Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media by Nick Davies

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Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media by Nick Davies

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: An excellent account of the story and reasons for the decline of investigative journalism and a resulting media landscape that is more than ever full of distortion, imbalance and plain fabrication. Occasionally self-contradictory, and could definitely do with better referencing, but still a must for all that read newspapers, watch TV and have any interest at all in what passes for information in the current age.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099512684

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Do you remember a Y2K bug? When the world's computer systems were to melt down in an Armageddon of vital services failure and possible nuclear accidents?

The Y2K panic is a great example of flat-Earth news: something that gets passed on in the media chain from those unsure to those who might have a vested interest in maintaining it as fact to those who are completely ignorant, and in the process gets bigger and bigger and – almost accidentally – assumes a status of orthodox, accepted truth.

Such developments, though, although commonplace in science and technology news and frequently behind moral and health panics, are only the beginning of the story.

Nick Davies is less interested in how such stories originate and why they are believed and more in asking why nobody checked?.

Flat Earth News explores the reasons for the decline of investigative journalism and paints a resulting media landscape that is more than ever full of distortion, imbalance and plain fabrication.

It's a well organised account, combining academic research, opinions and experiences of numerous journalists and several case stories (themselves examples of investigative journalism).

Modern journalism is more often than not churnalism: endless recycling – without performing any checks – of stories run by wire agencies and press releases from business and government PR departments.

According to the study commissioned by Davies from Cardiff University, 60% of the UK news items in five leading newspapers (four broadsheets and the Daily Mail) consist wholly or mainly of ready-made (wire or PR) copy; 20% contain clear elements of that; and only 12% are wholly generated by the reporters. 70% of the news stories are not fact checked at all.

The Internet is not any better: news websites run by media firms source 50% of their stories from Associated Press and Reuters. On a random day, Google News offered 14,000 stories which were actually retelling just 24 events.

However tempting it is to see a propaganda conspiracy at work, Davies has a simpler, and in a way more worrying and more sinister mechanism: that of commercial, money-making priorities.

In the last thirty or so years, less and less reporters (especially local ones, working in the field, finding and checking stories) have to file more and more stories on shorter and shorter deadlines. This declining ratio of column inches to headcount is one of the most important reason for the decline in standards and increasing reliance on ready-made 'news' served on the plate by the wire agencies and PR departments.

The time pressure and lack of resources to investigate and follow up is combined with a number of unspoken but pervasive 'rules of production'.

Stories have to be cheap and easy to report, which leads to preference for those sourced nearby and 'human interest' soft items. Stories also have to be safe: with no danger of legal costs that might be incurred if media law, libel and secrecy laws are invoked or if a strong lobby and special interest groups are upset. This leads to choosing safe facts (thus avoiding controversy) and a preference for official versions, even if they are lacking in evidence.

Safe ideas are also preferred: ones that reflect the broadest consensus, taken for granted to such a degree that nobody even bothers stating them. This is one of the most interesting rules described by Davies and becomes particularly clear when examining reports from the past: for example there were critical reports of the Vietnam war in the US press, but nobody in the mainstream media questioned the rationale of the intervention itself.

A tendency to join (and often fuel) moral panics is also rooted in the requirement for safe ideas, as is the need to always present 'both sides of the story', even if one is clearly correct (unless it's an official version of events).

The commercial mechanisms at work in the press have been more recently reinforced and extended by an organised propaganda machine of the governments in general (and the military in particular). These are extensively explored in the later sections of the Flat Earth News

The chapter on rules of news production was particularly well written, convincing and enlightening. The section dealing with the emerging government/military propaganda machine working on a global scale was fascinating and occasionally shocking. It's hard to believe the extent of actual fabrication - not just distortion, bias and selective reporting, but blatantly making up things - that goes on.

Davies attempts to be reasonably balanced (well done for showing how the environmentalists engage in propaganda not entirely dissimilar to the oil companies) although his progressive beliefs occasionally do influence his judgements.

He spends a lot of time lamenting the decline of investigative journalism and small budgets for 'real journalism' and then produces an extensive account of Daily Mail activities that suggests just the opposite. I know that Davies thinks that the Mail does it in an unworthy cause (and I very much agree with him) but I suspect his attitude to the use of 'dark arts' would be a little bit more forgiving if it came from his side of political allegiance.

The book seems to be very well researched and Davies offers plentiful examples, quotes from printed media and personal communications to back up his argument. Where he fails is in providing no systematic source information whatsoever. The citations in the text are usually attributed, but often not very precisely (e.g. with a name of the author and the title of the source, but with no date information) and there is no list of sources, no footnotes, no bibliography, no endnotes. This is a big issue for a book that stands at the crossroads of investigative journalism and academic research. Davies' website provides explanations, extra information and source material to several issues covered in the Flat Earth News, and these are very interesting, but seven footnotes don't amount to comprehensive referencing.

Still, and despite the more technical shortcomings, Flat Earth News is a must for all who read newspapers, watch TV and have any interest at all in what passes for information in the current age. It's a truly riveting account and occasionally shocking.

Highly recommended.

For some serious investigative reporting, look to John Pilger's work.

Noam Chomsky has written against the US then dominant consensus about the Iraq War.

Bad Science devotes a lot of space to less than satisfactory reporting of science and health news.

Booklists.jpg Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media by Nick Davies is in the Top Ten Books For The Defenders Of Reason.
Buy Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media by Nick Davies at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media by Nick Davies at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media by Nick Davies at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media by Nick Davies at Amazon.com.


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