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The Dark Side of Mainstream Media

Lesson 1: The use of nerve words

A few years back, at the height of the controversial Western Australian shark cull, I found myself constantly locking horns with a local news editor over the fear and misinformation that they were generating in their deliberately slanted media reports. Back then it was exasperating, and served to cloud the issue and curry favour for the state government agenda of drum-lining. The perspective of time shows it for the cheap spin it truly was. With the shark cull defeated, I can laugh about it now. One of my all-time favourites still remains ‘Shark Horror at Perth Beach’ – the story of a man who had been out for an early morning walk along his local beach when he captured footage on his phone showing a shark fin circling offshore. The shark was catching fish. As the man panned his camera around it confirmed that he was alone on the deserted post-dawn beach. I emailed the editor and demanded to know who exactly was so traumatised by the event as to warrant the use of the word ‘horror’? Indeed, the only two parties involved were the beach walker and the shark.

The sole human witnessing the event was videoing it excitedly, and he was clearly far from horrified. The shark, completely oblivious to the man on the distant shore and the looming threat of amateur journalism, was busying itself with rounding up a few fish for breakfast, and most certainly wasn’t horrified in the slightest. Sadly, it should have been. What followed was a season of drum-lining and the needless deaths of several small tiger sharks. Then-premier Colin Barnett and his Liberal crones blatantly ignored the advice of the scientific community and growing public outrage; instead enacting a senseless culling program which produced no positive result whatsoever. Which was precisely what we advised them would happen. To this day I swear the WA government’s research involved watching all the Jaws movies several times.

This followed hot on the heels of another piece of journalistic crap ominously entitled ‘Shark Lurks Off Crowded Metropolitan Beach.’ The inference in this case was blindingly obvious. Hungry man-eater lured by the prospect of a buffet meal hovers ready to strike. Only in this case, the shark in question happened to be a tagged shark and the trace information recorded as it passed the receiver buoys proved that it had actually transited down the coast without stopping. There was no hovering, stalking or prowling. And quite clearly no loitering. I pointed this out to the news editor and bluntly suggested that her third-rate journo might consider terms such as ‘swims harmlessly past’ or ‘totally ignores’ as more truthful substitutes for ‘lurks off.’ Of course the editor knew this full well, and that wouldn’t support the government’s narrative that the shark problem was out of control. There is absolutely no mileage to be gained in a story entitled ‘Suddenly Nothing Happened.’ But in fact, that is exactly what it was – a story about nothing, deliberately made sensational and provocative simply by some well selected words which did not convey the truth. These articles did just what they were supposed to do – instil fear and more importantly, cause outrage. This is what gets views.

‘OMG, you’re actually denying the shark was there? WTF! Sharks are our biggest problem right now.’ retorted one of my more articulate critics on social media. Therein lies the proof that it wasn’t just sharks that were taking the bait, thanks to media manipulation and spin.

As a writer I am familiar with how words work – we use certain ‘nerve words’ to evoke a desired reaction or create an image in the reader’s mind. That’s the beauty of words – they have a latent power. And remember, that power can be wielded for good or evil. I recall Obi Wan Kenobi explaining something similar to Luke Skywalker. Or as the Galactic Empire approved tabloid media in a distant galaxy might spin it: ‘Old man lures naive farm boy.’

Lesson 2: Be selective about who you mention and how

Now you’ve learnt the power of certain words and you’re grappling with whether to use your newfound force for good or evil, here is another truism about words. The words that we use, or indeed the words we choose to leave out can create a slanted impression in people’s minds. Moral panics tend to be generated by tabloid media and their skewed depiction and portrayal of specific occurrences. We saw that with the ‘shark menace’, and most recently we have seen it with the depictions of ‘African gangs’ in Victoria.

