Misinforming media

By Nick Twinamatsiko:

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” I didn't – perhaps couldn't – write that; Mark Twain did. My part has been the simpler one of finding, through experience, that it's true. I don't know about you, but I find that when I have first-hand knowledge of an event or a situation, and a report on it appears in the media, I am struck by the discordance – sometimes of prodigious proportions – between the reality and the report. First-hand knowledge of things, I have found, isn't good for my faith in the media. Or perhaps, I should say that faith in the media isn't good for my knowledge of things!

If your knowledge of a certain person has been acquired through the media, chances are that when you get to meet and interact with this person in the flesh, you will find that it's a different person! You will discover that the man or woman of your earlier –perhaps protracted – acquaintance doesn't exist in real life! The media is capable of such magic! It creates non-existent people!

When the media writes about the politics at my workplace, I am well positioned to detect the discrepancies between the reports and the realities, since I am an insider – perhaps a player- in those politics, whereas the poor journalist will have only spent an hour at the place, and consulted interested parties, and gained a hazy understanding of the situation, before running off to publish the story ahead of the competition. And when you are practicing your journalism in a country where tabloids thrive, you will probably be aware that the nature of the reading public is such that telling it first is far more important than telling it accurately. So I don't get surprised when I see misinformation in the reports about situations that I know first-hand. I always realize that the nature of journalism and the nature of our society conspire to make such things inevitable. But when I know absolutely nothing about the situation being reported about, I put absolute faith in what I read! Then, one day, the real Tiger Woods comes out, and I find that it's a different Tiger from the one I have always known, and the media, perhaps infuriated at being so exposed, tries to hang the poor fellow! When my friend Nathan – himself a media man- visited Harare earlier this year, he couldn't believe his eyes, for he couldn't see any trace of the mess and misery that had featured prominently in the Harare he had always known – via the media.

Should we dump the media? No. We would then become uninformed, to refer to Twain, which would be worse. Besides, the misconceptions that the media spawns in our minds are of the sort that we have long lived with. During history lessons, we picked false ideas about the realities of the men that lived in centuries past. Those of us that have read Jane Austen know that it was possible to live through the Napoleonic wars, and not feel their effect. If they couldn't feature, even as a whisper, in the novels of a woman that lived through them, then, surely, the impression we got during history lessons was an exaggeration. Historians, by picking out the events they consider important, create a picture of the past that's a distortion of reality. And, since we have learnt to live with their lies, we can also live with those of our journalists. But it's important to be mindful, as you turn the leaves of your favorite newspaper that you might be dealing with lies!

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