Tuesday, June 21, 2005

All that's news but no ethics

cyber age: ND Batra
From The Statesman

Ethical cleansing: All that’s news

This is the Internet age. News spreads instantly. To set the world on fire, you don’t need six degrees of separation. In May, Newsweek’s report about the Koran being desecrated was based on an anonymous government source, which turned out to be false and caused massive streets protests in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where 15 innocent people were killed.

Newsweek’s apology and retraction has not helped the credibility crisis of news media. Newsweek saw something scoop-worthy and succumbed to the temptation of reporting it. That’s what tabloids do. Of course, since the uncovering of Abu Gharib prison abuses, there has been widespread suspicion that similar abuses might have been taking place in the Guantanamo Bay prison facility also.

This is a variation on profiling mentality, that is, you have a mental picture of something and you go on imposing it on similar looking situations. But that is not journalism. Sometimes the US news media is too deferential to the White House and faithfully reports what it is told; but at other times, it behaves as if whatever the government says must be false. The attitude of healthy scepticism, trust but verify, which distinguished US news media before 9/11, has not altogether vanished but has certainly become subdued.

Under the pressure of the 24/7 instant media flow, news organisations sometimes too hastily give up their gatekeeping functions and betray our trust, in spite of their good intentions. It is not only about the Bush administration’s pre-war propaganda about the weapons of mass destruction, which most American news media lapped up without much questioning, and later on began to discover to their dismay how wrong they were.

Some of them, for example, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have indulged in the luxury of critical self-examination, and published lengthy analysis why they ceased to think independently and swallowed the official line about weapons of mass destruction.

The American media mindset, excessively partisan or deferential, can be dangerous to the world. The behaviour of American media, especially after 9/11, shows that freedom of the Press does not necessarily lead to independent and objective reporting and analysis. American news media, especially wire services such as the Associated Press, dominate worldwide news gathering and dissemination.

They are the eyes and ears of the world in the sense that we see the world as much as they want us to see it and the way they want us to see it. This might sound like a conspiracy theory, but should we always trust news media? It is not so much their biases and prejudices in the selection and exclusion of stories; it is the matter of reporting facts that could be verified.

Because the world depends upon them about what is happening, they have an ethical responsibility to go behind the story and uncover the truth before they publish what they garner at the first attempt. Of course, sometimes it is a major dilemma for news media how to deal with events that are happening at a warp speed; nonetheless, disclaimers and caveats, or subsequent apologies and retractions, do not go far enough in explaining what is real and what is fabrication.

In an environment of distrust and fear, people would accept anything, even if it were a hoax. On the eve of Halloween on 30 October1938, when war drums were getting louder in Europe, the famed Hollywood actor Orsen Welles created widespread panic in Grover Mills, a small town in New Jersey, by broadcasting the hoax that Martians (based on HG Wells’ War of the Worlds) had landed in the town. Some people rushed to their churches believing that the end of the world had come while others got ready to fight the Martians.

Radio was the major news source in those days and people accepted as truth whatever they heard on radio. Welles wanted to debunk that blind faith with his radio hoax but instead aroused the wrath of the people and Congress.

The Federal Communication Commission would impose a criminal penalty on any station broadcasting a hoax today. While the Welles radio hoax fooled only the ordinary folks of New Jersey and no serious material harm was done, but it does show what rumours and hoaxes posturing as news could do.

Newsweek’s unverified story not only killed innocent people but also further spoiled the already tarnished image of the USA in the Muslim and Arab world.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “perpetrators were prisoners, not guards…. the most serious desecrations of the Koran at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility were committed by the Muslim inmates themselves. Some of the most inflammatory allegations, such as guards flushing a Koran, appear to be the result of unsubstantiated rumours spread by inmates who may have been following Al Qaida instructions to falsely claim mistreatment. Or maybe they were simply trying to deflect blame for all the Korans they were mutilating.”

Regardless of the Pentagon’s conclusion based on Brigadier- General Jay Hood’s internal investigation that no desecration occurred, and Newsweek’s retraction and apology, it is going to be difficult to undo the damage to public diplomacy. The Afghanistan Islamic clergy once again has demanded, “Whoever is responsible for these crimes should be handed over to an Islamic country to face trial.”

1 comment:

  1. I think you've misrepresented Orson Welles here; he did not want to debunk any myth, nor did he set out to create a hoax.

    His was a radio play, and he adapted Wells' classic novel to simulate a news broadcast. It was an ingenious and innovative attempt, but it panicked those radio listeners who only tuned in partially.

    You can get more info (see Early Career) from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Welles