It is an ever more frequent event that I screw up my face in confusion, anger or even disgust when viewing the nightly 6pm television news. The cause of consternation is the seemingly endless stream of misinformation – or disinformation – fed to an eager public by ill-informed or ignorant ‘journalists’.
I use the term ‘journalist’ in its most broad sense of a paid employee of a news organisation. Actually, I use the term ‘news’ in a very broad sense too. Any organisation which seeks to inform us through traditional media channels and, in most cases, brands itself as ‘news’ will generally get away with it. But for how long?
Anyone who has a professional skill or an entrenched hobby can most often easily pick holes in a story on their specialist subject. My professional skills are in IT and my hobbies also encompass IT, and aviation. With the increasing number of stories about IT hitting our eyes and ears in this modern digital age, it is becoming almost too easy to pick holes. But it is from aviation that I can draw the most telling examples.
In January 2008, a British Airways Boeing 777 crash landed at London’s Heathrow airport. Inevitably, information about the cause of the crash was sketchy in the first few days and the media can be forgiven for latching on to whatever ‘facts’ were being thrown about at the time. There is no excuse, however, for an absolute gem of misreporting perpetrated by then-European reporter for 3News, Rachael Smalley.
As she stood beside one of Heathrow’s main runways, describing the delays caused to airborne aircraft by the accident, she uttered the words “if you look up to the top of the flight path, you can see planes are literally queueing up to land”. In the background we could see three sets of landing lights. Anyone who has ever stood beside the runway at Heathrow might have noted the smog/cloud was reasonably thick that day as it is common to be able to see FOUR sets of landing lights. Of course, the real congestion would have been in the various holding ‘stacks’ around the greater London area and perhaps even further afield too.
Some months later, 3News anchor Alistair Wilkinson read an update to this story in which he said that the aircraft’s engines had ‘shut down’ in flight. This is simply wrong. By this stage, the accident reports clearly stated that the engines failed to respond to a command for increased thrust. They were still running!
Both of these examples show the lack of basic fact checking. In the first case, you may be tempted to forgive them because they were trying to get a story out quickly. The latter case carries no such excuse. Either the writer of the story played fast and loose with the facts, or they got the information from somewhere other than an official source. The official crash report was available on the internet. In fact, 3News’ published version of the story on their web site actually contained the correct description!
What is missing, I believe, from modern news organisations is the use of ‘subject matter experts’ (SMEs). A quick call to, perhaps, the Royal Aeronautical Society might have alleviated some of the blatant mistruths. Better still would be to have persons on staff who are familiar with common areas of coverage. We are subjected to network-employed political commentators and sports commentators on a regular basis and 3News also have a qualified medical reporter.
Moving back to IT now, it is a constant irritation I suffer that people believe what they hear on TV. My own family, and indeed many smart people I know speak with derision about topics they clearly have no real knowledge of. The most prevalent example is Twitter. The popular micro-blogging service keeps making headlines, whether it be used by predators or celebrities or ‘real people’ in the midst of wars or major events. The popular misconception of Twitter is that it consists of a lot of people telling you what they’re eating for lunch and other such mindless, boring minutiae and that this overwhelming tide of dross hides any real information.
Well, that’s true if you let it happen. An online forum community I participate in recently rounded on Twitter and Facebook, decrying all this ‘lunch’ rubbish and how it couldn’t possibly be of any value. I felt compelled to point out to them that should they all join Twitter and follow each other, they would immediately disprove their own theory because none of them would dare to post any dross! Several members said they had ‘signed up’, hadn’t posted anything and didn’t yet see the value. That’s like standing on the sidelines of a sports match and complaining that the players are useless. Get on the field and show them how it is done!
I spend a lot of time these days challenging people on their views about such things, but I need to step back and realise they’re just being sold a line by the media. Instead, I should be educating them about the failings of the media. I’d try to educate the media, but it is hard to make yourself heard in that court.