There are a lot of things I could be doing other than writing blog posts on the internet, researching a book and setting up a national lobby group for reason, secularism and freethought in Australia. Sometimes I wonder, “What the hell am I doing this for?” Then a week like this comes along and the question is answered a hundredfold. Let me explain.
The week started with a tweet from Richard Saunders from the Australian Skeptics. Richard had picked up on an article in the Daily Telegraph [since deleted] spruiking an obviously shonky product called the Qlink Mini which purportedly shields mobile phone users from harmful radiation by resonating with “our body’s energy system” in order to “maintain the strength of naturally occurring protective energy systems within our bodies.” Richard smelled bullshit and so did I, Jason Brown (aka A Drunken Madman) and several others in the Australian skeptical community.
It didn’t take us long to suss out that the product was a scam, that the ‘science’ put forward as evidence was bogus and that the ‘experts’ trotted out to support the extravagant claims were either imposters, natural therapists, nutters or totally misrepresented.
Mainly through the efforts of Jason Brown along with Jeremy Sear and Stephen Downes from Crikey, the story was picked up by ABC TV’s Media Watch and Stephen Fenech, the ‘technology writer’ of the Daily Telegraph was exposed for producing advertorial content disguised as editorial.
Channel 9’s Today Show technology reporter, Charlie Brown, was also caught up in the scandal when he made a slightly more skeptical, but unresearched report on the same product.
While Charlie’s transgression fell short of ‘cash for comment’ it was clear that he hadn’t done his homework and based his report largely on Qlink’s media release.
To his credit, Charlie engaged with his critics on his blog – whereas the Daily Telegraph simply pulled the Qlink article while Fenech went to ground. In his own defence, Charlie Brown wrote: “We ran this segment because QLink was in the media …” In other words, “It was in the news, so that made it news.” But Charlie admits he hadn’t used the product and it is obvious from his report that despite his ‘skepticism’ about the manufacturer’s claims, he hadn’t researched it either. In effect, Charlie just repeated what had already been uncritically reported elsewhere by ‘journalists’ like Fenech.
Today, “Bob”, a persistent poster on Jason Brown’s blog wonders why we have made such a big deal of this. And I’d like to answer that.
It’s not about some dumb piece of plastic that will do you no more harm than lighten your wallet to the tune of $48. It’s about a much bigger issue which starts with calling the media to account.
The Qlink incident has shown that a few intelligent, well-networked bloggers can make a difference. We can get a false story exposed on national television, we can shame a major daily newspaper and we can have an irresponsible journalist hauled over the coals for bringing their newspaper into disrepute. We are just ordinary consumers, but the internet gives us the power to fight back against an increasingly lazy and biased media.
And why is this important? It’s important because dishonest journalism isn’t just about selling you shonky devices to stick on your mobile phone. Dishonest journalism also influences the way people vote – and the governments we elect affect every aspect of our lives. It is said that a nation gets the government it deserves. It might also be said that our apathy buys us the media we deserve.
This struck home to me last night when I watched the following report from American political commentator, Rachel Maddow.
In this report, Maddow discusses the claim that President Obama’s recent trip to India and Korea will cost embattled American taxpayers $200 million per day and involve one-tenth of the entire US Navy anchored off India in case of a terrorist attack. I have to admit, if I was an American who’d lost their job and their house in the Global Financial Crisis and I heard that reported as if it were true, I’d be pretty pissed off too. But the fact is, the report is as misguided as Stephen Fenech’s spiel on the Qlink Mini Radiation Shield. It’s just not true. It’s a right-wing meme and the evidence put forward for it being true? “I’m not just making this up – it’s on the news!”
Because the story is on television, ‘in the papers’ and ‘on the radio’ millions of Americans will believe this lie and when the next election rolls around, it will form a part of their decision making. In short, shonky media reporting means that a very large number of Americans will place their votes for the next leader of the free world based on outright lies and distortions. If that doesn’t scare the crap out of you, I don’t know what will.
