The media’s scaremongering shame

By Dev Nadkarni

In today’s times the media’s influence on our opinions, our very worldview, is near total. There is hardly an aspect of our lives – the way we view things, the language and expressions we use, the clothes we wear, the prejudices and biases we form, the trends we follow, the things we converse about and much else – is shaped by the media.

The more recent blossoming of social media and their incredibly rapid and wide acceptance across humanity has strengthened this influence. Depending upon circumstance and timing, media’s effect as an agent of action and change is urgent, instantaneous – whether in creating a fan following a la Justin Bieber and Susan Boyle or triggering a revolution as in Egypt and large swathes of the Middle East at a speed that has stunned the world.

This easy accessibility to all forms of media in this age of increasingly device agnostic convergence and its seemingly total influence on people’s minds – and hearts – is the bugbear of authoritarian regimes around the world. Following the Middle East contagion, these regimes have not only stepped up the routine monitoring of the media but have shut down web resources they fear could trigger mass action. But then that’s another story.

This strong influence and hold that the media have on people’s minds obviously puts tremendous responsibility on the people who present news content and opinion in what a large number of media consumers consider to be credible and authoritative purveyors of information.

Unfortunately, though, this sense of responsibility is increasingly lacking not only in rising numbers of media practitioners but also their hallowed media houses. This was glaringly seen in the aftermath of the trifecta of earthquake + tsunami + nuclear disaster that struck Japan last month.

The earthquake + tsunami is now believed to have taken 18,000 lives and the estimated US$350 billion cost of reconstruction is the biggest bill ever seen by the world. The damage to the nuclear infrastructure, however, has so far not claimed a life but the coverage of its perceived and conjectured threat has been magnified many times over by much of the world’s media – at the inhuman cost of putting the supremely unfortunate human tragedy in the shade: a tragedy that will linger for years, if not an entire generation and beyond.

Just days after the disaster, the focus of the world’s media shifted from the dead and the untold hardships of the living to stories and opinions from all sorts of “experts” about possible radiation that could travel through the atmosphere and up the food chain, causing people in the US and elsewhere around the world to rush to stockpile iodine supplements and other preventative measures at inflated prices.

The news media was filled with theory after sickening theory, with the sole aim seemingly being perpetrating the scare on a global scale. Such alarmism in the media is not only unjustified, it is irresponsible. More than the nuclear reactors and the lives of people in Japan, it was the credibility of both western media practitioners and their outlets that was in a state of meltdown.

Fortunately, there were a few sane elements that did a service to the sense of fair play and brought in a modicum of proportion to the runaway madness about the global nuclear contamination scare – one report of which warned the Pacific Islands to watch out for invasive species because of the nuclear fallout.

One of these infinitely sane journalists was the Daily Mail’s science Editor Michael Hanlon, who effectively explained why the media are so fascinated by the idea of impending nuclear catastrophe at the expense of reporting the real human tragedy that is unfolding before everyone’s eyes:

“The earthquake and tsunami could not be comprehended. Tales of survival will emerge but, in essence, the story of the great Black Wave is over. The towns are gone, the people are dead. We need to ‘move the story on’, to use the media’s dread parlance.

“But the nuclear crisis is all too comprehensible, and on-going. Our fear of the rogue, effervescent atom, the invisible, DNA-mutating ultra-poison appears to be primordial. By concentrating on the atomic plants we make this story about the works of Man, not of Nature, and thus write ourselves back into the centre of a narrative in which we, in truth, have played merely the role of hapless and helpless bystanders and victims. Scaremongering and hubris; an unhappy combination.”

It’s as though the media is incapable of predicting anything positive – only doing the opposite: scaring people based on conjecture. Have we seen stories on the legendary resilience of the Japanese people, their unparalleled experience in nuclear technology, which they developed despite the living memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the greatest human tragedy of all time?

Has the media considered that it is perfectly possible that Japan could not only engineer a containment of the nuclear problem and the lessons it will learn could go a long way in making other nuclear power plants elsewhere in the world safer? Those are possibilities that are clearly uninteresting to the unabashedly sensationalist global media that is addicted to the heady fix of seeing soaring statistical graphs of hits, eyeballs and page views on their flat screens.

In New Zealand, the media made much of the predictions of a maverick magician turned geologist-soothsayer about new quakes in Christchurch causing children to become so scared that they forced their parents to leave the city on the day of the predicted quakes.

Such eroded credibility because of stories that proverbially cry wolf gives an extremely convenient handle to authoritarian regimes to clamp down on the media for exaggerated and irresponsible reporting – something which we have seen in fair measure even in the Pacific Islands context. And when it is not the system that clamps down on the media, it is people in power who do so in their individual capacity.

This is not to suggest that media should steer clear of controversy or soft pedal on blowing the whistle. In fact, that is their very raison d’etre. It is just that they must get their facts right; facts are sacred, opinion is not – and the two must consciously be kept apart.

The social media certainly are a rich source of tips and leads for the media but the news media must never parrot them.

Leave all the goss, the opinion and the madcap theories of apocalypse and other radioactive scaremongering to Facebook and Twitter. Or else prepare for a meltdown of the news media.

First appeared in Islands Business, April 2011