Losing the truth in the news…

Regardless of the degree of press freedom, Alex Kane believes the press we do have is all too often happy to propagandise rather than simply tell us the truth. The result is that people are increasingly reading what they want to hear, and journalists are beginning to be trusted less than jobbing politicians.By Alex Kane

Sixty-six years ago, on October 30th, 1938, at about 8.30 in the evening, a couple of million Americans filled their cars with food and headed for the hills. Many others made their way to local churches for impromptu services, and still more sandbagged their homes and unlocked the weapons cupboard.

And the cause of this widespread panic? They believed that their country had been invaded by Martians! At a time when three quarters of the population listened to radio as their main form of entertainment and information, they tuned in to hear what they believed was a “live” news broadcast. Snug in their front rooms on that cold autumn evening, with whole families gathered around their “household friend,” they listened in mounting terror as an obviously terrified reporter told them; “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. They look like tentacles to me…That face, I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful.”

What they were listening to was Orson Welles’ dramatisation of War of the Worlds. But they didn’t know it was a dramatisation. Almost half the audience had tuned into the programme after they had switched stations when a popular comedy show had ended. They hadn’t heard the announcer introduce a drama. They believed it was a genuine news story, for why would anyone use the radio to fool and scare them?

The moral of the story, of course, is never to act before you have all of the facts. But the lesson drawn from the incident by politicians, media observers and advertisers in America, was the demonstration of how powerful a propaganda and promotion tool radio (and later, television) could be.

Today, six and a half decades later, the media still like to fool and scare us, and millions of people are still prepared to be influenced by a diet of distortion and half truth. Whatever happened to the Aids epidemic that was to sweep across Europe, leaving millions of dead in its wake? Whatever happened to the global warming that was to leave the United Kingdom a rain-parched land? Whatever happened to the BSE scare that would see “meat off the menu for decades”?

My hero, Sherlock Holmes, had the right approach: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.” He would surely have approved of Rebecca West’s view that journalism is “…an ability to meet the challenge of filling space.” Today, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that too many journalists fill too much space with too little hard fact. (And yes, I can hear your chorus of pot, kettle and black!)

Which may explain why a recent Mori survey of public trust in the professions indicated that the groups least trusted to tell the truth are, in descending order, government ministers (23%), politicians in general (22%) and, you guessed it, journalists (20%). Hardly surprising, when a considerable amount of journalism has become locked in a downward cycle of propagandising, distortion and trivialisation, which can be just as bad, and frequently worse, as the government spin that is routinely condemned by the press.

A free and independent press should be the cornerstone of a democratic society; a fearless champion of truth and exposer of corruption and hypocrisy. Today, we read and hear what we want to read and hear. We want our personal bias reinforced by programmes and papers owned by chasers of profit rather than pursuers of truth. If Martians did land this evening, I suspect that most of us would simply wonder who had paid them to come and hazard a guess as to how long it would be before they made the cover of Hello!

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 30th October 2004