The self-contained right-wing media described by Maddow is little better than that which prevails in countries like North Korea. America’s media may not be controlled by the Government, but the vested interests which do control large sections of it (yes, Rupert, I’m talking about you) are clearly not driven by a commitment to truthfulness, accuracy and objectivity. As Maddow argues, while America does have a ‘free press’ many voters receive only the information provided by the right wing media conglomerates. These conglomerates have a vested interest in creating suspicion and paranoia about media outlets whose reports conflict with their conservative ‘spin’. How can journalists and editors be truthful, accurate and objective when they are clearly driven by a right-wing political imperative? If journalists will schill shonky products for money, it’s just another step to schilling lies for political motives.
For me, the difference between lying for political gain and lying for monetary gain are just two sides of the same coin. Sure, schilling a shonky ‘radiation shield’ isn’t going to effect world peace, but it’s the same kind of ‘sell-out’ journalism that leads to the highly politicized tabloid media now entrenched in America. Is that what we want here in Australia? Is this the kind of media we deserve?
We have shown this week, in a very small way, that we can fight back against a media that doesn’t represent our interests as consumers. If we do our research and shout loud enough and in the right places, we can make a difference. Sure, it’s a dodgy bit of plastic that caused a scandal this week, but next week it might be another ‘children overboard’ scandal reported uncritically by a lazy or biased press. If the media know that the public is not only watching, but checking and that we not only expect, but demand truthful, accurate and objective reporting, then we may just avoid the situation which exists in the USA.
This takes vigilance and effort on the part of the public, but not an inordinate amount of time. It simply means when you come across something that sounds biased or wrong, you do a little research and, if your concerns are warranted, you write to the media outlet and cry foul. If you have a blog, you can blog about it. If you’re on twitter, you can tweet your concerns. If you’re on Facebook you can share it. Encourage your followers to complain as well. Be polite, but firm. If we allow our journalists to parrot media releases and our newspaper editors and television producers to feed us uncritical, unscientific, unresearched pap, then that is what we deserve. I claim that we deserve much more, and the only way we’re going to get it is to actively engage as consumers and demand far better standards in journalism than we are getting from our press, popular radio and commercial television. These outlets are consumer sensitive and will react positively to public outrage.
In order to get the media we deserve, we have to stop being passive consumers and become active participants in the dissemination of news. The internet allows us to do that. An uncritical media report might sell you a shonky bit of plastic today – tomorrow it might sell you a shonky government. This is not just about a piece of plastic.
The Super Duper Quick and Easy Guide to Becoming a Hard-Hitting Journalist – Too busy for J-School? This is all you need to know … Cartoon by Mikhaela B. Reid
Gladly’s Book Recommendations
Gladly finds shoddy reporting unbearable. If you share his interest in politics, media and critical thinking you might like to read these books.
Press Bias and Politics: How the Media Frame Controversial Issues by Jim A. Kuypers and Robert E. Denton Jr
Supermedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World by Charlie Beckett
On Doubt by Leigh Sales (Australian journalist)
Man Bites Murdoch: Four Decades in Print, Six Days in Court by Bruce Guthrie
The Persuaders: Inside the Hidden Machine of Political Advertising (Australian) by Sally Young
Trust: From Socrates to Spin by Kieron O’Hara
American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges
Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism by Beder Sharon
Critical Thinking: A Beginners Guide by Sharon M Kaye
Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach by Ned Noddings
Educating the Consumer Citizen: A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising and the Media by Joel Spring
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Frauds, Scams and Cons by Duane Swierczynski
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
Bogus Science: Ideas that fool some of the people all the time by John Grant
… and hundreds more books on critical thinking and skepticism from Embiggen Books online.
Special Plug: Don’t forget The Australian Book of Atheism edited by Warren Bonett and including a chapter on the history of atheism in Australia by me will be released into all good bookstores on 22 November. The book is available for pre-order from Embiggen Books and will be on sale at The Amazing Meeting (TAM Oz) in Sydney later this month.