Doug Edmeades: Media fails to weed out fake news

A giant iceberg passes Little Harbour in Twillingate, Newfoundland and Labrador.
DOREEN DALLY

A giant iceberg passes Little Harbour in Twillingate, Newfoundland and Labrador.

OPINION: I am becoming sick and tired of the junk purporting to be news that is being served up to us day after day. Peak soil, peak oil, peak nitrogen fertiliser, peak water quality, peak planet! The end is nigh for the human race, is the message you would get if you skim-read the main daily headlines.

I have been wondering for a long time why this sense of gloom has descended upon 21st century society when there is in fact so much to celebrate.

Until now I have in my writings attributed this to the development of post-modern philosophy which has ushered in PC-ism - all opinions must be given equal weight - thereby nurturing the rise of pseudo-science which allows people to talk about 'alternative facts and truths'. Making up stories and passing them on as real without a blush or blink of an eye is somehow becoming acceptable.

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An anecdote captures the situation. Some years ago a major Auckland paper ran a special feature on organic farming – its philosophy, techniques and fertilisers. I contacted the writer of this feature and expressed the view that readers would be misled because much of the content of the article was, if not nonsense, plain wrong.

He was not in the slightest bit interested in my scientific analysis and assertively explained that his readers were always looking for something new and interesting. Science in his mind was boring old yesterday.

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He had no orientation towards facts and evidence; his compass was on the money.

This made me ponder about the role of the media.

Historically the Fourth Estate – the media – has performed an important role in democratic societies. It represented the people. It was the people's watchdog, keeping the other three estates of government – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary – honest by informing the citizens.

The newspapers' sacred task – often incorporated in their banner heads - was to provide the balance of opinion in the belief that democracy worked best if voters were well informed.

But the Fourth Estate is changing and journalist themselves can be heard bemoaning their plight.

The media is becoming more corporate. The focus these days is no longer on traditional values and an important role to society but on the need to optimise ratings and hence revenues.

News now is a commodity to be bought and sold with little thought given to the consequences to the fabric of society. It is the same fate that has befallen science.

Sensational stories focusing on the here and now and delivered without any historical context describes modern journalism.

Yes, a big iceberg was 'calved' last week in the Antarctic. Sensational news when offered in the context of humans messing up the planet – look what we have done now! But the sensational 'shine on the ball' diminishes when it is realised that this is normal behavior for ice-shelves. It has happened before and will happen again.

It is this contextual component of the news which is so important because it shapes our world view and it is this balanced perspective that society losses with the demise of investigative journalism. The way we 'view' the world becomes distorted.

This environment of sensational now-ness, offered without context plays right into the hands of the environment movement. And the press has its favourites because they offer exactly what the media wants – short, sharp sensational stories; who cares about context?

Those pictures of Mike Joy standing in the dry Selwyn River bed earlier this year would have meant nothing if the ephemeral nature of the river, and the lack of rainfall in its headwaters, was made abundantly clear.

Given this gloomy background I was delighted to be introduced to an excellent website called Our World in Data. It is the brain-child of Dr Max Rosser of Cambridge University and has been established exactly for the reasons we have been discussing. This is how he backgrounds the website and its excellent graphics.

"The focus of journalists on single events is understandable, the work of journalists is to write interesting stories and the history of progress is largely about the absence of exciting stories – fewer deaths, less poverty, less violence. The unbalanced account of the media and of some intellectuals, however, is translated to a popular conception of the development of the world that is too negative.

"We think this ignorance about global development matters. Constant doom-saying and the failure to report the accomplishment of our efforts is nurturing cynicism. It is especially sad when those who care about the development of our world turn away as they see no information on global development that would give them hope."

And this is his summary of our world today?

"The empirical view of our world over the long term shows how the Enlightenment continues to make our world a better place. It chronicles how human societies became less violent and increasingly more democratic. The empirical evidence shows how new ideas continue to improve living standards, allowing us to live a healthier, richer and happier life. It is the story of declining poverty and better food provision in a world we care about.

"Most of the long-run trends are positive and paint an optimistic view of our world that is unknown to many who only follow the daily news to inform themselves about the world."

I implore you - go and feast yourselves on its contents. Go and celebrate – we are a clever ape. The biblical adage applies: the truth will set you free – in this case from the doom and gloom.

Dr Doug Edmeades, ONZM, is an independent soil scientist and managing director of agKnowledge. He is happy to hear from readers: doug.edmeades@agknowledge.co.nz.

 - Stuff

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