Tabloid media, nowadays a term which conveniently describes an approach to news rather than just a newspaper format, has much to answer for in terms of pain, suffering and distortion.
Much of its deleterious impact is on politics and the most vulnerable or most gullible sections of society. Even more seriously, for example, the enthusiasm with which news media absorbed and amplified the lies and distortions in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq may not have been responsible for the thousands of deaths which occurred but it helped create the climate which made it possible.
And occasionally the tabloid approach is also life threatening to ordinary citizens of the western world in a form far more dangerous than any terrorist threat. Perhaps the best example of this is the way the media in the UK initially, and then in other countries, seized on dodgy research into the alleged dangers of vaccinations. The major impact of the dodgy research, and the tabloid embrace of it, was falling vaccination rates with the consequent growing risk of epidemics with wide-ranging health implications as community-wide protection levels fell to dangerous levels.
The sorry story is told in Ben Goldacre’s book, Bad Science, and the blog has written about the book, the background and issues before. In Australia we avoided some of the worst of it – although vaccination levels are still very low in some areas. This is largely because of a variety of systematic campaigns and programs to combat the spread of disinformation. Former Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, recognised the threat early and funded Health Department campaigns on a national basis. The Melbourne-based consultancy, Royce, played a key role in the campaigns along with lots of health professionals and the departmental health promotion and communications staff. More recently States have begun to introduce rules which require children to be immunised it they are to be enrolled in school.
Despite the research being long discredited, although the major media promoters of it in the UK never admitted they had been wrong, preferring to fudge the situation by referring vaguely to new research which supplanted the earlier stuff, the media impact continued to affect immunisation rates. Indeed, the number of media corrections on immunisation was less than those by the media over Iraq and that was two only – The New York Times and The Economist. Which, however, is two more than the number of apologies by the politicians who prosecuted the war.
However, now one of the US figures in the anti-vaccination campaign has partly recanted. Dr Tony Jaques, in the latest of his issues management newsletters, recounts the story. It can be found at
Tony says: “A prime example of effective issue management is the world-wide campaign opposing childhood vaccination against life-threatening diseases. It’s also an example of an issue achieving a remarkable level of success despite its basic premise being so fundamentally flawed
“But some recent developments suggest the tide just might be starting to turn. In the United States the anti-vaccination icon Jenny McCarthy has finally abandoned most of her more extreme advocacy, even though she tries to argue she hasn’t changed her mind at all.
“In Australia too there has been some success against the most vocal of the anti-vaccination groups driving this deadly issue. In March the high-profile Australian Vaccination Network was forced by a court ruling to change its name to one that more clearly reflects its anti-vaccination views, and it’s now called the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network. A week later the controversial group was stripped its registered charity status for tax-deductible fundraising because potential misinformation could impact on children’s health. “Yet the impact goes on. Earlier this year it was reported that a swath of inner-city, affluent Melbourne suburbs are falling below safe vaccination rates for children receiving the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine, leaving doctors worried about an increased risk of potentially fatal diseases. Australian Medical Association Victoria vice-president Dr Tony Batone said educated professional parents from affluent suburbs are either underestimating the risk of preventable diseases or not immunising over ‘unsubstantiated claims linked to autism’. “With its effects seen around the world and across borders, anti-vaccination is an issue campaign with deep-seated support and long-lasting impact. But unlike most issue campaigns, this really is a matter of life and death,” he said.
Reading Tony’s newsletter prompted the blog to think some more about how and why the tabloid media is as it is. It’s easy to blame journalists and proprietors – or the people who read the rubbish – but the problem does seem to be structural as well.
A possible solution occurred when thinking about Gary Wills’ book Papal Sin where he talks about Thomas Aquinas’ concept of ‘cultivated ignorance’ or ignorantia affectata which Wills describes as “an ignorance so useful that one protects it, keeps it from the light, in order to keep using it.”
Wills’ goes on to suggest that: “Certainly in a time that demands intellectual honesty ……. to remain oblivious of the most basic questions concerning dishonesty is to disqualify oneself for serious exchanges with one’s peers.” Wills was discussing, from the perspective of his Catholic faith, how the structures and attitudes of the ‘church’ (ie the Pope and the Curia rather than the body of its adherents) consistently creates ‘structures of deceit’ around issues as wide-ranging as what the church did or didn’t do about the Holocaust; the church’s long espousal of Jews as ‘deicides’; and, a host of other issues from contraception to child abuse.
In essence, specific world-views and specific structures cultivate ignorance. Aquinas has never been one of the blog’s go to philosophers let alone theologians but he certainly provides a useful framework for discussing modern tabloids – whether electronic, social media or print in any format.