Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Media Watch: The Anti-Islam Bias

Iran is trending on Twitter. It must be true.
While the Arab Spring was a democratic triumph, the resulting wave of Islamic conservatism seems troubling. Reading media reports describing proposed Egyptian laws allowing sex with dead wives and plans to destroy the Pyramids one can’t help feel that the previous regimes had a place in suppressing this Islamic madness.

That may be the case but neither of the above stories are actually true – and yet they were still reported as fact around online and print media. Once the truth behind the stories came to light, most media outlets pulled the story – but the damage had already been done.

These stories typify a trend of spurious anti-Islamism which dominates Western media, and it occurs for a number of reasons:

1.       Lazy Research
Decreasing resources and corporate competition mean that journalists are under increasing pressure to churn out more copy. This “churnalism” results in little or no research time and therefore uncorroborated falsehoods are often reported as fact. In a market where stories are the product, it’s cheaper to buy in from public relation companies or reprocess press releases from the news wire than spend precious resources on producing well-researched original content. A well-researched story is likely to be less sexy – and less saleable – than something specifically designed by a corporate PR company to be emotive.

2.       Bias
The first rule of PR is to “be the journalist”. When working for the Labour government I attended constituency training on how to increase your vote. The talk was given by Tom Watson who stood out by defying the national trend to hold his vote in 2005. Tom explained that spamming the local press with stuff you wanted to get in will get you nowhere as you are asking the journalist to find value in your message and extract it by rewriting it. Instead you evaluate the saleability of the story yourself and write it for them in that vein. If you are successful they will print it pretty much word for word and whack a journalist's name on it. This is ideal since you are getting your message through intact in a way that looks like ‘objective’ journalism. The media thus has become middle ground for competing PR interests who win and lose depending on the market value of their message. You can increase your chances of getting in by appealing to the known bias of a media source or by democratisation.

3.       Democratic Journalism
The rise of social media has taken the guesswork out of determining the market value of news items. If a story is trending then it obviously has appeal and can be reprocessed and sold to a different audience. The very fact that it has been popular creates safety in numbers as if you print the story and it is disproved you are not alone.

Let’s take the above example of a Daily Mail article that was debunked.  They first published the article on having sex with dead wives on the 25th of April – but the correction exposing the hoax didn’t appear until over a month later even though the story was contradicted within a day (as soon as the Egyptian authorities could respond). The reader comments underneath show the reaction to this lie. I wonder how many people who read the article saw the later correction? Why, also, does the story link to other articles about Muslim women’s rights rather than other false stories?

The journey of the story is fairly typical. It was seeded and propagated through Twitter (democratic journalism) and at no point did the Daily Mail check with the Egyptian Parliament to see if this proposed law was on the table (lazy research). And why would they bother? It fits nicely with the Mail’s constant bashing of Muslims (bias). 

There are also some who believe that corporate interests play their part in promoting or suppressing stories. It's difficult to find direct evidence of this in the UK (in the US it isn't).

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