinges upon us, and this is drummed into the heads of young reporters as soon as they start their careers. What they don’t state is that these human angles can take on a life of their own and create narratives that, once unleashed, are harder to strap down again than Frankenstein’s monster Adam. 
Once you are aware of these narratives it is easy to recognise them and it pays to be wary whenever you spot one. Going with the earlier example of economic news again, economics and finance journalists are able to employ the narrative of the sick patient. Because the vast majority of people understand very little about economics but, one way or another, have a vested interest in the economy performing well for their own personal wellbeing it necessitates journalists to use this sick patient metaphor. Hence all the talk of ‘recovery’. A recovery following a long illness is something that everyone can relate to—after all, they might not understand all of the medical terminology but they can certainly see that the patient has recovered when the colour has returned to his face and he’s sitting up in bed. The journalistic narrative of the ‘recovery’ which has been splashed all over the news for the last nine months or so makes good copy and will provide some cheer: the patient has made a full recovery - hurrah! But is it the truth?
In this case, the recovery that is being spoken of is framed in terms of GDP growth. But a little closer analysis reveals less to be excited about. The banking system is teetering on the edge of systemic collapse, personal debt has reached unprecedented levels, the velocity of money has plunged to depression levels, job security is at all-time lows—indeed almost every vital sign of the immensely complex system we call ‘the economy’ seems to be in a state of crisis—except for the stock markets, of course, which are inflated to bursting point from frenziedly feeding on liquidity. 
So, from practically every angle we have an economic disaster for the majority of people, but every major news source we look at, from the BBC to the Sun, talks about ‘the recovery’ as if it were a done deal. If the economy were indeed a hospital patient it would be a very sickly one—akin to a doctor pointing at a terminal cancer patient in a coma and saying he is in recovery because his toenails are growing longer. But the journalistic narrative of ‘the recovery’, which was likely talked up by various ministers and think tanks has got out of control and is now unchallengeable because to challenge it is to try and prove a negative. Journalists can get away with writing about it without the need to fact check because it has entered into the realm of ‘received wisdom’, along with immigrants being ‘benefits tourists’, gas fracking being a ‘bonanza’ and any of the other narratives that have been hatched, incubated and let loose. The only way that such narratives can be brought back in line with reality is for some shock to the system powerful enough to make journalists snap out of their slumber.
So propaganda can create journalistic narratives which people then use as the building blocks for their thought patterns, creating further feedback loops which impede the flow of valuable ‘real’ information into the public realm. This in turn creates a ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality among news media, because although news outlets are notionally in competition with one another, in reality they share similarities with a tribe mentality. There is safety in numbers and if one news outlet breaks from the pack a taboo has been broken and disastrous consequences could ensue. 
A further powerful driver of news content is - surprise, surprise - money. This should be obvious enough but I will illustrate it with an example from my own life. I once lived in a beautiful part of southern Spain among the mountains and not too far from the coast. Our small farmhouse was situated in an idyllic series of valleys, little touched by modern civilisation because the access was so difficult and the natural environment provided bounteous amounts of fresh food and spiritual balm. One day I decided to walk to the top of the highest mountain there and, upon reaching the summit, I saw a terrible sight. On the coast nearby there stretched an immense sea of white that went all the way to the horizon out to the east. I had heard about the alarming spread of plastic greenhouses that were eating up the land, but from my vantage point I could clearly see it was spreading our way and would soon engulf the entire area. Further research revealed that this was a huge get-rich-quick scheme in which thousands of illegal wells were being drilled into the aquifer to irrigate the greenhouses. The salad crops grown within were exported north to European supermarkets and in their wake they left a trashed landscape of fluttering plastic, depleted aquifers and poisoned wells. Furthermore, local politicians had decided to divert water from local rivers to supply this plastic salad industry, which would mean the life of the area where I lived would soon be gone.
