The Worst of the Modern Mass MediaThe Mass Media and DemocracyMass Media: Sensationalism, Panics and ExaggerationWhich are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?Rupert Murdoch and News Corp's Involvements in Politics
Downmarket media publications reflect - and exaggerate - many of the fears of society itself. News outlets have dropped most fact-checking and critical analysis steps in order to churn out news more cheaply and quicker and as a result daft and untrue stories are appearing in mainstream news1,2. There are virtually no checks or quality control mechanisms that newspapers have to adhere to, and, occasional outrages against press misbehaviour are quickly forgotten by paying customers. The purpose of it all is (1) sell more newspapers, or (2) influence public opinion. People are all too willing to believe exaggerated claims. People want their lives to be part of historical drama3. The millennium bug, worldwide pandemics, moral panics and fear that society is going wrong all betray humankind's neophobic reactions to progress and change. Newspaper editors pick on this fear and concoct alarmist stories from everyday events and statistics; for example they publish alarmist articles on dangers from mobile phone masts even though there are none, and there are almost no good-news stories about children despite massively improved circumstances4. Many editors and media owners have explained the usefulness of fear-mongering and sensationalism - it certainly sells more copy than balanced news. Fears become amplified and made more real by their appearance in headlines, creating a hysteria about a topic whereas in reality things are much more mundane and acceptable5. Professional broadcaster Fraser McAlpine says "news outlets are behaving like spoof sites, and they're making spoof sites look like sensible news" and people are finding it harder to tell the difference6. Modern newspapers and news outlets are producing low quality, misleading and untrue stories because they are driven by consumers who prefer entertainment, gloom and outrage rather than serious text of reasonable reading. Always remember that after thousands of hyped-up press warnings, on midnight of the 31st of December 1999, nothing happened.
Aside from society-wide issues, many individuals and families suffer greatly after facing persecution from the popular press. Once accused by the press of a heinous crime, no vindication is gained from being proved innocent - it is very often not even considered newsworthy. Profits are more important than repairing the lives damaged through careless reporting. "The media rarely present the case for the accused. [...] It is more difficult than you might think to withhold judgment on someone who has been pilloried in the press by a one-sided presentation of the evidence. [...] They give the illusion of getting the same story from several different sources, when often they are all getting their information from a single source"7. The problem is that many news outlets report the same case from the same source without the due fact-checking, and without waiting for proper evidence, resulting in many victims.
"Crime stories have long been a staple of news reporting, but crime news doesn't reflect the real world" says Professor Justin Lewis, head of the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, UK. He continues: "Crime is usually reported because it is dramatic or alarming, not because it is typical or likely to have an impact on our lives. So while increases in the crime figures are seen as dramatic, decreases are seen as dull. The first will be headlined, the second glossed over. [...] Many people have assumed in recent years that crime levels are going up when they have actually been going down" (quoted in 2009).8
For example in the 1990s the annual total crime rate was over 15 million crimes per year on average in the UK. This was according to the large-scale British Crime Survey which quizzes people about crime, rather than rely on police or government statistics. In the 2000s the average was closer to 10 million crimes per year. This significant drop has occurred despite an increasing population in the UK. In 2009, 65 per cent of the population were misinformed, or self-deceived, and believed that crimes rates were rising in the country8, even though they've been gradually falling for a long time. In 2013, that figure is still 58%. The UK government's Home Office has itself complained of the mistaken opinions of the masses, noting that in particular, readers of poor quality newspapers are the most likely to have skewed perceptions of crime:
“The Home Office says that [...] Crime in England and Wales actually peaked in 1995 and has now fallen by 44% in the last 10 years. 'Despite the number of crimes estimated by the British Crime Survey falling in recent years, comparatively high proportions of people still believe the crime rate to have risen. This is not true.' said Jon Simmons, head of Home Office research and statistics who put part of the problem down to media reporting. 'Readers of national tabloids were around twice as likely [39%] as those who read national broadsheets [19%] to think that the national crime rate has increase 'a lot' in the previous year', he said.”
That was for 1995-2005, from 2006-2013 the situation has remained unchanged:
“Some 58 per cent of people do not believe crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19 per cent lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53 per cent lower than in 1995. Some 51 per cent think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under 2 million in 2012.”
The Independent (2013)9
The same situation prevails in the USA:
“News programs devote a disproportionate amount of air time to violent crimes. Consider that from 1993 to 1998, the homicide rate nationwide dropped by 20 percent. In the same period, coverage of murders on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news increased by 721 percent (Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute).”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011)10
Populist news outlets prefer to headline what sells rather than practice good journalism. And aside from crime rates, populist papers tend to report the negative side of pretty much everything.