When a teenage arsonist was arrested for lighting a fire just days later, no mention of the youth’s ethnic background was made in any media reports. Why did it seem so vitally necessary to describe the ethnicity of non-Caucasian perpetrators a few days earlier, yet the arson incident which was enacted by a Caucasian teen did not seem to call for a racial description of the accused? Before you suggest that this is an isolated incident, consider also the recent November 2017 brawl in Gippsland which saw four people hospitalised and a woman king hit and stomped on as she tried to resuscitate an injured man. Once again it seemed unnecessary to include the ethnicity of the perpetrators in media reports. Neither were those Caucasian perpetrators referred to as a gang. It is a fact that black youth are far more likely to be described as a ‘gang’ than a group of white youth.

Throw in some more of those nerve words we talked about in Lesson 1; I would suggest some good descriptive ones are ‘thugs’ and ‘predators.’ Be sure to add some behavioural texture with words such as ‘frenzy’ and ‘rampage’ and you’re well on the way to creating your own hotbed of moral outrage. And remember – it is moral outrage and panic that gets you views on-line. When you can’t make it on your own journalistic ability, this is a dead-set winner. A large part of your audience are apathetic viewers who won’t look that deeply into the background behind your stories, so you must play to their innate fears to galvanise them.

Lesson 3: Magnification, or the ‘Highlights of the Day’ technique

Is there a problem with youth crime – ‘African’ or otherwise? Yes, undoubtedly there is. But, like the old shark issue it is not the biggest problem, as crime statistics bear out.

Blanket reporting of targeted incidents in the media gives us a skewed perspective of frequency and scale. Anyone who has ever watched the two minute summary of a day’s test cricket will understand how this works. The summary footage contains only the highlights of the day played one after the other, giving one the impression of dynamic exciting play, when in actual fact the reality was hours of boredom broken by precious seconds of action. Despite knowing this, you still can’t help but be caught up in the sense of non-stop action, punctuated by the roars of the crowd and the feverish commentary. This is called magnification, and it leads neatly into the next lesson. That is, when you focus light through a magnifying glass onto something volatile, you can start a fire.

Lesson 4: The ‘Firestarter Method’

As far as problematic youth gangs and crime go, Australia has been there before. Many times. In my youth it was the ‘rocks’ and the ‘skinheads’, and the local suburban gangs were well known. In truth, they were more a bunch of kids who hung out together, but of course ‘gang’ is a convenient nerve word which conjures the idea of criminal motivation or organisation. Before my time there were the bodgies, widgies and sharpies.

The thing is, the gangs of the past were ‘our gangs’. White Europeans. With the steady rise of multi-culturalism, what followed were Vietnamese and Lebanese ‘gangs’ and they seem to be viewed in an inherently different way. When these racial ‘gangs’ arise, the talk invariably turns toward their reluctance to integrate and assimilate. I lived in a suburb with a strong English population. There were youth problems, and crime statistics showed the suburb had the third highest incidences of crime in the city. Yet no talk of Caucasian youth gangs. There were a gaggle of shops plainly emulating the shops you would find back in England; selling imported English produce. (The Olde English Confectionery shop was my favourite!) Yet nobody talked about a reluctance to integrate or assimilate. It was certainly never painted that way in media reports.

Consider how gangs are portrayed in the context of entertainment and pop-culture. Take the TV series ‘Sons of Anarchy’ for example. Can you imagine the fall-out if the ‘Sons of Allah’ gang TV show was aired? Negative reactions would range from moral outrage to mild surprise and horror. (And not even a shark in sight). What would make a show about Muslim bikers a no-no? Imagine how the viewing public might react to the depiction and glorification of the Muslim equivalent of Chopper Reid. The question is, why do we react with such moral outrage?

It is a sociological fact that we inherently identify with our own kind. We naturally have a stronger connection with our own race which lends itself to a heightened sense of empathy and bias. We feel a sense of relation and social bonding. A sense of allegiance. Diehard football fans will never see the wrong with their own team. Because well, it’s their team. When the team loses, it’s because they had an off-day, not because they’re losers.

