Friday, February 16, 2007

Media Laziness

Last week, the American media was in a frenzy reporting that Speaker of the US House Nancy Pelosi had requested a big expensive government plane to fly her home to California. Trouble is, it was all a lie. The House Sergeant-at-Arms requested the plane for security reasons and said so in a statement February 8. The media got it wrong, apparently sucked in by someone who leaked the story for political reasons (for more on this, go here, which I arrived at via TPM/The Horse’s Mouth).

The same media laziness happens in New Zealand.

Last week, the Opposition claimed there were thousands (the exact number kept changing) of Kiwi children going to school hungry each day. The news media reported the claims without really investigating them or considering that as Leader of the Opposition, John Key just might, maybe, quite possibly, have political motivations for presenting information that seems to make the government look bad. For Key, such information doesn’t have to be true, it just has to sound true. The news media should have been more forceful in examining the claims.

This week there was a report that 17 students at an Auckland secondary school didn’t have their exams marked. Immediately it was claimed that the body responsible for the exams, NCEA, is in “crisis”. The National Party attacks the NCEA during nearly every Question Time in Parliament. And the news media never digs deeper.

Thousands and thousands of exam papers are marked each year, yet 17 get missed. Instead of a “crisis”, isn’t it equally plausible that this represents, you know, human error? Actual human beings mark the exams and, last time I checked, there was no such thing as a perfect human being. Mistakes happen, no matter how much we try to minimise them. What’s needed is a little perspective.

What’s also needed is a bit of scepticism. The National Party champions privatisation of education. Isn’t it at least possible that National’s attacks on NCEA have more to do with their overall goal than with NCEA itself? They also clearly have something to gain by making the government’s education policies look bad.

I’d like to see journalists ask more questions, dig a little deeper and look for connections. I’d also like them to consider what agenda their source is promoting—there will almost always be one lurking under the surface.

A free society depends on the free flow of information to function. But lazy, sloppy journalism doesn’t address that need. Journalists and their editors need to do better. I’m afraid I’m not too optimistic that they will.

No comments: