Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

When the Media Makes You Weep

The BBC – one of the world’s most venerable news brands – has substantially altered the direction and meaning of a news story without advising its audience that it has done so. This is straight out of Orwell’s 1984.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was mocked in the pages of the Wall Street Journal last week for insisting that climate change is the world’s most pressing problem. As the subtitle of US senator John Barasso’s opinion piece phrased it, “The Obama administration talks global warming as the world burns.” Barasso listed six arenas of concern he considers more critical: Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

The events occupying my own attention in recent months include those in Eastern Europe, as well as China and Hong Kong. Most of all, though, I am appalled at how journalists have been conducting themselves. We are witnessing a tidal wave of impaired judgment. What media organizations consider newsworthy and what barely makes it onto their radar frequently leaves me gasping.

The saturation coverage of the Gaza conflict versus the low-key coverage of the horrors unfolding in Iraq and Syria is merely one example – and is discussed by a former Associated Press journalist in a lengthy, must-read article here. But the malaise goes deeper.

In late July, I awoke to a headline on the BBC’s website that declared: Isis ‘orders female genital mutilation’ for women in Mosul. This was a bona fide BBC news story, which included the words “The UN says,” and which quoted a United Nations official named Jacqueline Badcock. You can see it here since, luckily, that version of the story was preserved by an independent third party.


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Heaven be praised, the genital mutilation accusation was quickly debunked. Ms. Badcock may be one of the UN’s most senior representatives in Iraq (see the top right of the screen here), but in this instance she apparently didn’t know what she was talking about.

The proper thing for the BBC to do was to post a brand new news story on its website incorporating the latest information. Instead, it chose to rewrite the original one, altering its headline in a manner that gives no indication of the role the BBC itself played in spreading this unsubstantiated rumour.

Anyone clicking the link on my personal Facebook page from July 24th will not see the BBC content that existed at the moment I posted it. The headline no longer proclaims: Isis ‘orders female genital mutilation’ for women in Mosul. Instead it says: Doubts grow over Isis ‘FGM edict’ in Iraq. Straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, the body of the news story has also been altered.


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The BBC now pretends that it knew all along that the genital mutilation accusation was questionable. As a result, the thousands of people who, like me, linked to the earlier version of the BBC story on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere appear to suffer from reading comprehension difficulties. The remarks we made at the time don’t accord with what the BBC’s website actually says. But this isn’t because we misunderstood – or because we jumped to conclusions or indulged in exaggeration.

It’s because the BBC – one of the most venerable news brands on the planet – now thinks it’s acceptable to re-write history. It thinks it’s OK to substantially alter the direction and meaning of a news story without advising its audience that it has done so. This is a fundamental betrayal of the public’s trust.

It’s fair to say that I, personally, have been experiencing an existential crisis these past few months. The state of journalism has never depressed me more. Like Senator Barasso, I don’t think global warming is the most important thing happening out there. Far from it.

Which has made blogging about the climate debate nearly impossible lately.



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This entry was posted on September 1, 2014 by in media and tagged , , , .
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