Kate Nicholas: Media too often skew complex subjects

Presenter: ‘Which is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world?’ Contestant: ‘Barcelona.’

Presenter: ‘I was really after the name of the country.’ Contestant: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know the name of any countries in Spain.’

This is a slice of ‘Dunce Britain’, served up last week in the Daily Mail – you may be more familiar with Private Eye’s similar ‘Dumb Britain’. The above interlocution happened during a Lincs FM phone-in; and there were plenty more.

One of my favourites was from the LBC’s Big Quiz – Gary King: ‘Name the funny men who once entertained kings and queens at court.’ Contestant: ‘Lepers.’

I admit I laughed. I can’t stand the Mail in general, peddling as it does its potent mixture of fear and insecurity. But the ignorance displayed by the hapless contestants featured was funny. That is until you consider the context in which such ignorance was laid out for our entertainment, and the fact that the Mail was probably poking fun at its own readers.

Surveys, amusing and serious, continually point to the dumbing down of British society, particularly concerning the younger generation, and the priority that is being given by educationalists to research skills as opposed to
retained knowledge.

Meanwhile, the print media have increasingly blurred the lines between comment and news, taking an openly partisan line over current affairs and politics. The public have thus looked to the broadcasters for objectivity, but even there the emphasis on conversational reporting encourages editorialising.

And all media sectors are guilty of sensationalising and simplifying the often complex – and hence dry – issues that corporate communicators seek to explain. The need for a commercial quick hit also skews the news agenda, and as a result the public’s perception of world affairs. Look at the coverage of Africa, which focuses periodically on the tragedy of the week. The headlines soon fade but the problems endure.

Journalists’ views of their sources can also be affected. A healthy scepticism often rolls over into paranoid cynicism when dealing with corporate announcements, whereas statements from NGOs are more often taken at face value.
So the public are left to wade their way through this often entertaining labyrinth of interests. Even if they are interested in discerning some objective truth about the world in which they live, it seems they are increasingly ill equipped to do so.


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