There is an element of cultural nationalism at play here. The engendered belief that this is ‘our’ country. There is an implicit notion that ‘our’ lawbreakers are OK. And there is a magnified sense of outrage when the same violence and lawlessness is perpetrated by a cultural ‘outsider.’ The early bushrangers kicked back at social injustice and the heavy-handedness of the police. The people of the First Nation would have had more than ample cause to do exactly the same, yet I’ll wager we would never elevate an indigenous bushranger to the same legendary status as ‘our’ bushrangers. Our country, our rules.

I am ashamed to say that not so very long ago I was guilty of this myself as a white European – if I was cut off in traffic by someone clearly of a foreign descent, I noticed that the curses I involuntarily muttered under my breath tended to be far more racially oriented to those I voiced when it was a Caucasian behind the wheel of the offending car. It led me to wonder just how many of us can claim to be truly colour blind.

So, the Firestarter method. It is the technique of playing upon a latent fear or an innate belief and fanning it until it becomes a blaze. Without oxygen a volatile source cannot become a fire. The media give an issue (or a perceived issue) oxygen. During the WA shark cull they played on the public’s fear and misunderstanding of sharks. Today they are doing precisely the same thing in fanning the flames of racial tension with the magnification of the ‘African gangs’ issue. And to revisit that galaxy far, far away: ‘Fear leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side.’

The pen, as they say is mightier than the sword. It comes down to the integrity of the holder as to how it is used.


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  1. babyjewels10

    I swear, Australians were not always as willingly gullible and unable to think for themselves. When I arrived in 1969, I found smart, canny, funny Australians but today I spent time on a 10,000 member pensioner page on Facebook and it seems their brains have all turned to mush, sucked in by every lie, and defending their warped positions with insults. It would have been hilarious but not for how sad it made me feel. This is how the government gets away with doing what it does and media doing what it does. It works, at least for 46% of us.

  2. flohri1754

    babyjewels … and how both Abbott and djt in the US were put into such positions of power …

  3. Rieslingsocialist

    I actually think we are a pretty successful multicultural society, but the whole world thinks that we are racist – everyone except us. Then we have this racist characterisation of the gang problem in Melbourne to let us know that the rest of the world are correct about us. There are many ways to classify the current gang problem: underemployed youth and fringe suburb youth are 2, but our political leaders choose race or actually a whole bunch of races to describe. Let’s get serious and accept that we are more ch more racist than we would like to think we are.

  4. lawrencewinder

    Trust the ruling rabble to lower the tone… no ethics, no morals.

  5. Ricardo29

    A really good article and I write as a retired journalist of 45 years.i despair at the shit that is served up as news even, increasingly by my alma mater, the ABC, but worse the responses to these stories as evidenced in comments and social media responses. It seems that despite the fact newspaper sales and readerships are dwindling, the so called “tabloid” coverage still influences a large proportion of the population, witness the polling figures for the LNP.

  6. Max Gross

    Face it, people: we are circling the drain…

  7. Jimmy

    We can all despair.
    I have apprentices at my work who’s parents have told them if they join a union they are not welcome back home.
    I think we have reached the point of no return. Sigh !

  8. Kyran

    To use your shark analogy, we are now up to Lesson 5. This is where you get some live bait, trawl it behind your boat and use it to entice the shark into a popular swimming area. Then you criticize the shark, the ‘drum line’ administrators, and the swimmers.

    “A scuffle described by the media last week as “the latest gang flare-up” involving African teenagers was in fact entirely provoked by the journalists who reported it, according to Victoria police.”

    ““The teenagers had been doing nothing of public interest prior to the photographer’s decision to move in and take the photos and [the group] reacted to the photographer and what he was doing.
    “This led to police being called in and a scuffle ensued in which police were spat on and arrests were made. After the event, the photographer acknowledged that his actions had provoked the incident and apologised.”
    Yet the article published by the Daily Mail made no reference to this. It did claim that abuse had been directed at the Daily Mail photographer and reporter.”