Poor quality press and news reports portray a biased and skewed vision of the world. This is not just a form of gloomy entertainment. It has real-world effects on the life of society. The social academic Michael J Mazarr says that the "media emphasizes the negative and pessimistic side of events and therefore creates perceptual crises of faith where no real crises exists"5. Research shows that the contents of the news that people read does affect their opinions and attitudes whether or not they 'trust' them. "Over 70 per cent of viewers trust television news as fair and accurate, while only one-third trust newspapers"11. Although surveys of trust show that people do not trust much they find in newspapers, the contents of those papers effects their worldviews nonetheless. Despite intellectual doubt, the contents of trashy, poor-quality news is insidious and subconsciously absorbed.
“In 1991 the [Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, DC] did an exhaustive analysis of network news and New York Times stories on the rapidly recovering U.S. economy. An astounding 96 percent of stories about the general economy were negative in tone; pessimism occupied 87 percent of the stories on real estate, 88 percent of the features on the auto industry, and a perfect 100 percent of stories on manufacturing. [Now] the intervening years have produced one of the longest economic expansions of the postwar era, [it] looks positively foolish.”
"Global Trends 2005" by Michael J. Mazarr12
“The media play a significant role in provoking ... irrational attitudes. There is no such thing as good news when it comes to children. In January 2000, a report by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children indicated that no babies were abducted from U.S. hospitals in 1999. This story could have been used to reassure expecting mothers but was swiftly buried. On the other hand, every negative incident involving [causes a media storm].”
"Paranoid Parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child" by Frank Furedi (2002)13
The Bill and Miranda Gates Foundation, a hardworking charity organisation famed for the genuine progress it makes in fighting disease and poverty in Africa, report that in every measurable way, things are better in Africa than ever before, and indeed, around the world:
“You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated [but instead] I´m struck by how few people think the world is improving, and by how many actually think the opposite - that it is getting worse. [...] The belief that the world is getting worse, that we can´t solve extreme poverty and disease, isn´t just mistaken. It is harmful. It can stall progress. It makes efforts to solve these problems seem pointless. It blinds us to the opportunity we have to create a world where almost everyone has a chance to prosper.”
Bill and Miranda Gates Foundation (2014)14
Mazarr describes the classical sociological studies that concentrated on this negative view of the world. It became commonly known as the Pessimism Syndrome. The author continues to consider what solutions there might be to such an inbuilt, subconscious bias.
“The first element of the solution involves a demand for more objectivity on the part of the news media. It would be wrong, and simplistic, simply to ask network news broadcasters or weekly newsmagazines to report "happy news"; ignoring problems is no alternative to exacerbating them, and one of the media's most important roles is to uncover social ills. [...] More fundamentally, the real solution to the pessimism syndrome is education. Citizens of developed and developing nations alike need a context to understand information they receive, a basis of objective facts that help moderate the news.”
"Global Trends 2005" by Michael J. Mazarr15
Mazarr points out that education is the key to shattering the dark glass that the popular press portrays the world through. Supporting his view are statistics on what people believe about crime rates. The Home Office highlighted an undercurrent of the pessimism syndrome when it complained about the public perception of crime rates: That the trash tabloids are its principal voicepieces and tabloid readers' perception of crime rates are more skewed than readers of better newspapers.
Two major points:
The Pessimism Syndrome affects tabloids and popular opinion, resulting in outlandishly negative slants even on economies or crime trends that are doing well.
Readers of national tabloids fall victim to this mis-reporting more than readers of broadsheet newspapers.
We have seen two factors that help prevent this skewed representation of reality:
Education in general facilitates a more objective and realistic reading of the news.
Avoiding the tabloids and trashy news services results in a more realistic outlook of events and trends.
It is the trashy tabloids and popular weekly magazines that are most damaging, but despite this they remain by far the most successful.
The popular presses have exaggerated events and created "moral panics" about some issues where there was not actually a problem. A sociologist who writes on this topic, Erich Goode, points out the media's active role in the creation of many issues, including: The UFO craze, the dramatizing and wholesale exaggerating of 'epidemics' of violence in school, the phantom of Satanic ritual abuse in the 1960s, the paedophile abduction of children, and even the 'fact' of increasing crime. It has been editorial policy in nearly all titles (except the qualities) since the 1980s to pick on popular fears or worries and to exaggerate and emphasize them with alarming headlines, such as with the millennium bug. These are (or were) seen in the papers over and over, and all evaporated as the evidence and any supporting statistics failed to materialize.16.
