Friday, February 5, 2016

Media distortions: An international phenomenon
(Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica)--Media distortions and myths were central to our best discussion of the week here at my peace journalism workshop at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.

One of the central tenets of peace journalism is that reporting as traditionally practiced exaggerates and distorts reality. The basic premise of this theory, as articulated in the book “The Culture of Fear,” is that sensational media over-report (or sensationally report) some risks, creating a public fearful of virtually non-existent risks like dying in a plane crash, having ones’ child abducted by a stranger, or being killed by a terrorist.

As I began the discussion listing distortions and exaggerations, a particularly observant student piped up and asked about the Zika virus. It has been reported extensively—I got 80 million hits for Zika on Google news today. But the question is, has this reporting created undue fear or panic about the virus? A peace journalist covering Zika, I told my students, would begin every story about the virus this way: “Although 80 percent of those who are infected with Zika experience no symptoms….” Media hysteria can always be quashed by context.

I concluded the discussion by asking my students to list media distortions from their home countries. (UPeace students come from around the world). The students listed these distortions/exaggerations:

South Korea-Exaggerated missile threat from North Korea
Costa Rica—All foreigners as criminals
Switzerland—The French are stealing our jobs
Norway—The Swedes are stealing our jobs
Nicaragua-Xenophobia about Costa Ricans
Italy—Muslims don’t respect us
Finland—Overhyped economic “disaster”
Indonesia—Exaggerated tensions between Muslims and Christians
Cambodia—Exaggerated/overplayed political threats (The prime minister said that if he loses the election, there will be war.)

These distortions are a reminder of the prevalence of irresponsible media worldwide, and of the extensive work that needs to be done by peace journalism advocates.

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