I had to do something to try and stop this so I set up a small local newspaper with the aim of highlighting the threat. I called it the Olive Press, and it was run from a small office in the main provincial town of Orgiva. It attracted a lot of attention, and its green focus drew in lots of writers who were keen to voice their concern about the ongoing destruction of their local environment. It became a great success in all but one thing: money. Every month I found that costs seemed to go up, but income remained anaemic at best. Everyone, it seemed, said they loved it, but they also wanted it for free and were unwilling or unable to support it financially. Eventually myself and the other editor decided to employ a salesman, who in fact worked as an estate agent in the adjoining office block. The first thing he did was turf out all of the small advertisers who were having trouble keeping up with their payments, and instead focused on bigger advertisers. So it was out with all the crystal healers, dog groomers and men with strummers, and in with the larger real estate agents, private medical practices and dodgy-looking investment opportunities.
Soon the money began to roll in and we could relax a little. People further afield began to hear about the newspaper and we began to expand. The print run was racketed up to 20,000 copies a fortnight and we would drive all over the province delivering them in bundles. Most of the stories we covered focused on local corruption and abuses of the environment. 
But this greater coverage and exposure came at a price and soon the complaints started to come in. One estate agent said he was ‘embarassed’ to show a copy of the Olive Press to potential buyers. He said it might put them off investing property in the region. Another businessman cancelled his full-page advert because he said the news within was ‘too realistic’. The sales manager asked us if we could ‘tone it down’ and publish some more light-hearted pieces. Both of us resisted and, as a result, money became tight again. I wrote an editorial about how climate change would likely change the region to a dustbowl a few decades hence and was slightly shocked to see that it ended up being printed opposite a full page advert for a low-cost airline. A clear split had emerged between myself and the sales staff, of which there were now three. It all ended acrimoniously, of course. After a year more of dysfunction I was forced to leave the newspaper, selling my share to a former Daily Mail showbiz columnist, who abandoned its original remit and instead focused on the glitzy Costa del Sol, where there was much more money. These days it is the largest foreign newspaper in Spain, and is full of stories about celebrity sightings.
Afterwards I realised this experience had taught me a valuable lesson in how money warps and eventually overwhelms the messages that a supposedly unbiased media is meant to portray. And although this was just a small newspaper the same thing can be seen happening throughout the mainstream media as long as advertising pays for content. Thankfully, a proliferation of blogs has sprung up like weeds between paving stones, eager to supply information that ranges from the relatively objective to the downright opinionated - but without the corrupting influence of having to chase a dollar. 
Finally, although the above might shed at least some light onto why the news media is systemically incapable of being objective in assessing risk and communicating this to the wider public, there is another factor at play which is a lot less tangible. The simple fact is that some truths may be too unpalatable to recount. Delivering bad news on the state of industrial civilisation is a modern day taboo, and it should come as no surprise that news editors avoid it like the, ahem, plague. Although it might make a quirky opinion piece or two, the nebulous and often unquantifiable nature of the subject matter and the inevitably shrill reactions of those who object makes for nervous editors. Talking about ecological overshoot in polite company is like waving a red flag at a bull. Before you know it a sensible discussion about finite carrying capacities has sunk into a slanging match of hurled insults and vituperous abuse and any further discussion becomes impossible. Highlighting our own limitations as a species is always going to be controversial - it’s taking the human interest angle just a step too far. 

Thus we are left in the situation where people are able to pick and choose their media based on their prejudices. The wonders of the internet mean that one never has to be troubled by troubling news again and you can indeed configure it so that you are treated to a continuous stream of videos of celebrities pouring buckets of water over their heads. Alternatively you can set your feeds, blogrolls and social media likes to permit you to gorge yourself on stories of collapse, economic frights, pandemics, massacres, beheadings and ecocide until you fall down dead over your keyboard. And that's the magic of technology.
Was it ever thus? 

* On the other hand, I find it perfectly feasible that the editors and publishers of mainstream national press organisations are routinely called in for 'meetings' and asked 'politely' to avoid publishing material that is not in the national interest for reasons of security or to avoid economic panics.