More detailed information: Research into the outlandish claims that Baa Baa Black Sheep has been banned (on Facebook).
Some manias form part of long-term political campaigns by newspapers. This one was a particular favourite of The Daily Mail. It was simply untrue, yet many people believed them:
“During the Thatcher years, the Mail joined other right-wing newspapers in exposing the 'political correctness' of the 'loony left councils' - Hackney, which said the word 'manholes' was sexist and renamed them 'access chambers'; [...] Haringey, which said the old nursery rhyme 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' was racist and banned it. All these stories were fiction. Which did not stop the Mail running the Baa Baa Black Sheep story again in March 2006, when a nursery class in Oxfordshire was said to have banned it as racist. That was fiction too.”
It is considered a matter of common sense to admit that the popular press play up and exaggerate stories, including (and especially in previous decades) when it comes to UFOs. The press behaved in the same way as it did with other 'moral panics' - with much sensationalism, and with disregard for evidence16. But it wasn't until I read the research of Martin Gardner that I realized just how much of a role imaginative newspaper editors had played in the creation of the UFO craze. It started in 1947, when Kenneth Arnold saw 9 small weather balloons that were strung together, 'flying' in formation in the sky. The papers came up with the idea of 'flying saucers' on their own, and henceforth, enthusiastically published hyped-up articles attributing all unidentified flying objects to mysterious advanced technology and aliens. It was a science-fiction decade, with a popular press to match.”
A concerned researcher, Peter de Jager, attempted to warn industry experts that come year 2000, there might be an issue with the system clocks on Windows computers. This was particularly important for servers and networks. As these underlie much business, as well as national infrastructures in general, the problem certainly needed looking into. Jager received little attention, so, he hyped it up a bit. Then, the world's media took note of his warning, and propelled it into a massive story of worldwide doom and gloom way beyond the scale of the 'possible' risk initially pondered by the computer expert.
The press didn't examine the claim and investigate it. It is a simple procedure to set your system clock forward a few years to see what would happen. They didn't ask Microsoft or Intel about it. If the press had engaged with this kind of journalism - the kind that created the press in the first place - they would have discovered that not much happens when a computer's clock reaches the year 2000 and beyond. They could have then reported that some computer software firms are making outlandish claims in order to sell expensive yet pointless bug-finding software. But that's not what happened and even if they did know the truth, the papers wouldn't have ran it.
“By the late 1990s, a final wave of sources joined in as all kinds of maniacs and religious groups cranked up the anxiety to the point of apocalypse. They were led by Gary North of Christian Reconstruction who declared that 'We need times so hard that men will turn to God.' Mr North had got in early, explaining in 1997 [...] 'Month by month, fear will spread. Doom and gloom will sell, as it has never sold before. I have positioned my name, my site, and Christian Reconstruction in the center of this fear. All I have to do now is to report bad news.”
Gary North of Christian Reconstruction sounds rather like a modern newspaper editor! If the news services checked their facts, his claims would not have made the news.
When the Millennium Bug's big day came, nothing happened.
“Across the world, it was the same non-story. No planes fell out of the sky. No power stations melted down. And the great non-event struck not only those countries which had spent years defending themselves against the bug, but also those which had done little or nothing to prepare for it. There was no story in China and India where, the world's press had warned, governments had been so lax that the bug would disable their power grids and their communications systems with the possibility of riots as the social infrastructure collapsed. There was nothing, too, from Russia and Belarus and Moldova and Ukraine, countries where the threat had been so recklessly ignored that, as Millennium Eve approached, the US State Department had issued formal travel advisories to alert American citizens to the risk to their health and safety if they were to go there. [...]
Most of those journalists who worked late in search of the promised catastrophe wrote nothing at all about the great non-story. [...]
[There was] no truth at all in hundreds of thousands of news reports and background features and confident comment which had run through just about every newspaper and broadcasting outlet in every country on the planet, stories which had been running for years [...]. Encouraged by these stories, some governments had spent fortunes.”
The UK government spent between £396 and £788 million fighting the bug, according to various journalists. The USA had spent between $100 billion and $858 billion. Italy done less, and refused to check all of its systems. Nothing happened there in year 2000. Russia, one of the largest countries in the world, spent less on the Millennium Bug than did British Airways, a single company. Russia in January 2000 was no less stable than Russia in December 1999. "It was the same, too", says Nick Davies, "with the estimated 30% of small- and medium-sized businesses who had done nothing to defend against the bug".18
The papers were not then full of reports of how safe and secure the IT infrastructure of the world was. There no reports noticed of how we could trust the programmers who make server and database software, and there were no reports on the irresponsible fear-mongering of the press. If a minister or individual had stolen billions from the government, there would have been a story. But when the press hype up a problem in order to sell papers, causing governments and industry to waste billions, there is not only no story, but there is no regret and no national debate on how the press has come to be so irresponsible. The press, fully commercialised, was happy with the sales, and when the story dried up, so did their interest. For them, there is nothing more to it. The billions of dollars could have been spent on hospitals and railroads, or even on boosting the power of the Press Complaints Commission. There is something wrong with the mass media industry if it can wrought such damage unchallenged.
