Enough Dumbing Down of the News

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As a loyal member of one of the world’s most disliked professions, I can’t go as far as a friend who recently declared that “you just can’t trust the media,” but I sympathize with her frustration.

In a post-O.J., post-Monica culture, where every car chase and stained dress merits ’round the clock coverage and a four-pundit debate, it seems the more media you consume, the less informed and more terrified you are. The rise of twenty-four-hour news channels — the alphabet soup of CNN, MSNBC, CTVN and CP24 — has necessitated a hyperactive, obsessive style of news delivery that fills the screen with stock quotes, weather forecasts, traffic updates, entertainment gossip and news bites.

The incessant news delivery elevates insignificant events (remember all those pre-September 11 shark attack stories?), trivializes events of importance and results in news that is often inaccurate, insufficient or alarmist. Case in point is a story that CNN jumped all over on the night of September 11.

Via new videophone technology, a correspondent reported explosions on the outskirts of Kabul. Was it more terrorist attacks? Was the U.S. retaliating? CNN didn’t know, but it stayed on the story for several hours.

Then, as quickly as it appeared, the story was gone. Weeks later, I found an item buried in a Canadian newspaper explaining that the explosions that night were the result of a skirmish between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

And let’s not get started on the anthrax attacks. It’s scary, to be sure, but the relentless, fear-mongering coverage has turned most of North America into a paranoid wreck, with hysterical spottings of harmless white powder clearing the most unlikely targets of terrorism, like a recent false alarm that emptied a Zellers store near Halifax.

The war on terrorism, the bombing of Afghanistan, the search for Osama bin Laden, violence in the Middle East, protests in Arab nations, the plight of refugees, changes to domestic policy, tightening of immigration and security policies. All this provides ample opportunity for intelligent, thoughtful reporting and commentary. And much to the credit of hundreds of journalists and media outlets worldwide, there has been some excellent coverage, from sobering, eye-opening accounts by correspondents in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, to smart and provocative columns in both the alternative and mainstream press.

A lot of the media, however, have had to play catch-up with the events of the last seven weeks, attempting to explain Islam, Middle East politics and the history of Afghanistan and the difference between it and all the other “-stans” to an ignorant public. Profit-hungry owners and publishers — particularly in the U.S., but in Canada, too — have slashed foreign coverage in the last two decades, then popularized (read dumbed down) their content to attract readers.

An increasingly concentrated ownership of media organizations has meant that news coverage is more uniform and is more often programmed based on how well it will sell. And terror sells. Especially when it’s wrapped up nicely with jazzy graphics and catchy labels: America Under Attack. America Fights Back. Canada On Guard. Anthrax Attacks. Of course, it’s not all the fault of the media. A lot of folks do want only sports, lifestyle and entertainment news, but the lowest common denominator approach to journalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assume people are self-centred, unworldly, uncritical and easily manipulated and that’s what they will become.

Journalists rank somewhere between used car salesmen and lawyers in the public’s estimation of trustworthiness. Still, the job of the media, especially in times like these, is more important than ever. Even my skeptical, distrusting friend reads two daily papers and scours the Web for news.

Newspapers, television, newsmagazines — that’s how the public gets its information. That’s how it decides whether Justice Minister Anne McLellan’s sweeping anti-terrorism bill strips Canadians of their civil liberties. Whether Health Minister Allan Rock was prudent in buying up stores of anti-anthrax pills, despite the absence of any exposure in Canada or if he was merely suffering from what one writer cleverly dubbed “terror envy.” Or, whether the expensive, more-difficult-and-less-successful-than-anticipated, U.S.-led war on Afghanistan is still worthwhile.

If anything good can come out of the events of the last seven weeks, it’s (North) America’s growing hunger for information about the rest of the world and its increased interest in politics and world affairs. And if certain media outlets could stop their chatter and scare tactics for just a moment, they might find that the public isn’t as dumb or unengaged as they thought.

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