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We have nothing to fear but hype itself

By Malcolm King - posted Monday, 9 February 2009

One million people out of work by June! The lifestyles of the newly unemployed! Here comes the Great Recession! What’s next? The Great Depression! Read all about it ...

To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we have nothing to fear but hype itself.

The media have hit the superlative button and kept their finger on it for a generation now. Is it possible for the fourth estate to ramp up fear campaigns and moral panics beyond the descriptive powers of language?


The use of gross exaggeration - labelling every car crash a tragedy, every flood, a natural disaster, every stock market fall a looming depression - is beyond fatuous. It’s mad.

It’s paradoxical that the media, which sells itself on its ability to report with a reasonable verisimilitude of “what happened and to who”, has abandoned this core function in favour of producing opinion stories - not unlike this one - but without the interview and research.

I am not talking about the downmarket tabloids or whacko “Martians attack Kansas” shock-horror backyard presses. I’m talking about Australian metropolitan newspapers and TV news.

Once upon a time it was the duty of every reporter to report as many sides of the story as possible. Even a “no comment” was a comment. Today, balanced reporting is an endangered species. Many news stories are diatribes and are full of errors of fact.

Here’s an example. Recently Queensland radio commentator Michael Smith flagged that the hijab, a type of head dress worn by Islamic women, should be removed before entering a shop because it disguised the wearer’s face. This was quickly followed by support from the National Retail Traders Association.

I’m not the sharpest chisel in the toolbox but I know that the hijab shows the face and it’s the burka (and various other styles) that cover the head. This story went national before the Minister for Multicultural Affairs in South Australia pointed this out on ABC radio.


It was the producer’s job in Queensland to ensure the announcer didn’t make a fool of himself. Did he know? Did he care? Or did Smith say “burka” and by the time it reaches South Australia, it had turned in to a hijab? That story ran hot for 24 hours. It must have made the hordes of Islamic female armed robbers nervous.

“Newspapers are finding a similar business model as record companies did in the late 1990s. The cost to replicate their core function is rapidly dropping to zero with the ubiquity of video, bloggers and cell phones. And that can’t be stopped,” said the Executive Director of Carnegie Mellon Australia, Mr Tim Zak and innovation expert.

“And for many of the citizen journalists (bloggers), their need for revenues are not nearly as great as the major papers. Since the general public has so many more sources for news of all kinds and the ability to search for news is so much easier than before, it’s faster and easier to dispute a story that has been published.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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