6.4.3.3 Media Distortion

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6433a.htm)

Media organisations can distort messages in several ways:

  • Statistics almost always contain assumptions and interpretations, and they can be selectively quoted. Both sides did this in Britain’s EU Referendum campaign in 2016, as reported by PatternsofPower.org: Lies, statistics and self-interest.  The choice of leaving, in a Brexit, was greatly influenced by some of the assertions made.
  • People may be unaware that what media organisations publish might be untrue, or might be heavily biased towards the interests of the owner, as referred to above (6.4.3.2).
  • Media organisations often select stories on the basis of pleasing their target audience, without offering a wider perspective or the other side of an argument. For example, a Conservative News and Views article, Tommy Robinson, argued that this anti-Muslim campaigner was “in jail for what we in America once referred to as “free speech”.”  In fact he had been jailed for ‘Contempt of Court’, prejudicing the right of some Muslims to a fair trial – as explained in a BBC video, Who is Tommy Robinson and why is he in jail?
  • Corporations can put pressure on the media, by leveraging advertising budgets for example.  The film Shadows of Liberty alleged that “Public information, the news we rely on to learn about what’s happening in the world, to learn about one another, is in the hands of commercial enterprises”.
  • News media constantly seek sensation, giving a misleading impression of reality. The history of dog bite misinformation in uk news media and public policy, for example, showed that “Dog bite fatalities are subject to overrepresentation by the media, which increases the perception of risk by the general public. This manifests in hysteria, which is acknowledged and affirmed by the government through legislative change.”
  • Some stories are totally irresponsible. In a spectacular example of ‘fake news’ (6.4.2.6), as reported in a Guardian article How technology disrupted the truth, the Daily Mail reported that the prime minister, David Cameron, had committed an “obscene act with a dead pig’s head” – yet subsequently admitted that it had no proof.

It is not easy to correct these distortions:

  • Politicians who protest about being misrepresented risk drawing further attention to the subject and a detailed denial always looks more complex and devious than a swift false accusation.
  • The legal system is too slow to provide an effective remedy against misinformation in an election campaign. It is expensive to bring a case for libel, and it is only worth doing if the originator of the libel has the means to pay.
  • The British Advertising Standards Authority is not allowed to make rulings in political matters, as it explains on its website. There would be a risk of politicising it and its slowness would make it impractical.

If media organisations are mostly free from censorship (as is preferable if they are to play a full part in public debate), education in critical thinking is people’s only protection against misinformation – as discussed later in this chapter (6.8.1).

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