By Tony Deyal
“World Bank says poor need money”; “Federal Agents raid gun shop, find weapons”; “Woman missing since she got lost”; “Homicide victims rarely talk to police”; “Cows lose their jobs as milk prices drop”; “Breathing oxygen linked to staying alive”; and the media question of the day in, of all places, Polk County Florida, “Are prostitutes getting screwed?” These are all fine examples of what we know as media screw-ups and we not only expect them but, in my case at least, I thrive on them.
For example, we pronounce the name “Cockburn” as “Co-burn” but when after the wedding the headline reads, “Cockburns Off On Wedding Trip” it might cause, or be caused by, some serious friction. Just like the headline “One-armed man applauds the kindness of strangers”, so to I commend the media for getting it right occasionally.
History has shown that to err is human, we all make bad decisions and mistakes, and even in proof-reading our own work, we see what we think we wrote and not what is actually on the page or in the paper. This might explain why “Drunk driver fails blow job test”, “Condom truck tips, spills load”, “Psychic arrested again- still didn’t see it coming”, and “Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25.” I definitely won’t make a big thing of a baseball headline about the games’ stars, “A-Rod goes deep, wang gets hurt”.
The real tragedy is something that has been around since the Devil gave Eve an apple to eat after assuring her it would give her all the powers of God. This is Gospel truth to many although there are some misguided people who assert it is “fake news”. Scientific American says, “History is littered with examples where the facts were altered to suit a specific purpose.”
In the 8th century, the Catholic Church came up with “The Donation of Constantine”, which it claimed was proof that in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine had transferred vast tracts of land to Pope Sylvester I for curing him of leprosy. The Church was able to maintain this hoax until the 15th century. Fake news in America did not start with Donald Trump although he popularised it by dismissing all media criticisms of his presidency as “fake news”.
In 1782 Benjamin Franklin created a fake issue of a Boston newspaper that claimed that American forces had discovered bags of money and goods that appeared bound for the king but included among them the scalps of soldiers and civilians. The bag of scalps featured a letter addressed to the king asking him to accept the scalps as a token of friendship and loyalty. The public was outraged. Franklin’s “news” added to the animosity directed against Native Americans and caused them not to be trusted or accepted in the “new” America. In a very real sense people believe what they want to believe.
As late-night comedian, Conan O’Brien, said, two thirds of the country believe fake news, however, defined, causes confusion. The other one-third said, “Why are we talking about this when we’re being invaded by killer dolphins?”
Caribbean Newspapers have embraced the term “fake news” like the old man in the bible with his prodigal son, fatted calves and all. I got 210,000 results in .40 seconds in a Google search of the Gleaner for “fake news” and the one that led the way was about “Tertiary Students Peddling Fake News For Fun.” I found 1,430,000 in the Barbados Nation including stories about “fake” schools, advertising, smart cards and a fake voters list in Dominica. The St Lucia Star had 13,700,000 results in .48 seconds, and they included a headline, “Fake News from the police no different from Social Media Fake News” however, the media cannot be blamed for reporting an increasingly troubling phenomenon.
An interim report from the British parliament on “disinformation and ‘fake news'” states, “There are many potential threats to our democracy and our values. One such threat arises from what has been coined ‘fake news’, created for-profit and other gain, disseminated through state-sponsored programmes, or spread through the deliberate distortion of facts, by groups with a particular agenda, including the desire to affect political elections.”
Earlier this year, an observer article by Dr Greg Hill, director of the Idaho Policy Institute, warned, “dishonest reporting is undermining trust In media worldwide” and confirmed that “due to the rise of digital technology, false news stories are more pervasive and, even more alarming, harder to identify.” The paper cited a case in which The Daily Mail was caught publishing a blatantly false “bombshell” piece regarding global leaders being duped into spending billions of dollars to combat global warming based on manipulated data.
The biggest problem with this and other examples of fake news is that they can lead to total mistrust of the media- something that is already happening. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans believe mainstream news outlets produce inaccurate reports, UK adults feel that the news media isn’t doing a good job, and Canadians (71percent) worry about fake news. At the same time, there are honest journalists working hard each day to provide their readers with a sense of what is happening in their countries and the world, and the implications and consequences of these events.
There will always be genuine errors of fact by a profession that deals with tight daily deadlines and operates in an extremely stressful environment. Some recruits are handicapped from the start. Journalism in the region is ongoing proof that the freedom of the press belongs to who owns them and because it is a buyer’s market for labour, many of the people who come into the profession lack the basic skills, knowledge, and education to cope with the challenges.
I don’t mind reading “Midget sues grocer, cites belittling remarks”, “Most earthquake damage is caused by shaking”, “Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee”, “Diana was still alive hours before she died” and even “Woman in sumo wrestler suit assaulted her ex-girlfriend in gay pub after she waved at man dressed as a Snickers bar”. What I mind is what seems to be a constant echo of the English satirist Peter Cook, “I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen being thankful for his name after he read in a paper which apologised for the “incorrect spelling of a name. Pastor Dick Bigelow was incorrectly identified as Dick Bigblow.”