    “The email, [from Victoria police executive director of media and corporate communications, Merita Tabain] marked “confidential – not for publication” was sent to the editorial heads of the main media organisations that have been reporting on so called gang violence – the Herald Sun, Macquarie Media, Channel Nine, Channel Seven, Network Ten, Fairfax Media, the ABC, SBS and the Australian. Guardian Australia was not included.
    “Victoria police does not want to see further incidents such as [the Tarneit incident] and I am therefore respectfully asking that you remind your media teams about the importance of not inflaming situations or inciting conflict, and acting responsibly at all times,” Tabain wrote.”

    And the media have the audacity to complain about no one taking them seriously. If the police want to send a legitimate message, why don’t they charge the photographer with affray, instead of sending a confidential e-mail saying ‘please be nice’.
    Thank you Mr Jai and commenters. Take care

  9. Egalitarian

    RNs Hamish Macdonalds interview this morning with Michael Wolf author of Fire and Fury would be very pleasing to the Conservative side of Politics.

  10. Adrianne Haddow

    What an excellent article, Leo. Thank you.

    It should be mandatory reading in our National English Curriculum.
    It could help develop critical thinking in our students and awaken them to the ways in which mainstream media manipulates them.


  11. Phil

    Excellent article. Thanks again the AIMN.

    Prime Hypociser Turnbull purrs about the wonders of multicultural Australia while simultaneously snarling racist otherings.

    Turnbull must be the most conflicted politician we have ever had to countenance.

  12. Jillian

    View almost any short snippet of a MSM report and there is plenty of what you say that rings true. MSM mis-analysis of info serves the noble goal, in the eyes of the one percenters, of creating conditions that serves the wealthiest and extending their sway over the minds of the ignorant. Thank goodness for the internet. With discrimination its possible to find loads of interesting and beneficial stuff. Good bit of writing btw Leo.

  13. Michael Taylor

    For 24 hours now has had the story up; “Bitcoin crash on Korea bombshell.” It tells us that crypto currencies crashed (which they did) because of the announcement that South Korea was banning all trading in crypto currencies.

    The story, which surfaced in the USA the night before, caused the crash.

    Oh what a pity it was fake news. It was actually confirmed as fake news before even published it.

    Then late yesterday afternoon the same story appeared in The Age and on The Guardian … a day after it was proven to be fake.

    Good work, guys. 🙄

  14. John walpole

    I used to live in Bathurst NSW when Mt Panorama hosted the motorcycle races back in the seventies and eighties. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the behaviour of the race fans who invariably rode motorcycles and therefore were looked upon as anti social. The police used extroardinary levels of force and intimidation, which the media lapped up, to “conrol” these outlaws. so it was a natural progression for said media, Channel Seven in particular, to take it to a new level by enticing the crowd, already agitated by the treatment of the police, to trash and burn their station vehicle and then report how out of control this rabble were. There has only been one motorcycle event at mount Panorama since 1987, that was in 2000. that’s how it works alright,

  15. diannaart

    We desperately need a cull on fake news (and the ever circling instigators).

  16. Rob

    The sheep who make up the vast majority of the Australian voting public. influenced by the 24/7 msm media cycle should be observed in their natural habit. The lines outside the polling booths. My own experiences as a polling official(no longer) And that of my colleagues indicate they are still making up their minds as the glossy colourful How To Vote materials are thrust upon them. Dazzled, bewildered confused and still unsure. Handing out ballot papers they even ask you ‘Who the &^%$ should I vote for” or “Can I take as long as I want?” The swing voter, the native species who is a reactive voter to the last thing they heard on tv, radio or social media. believing everything and thinking about nothing other than “have all the sausages have gone already” “How long is the wait i have to pick Siobhan up from netball and Jake from basketball’ Democracy, we love it, don’t we, don’t we ??????

  17. Locals

    Rob, write a book about Australia. I like your style. Straight into the point.

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