My page on UK immigration highlights role the press plays in whipping the public up into a state of panic about immigration, where the facts of the issue are much more prosaic. As a single example, take the housing of asylum seekers. We are allowed to house them in substandard accommodation, but we have stricter rules for (easily neglectable) old people. The Daily Mail reports19 this with its typical aggression as 'WHAT KIND OF COUNTRY DO WE LIVE IN WHEN FRAIL OLD LADIES ARE TURNED OUT OF THEIR HOME TO MAKE WAY FOR FIT YOUNG ASYLUM SEEKERS' and 'WIDOWS ORDERED OUT, THEN ASYLUM SEEKERS MOVE IN'. This terrible skew misses the facts of the matter completely, and fuels social divisions and intolerance. After examining more examples of this type of reporting, my text on UK immigration notes a cycle of sales and demand:
Some very popular papers report on immigration in entirely skewed and negative terms. The formula is that everything bad can be tied to immigration and foreigners; that both those groups are equated with fraudulent asylum seekers and illegal immigration. It is impossible to reach a sensible view of the truth by relying on the hot-blooded, xenophobic and misleading diatribes of some popular newspapers such as The Daily Mail, the Sunday Times and The Sun. How can the populace ever vote in elections wisely, when their understanding of migration is tainted with this type of horrible bias? The emotional response (even if followed up with more careful news reports seen elsewhere) is hard to replace with balanced tolerance. There is nothing to stop the papers endlessly peddling this type of trash: it sells because it panders to fear and ignorance, and in being sold, the papers increase those two wretched traits.”
Taken from my page: "The True Meaning of Christmas: Paganism, Sun Worship and Commercialism" by Vexen Crabtree (2008).
Some low-brow newspaper outlets pushed the idea for many years that the 'political-correctness-gone-mad' idea of Winterval was officialdom's replacement for Christmas. The sensationalist idea was that because Christmas has the word 'Christ' in it, then, modern secular governments and councils could not support it. So, the types of newspapers that peddle anti-foreigner positions took up the story with gusto. The Guardian blogger Kevin Ascott reported that the Daily Mail repeated the myth the most between 1998 and 2011, a total of 44 times. The Times and The Sunday Times together repeated it 40 times, The Sun 31 times, The Express 26 times and The Daily Telegraph 22 times. The Guardian even mentioned it a few times however, it also ran several articles debunking the myth and in 2011, the Daily Mail eventually faced its critics and admitted that it was wrong.
“After years of perpetuating the Winterval myth, the Daily Mail Corrections and Clarifications column this week admitted it was all made up. It said: 'We stated in an article on 26 September that Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval. Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998. We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas.”
National Secular Society Newsline (2011 Nov 11)
The true source of the story is that of one event promoter who combined several winter events (including Christmas) into one Winterval event in order to simplify marketing. From the Guardian:
The myth was not just repeated, either. It was also gradually distorted to become ever more removed from the original misconception. What started as a myth that one council had rebranded or renamed Christmas became a pluralised, open-ended narrative that 'councils' and 'authorities' were rebranding or renaming Christmas as 'Winterval'.
It then mutated from a simple rebranding to a calculated attack on Christianity by 'atheists', 'Muslims', or the 'PC brigade' who feared offending 'other faiths' or 'ethnic minorities'. In one extreme example, the South Wales Echo claimed that Winterval was the result of 'virulent attacks on religion by atheists', which had led to 'new rules such as Christmas being renamed as 'Winterval'. [...]
In all, at least 15 articles directly claim that Christmas was renamed Winterval because of a fear of offending 'other faiths'. At least a further 10 articles directly claim that Winterval was used to avoid offending 'ethnic minorities'.
So now, thanks to perhaps one repetition too far, the Daily Mail has finally admitted that Winterval is a media fiction. But what impact will those few lines of correction have compared with the huge body of journalism that has been repeating it for so long as fact? And, more important, will Melanie Phillips offer her own apology for repeating the myth?
www.guardian.co.uk (2011 Nov 08)
When I first heard the story, I thought 'ridiculous' and didn't believe it was true. I spent a few minutes researching it, and found out that I was right to doubt. Therefore, my world-view was not distorted. Journalists broadcast their opinions to others, and it is downright criminal that failures in basic fact-checking can be so endemic amongst them.
I could not tell the following tale without having the truth of it questioned - and for this reason, and because Robert Todd Carroll has already told it perfectly adequately, I am going to quote the entire spectacle as he described it:
“The university town of about 100,000 was sent into a panic on August 26, 1990, however, when the news media reported that two young women had been mutilated and murdered in their apartments. The next day another young woman's body was found. She too had been mutilated and murdered. The following day two more bodies were found, a young man's and a young woman's. All the dead had been college students. [...] The news media reported the grisly events in graphic detail. Fear gripped Gainesville's citizens as well as thousands of parents whose sons and daughters were students at the University of Florida. [...] The media reported that the police had arrested their prime suspect in the gruesome killings. A University of Florida freshman, 18-year-old Edward Lewis Humphrey, who was described as unbalanced and violent, had been taken into custody. Earlier that summer, Humphrey had been kicked out of the apartment complex where the last two victims had been found. His roommates said he was weird. It was reported that he had thrown a chair at the apartment manager when he tried to get Humphrey to leave the premises. Humphrey had been in trouble with the law before and had a history of bizarre behavior, like walking into people's apartments uninvited and peeping through their curtains when they locked him out. There were also several reports of him behaving violently toward different people, including his grandmother. [...] The media reported that Humphrey had been diagnosed with manic depression - also known as bipolar disorder - and had exhibited strange behavior after he had stopped taking his medication. There was also a rumor that he had been romantically interested in one of the victims. The news media reported that he dressed in military-type fatigues and went on late-night reconnaissance missions carrying a hunting knife.
Humphrey was never charged with the Gainesville murders, however, because there was no evidence linking him to the crimes. [...] Bail was set at $1,000,000, which is a bit steep for someone accused of hitting a grandmother who declines to press charges against her grandson. [...] The police actually had several other suspects, but the only name they released to the media was Humphrey's. His mug shot appeared in the papers and on television [... and the] million dollar bail indicated that somebody in power thought he was the killer or at least wanted the public to think he was the killer. The media apparently didn't think it was odd that it took the police several days before they could persuade a judge to let them search Humphrey's apartment and his grandmother's house. The searches yielded nothing linking Humphrey to the murders, but they did manage to frighten his grandmother to the point where an ambulance had to be called. [...]
Every day from August 30 (the day he was arrested) through September 11 Humphrey was front page news. [...] In the end, Humphrey was tried and found guilty of battery - even though his grandmother testified that he never hit her. He was sentenced to 22 months in a state hospital. [...] Before Humphrey had been indicted, the media had camped out around his grandmother's house. She died of a heart attack while arguing with a reporter who had been pounding on her door, demanding that she answer questions.
Four years after Humphrey had been tried and convicted by the press, Danny Rolling pled guilty to the Gainesville murders. He was put to death by lethal injection on October 25, 2006.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011)22
The media destroyed Edward Lewis Humphrey's life - with their campaign against him based on the simple fact that he was a mental case and had a previous history where he was accused of once beating his grandmother. The journalist who terrorized his grandmother until she died of a heart attack, and the rest of his colleagues from multiple papers who spread these stories - as they often do, time and time again - are the true bad guys.
The Guardian. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?.
Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Kindle edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
(2008) Flat Earth News. Hardback. Published by Chatto & Windus, Random House, London, UK.
ESRC. The Economic and Social Research Council
(2009) Britain in 2010. Annual Magazine of the Economic and Social Research Council.
Furedi, Frank. Professor of sociology at the University of Kent, UK.
(2002) Paranoid Parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child. Chicago Review Press, Chicago, USA. This edition is "substantially different" from the 2001 UK version.
(2004, Ed.) Politics UK. 5th edition. With Dennish Kavanagh, Michael Moran and Phillip Norton. First published 1991. Pearson Education Ltd.
Leveson, Lord Justice
(2012) The Leveson Inquiry. Subtitled "An Inquiry Into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press". Dated 2012 Nov. Published by The Stationary Office as an official UK government document. Available for download from www.official-documents.gov.uk . The full report is spreadh across 4 volumes, totalling 2000 pages. I've used the 48-page Executive Summary which contains numbered paragraphs and these as referenced directly. Accessed 2016 Nov 09.
Mazarr, Michael J
Global Trends 2005. Palgrave Books softback.