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Daily Media Quotation

The Spin Up Against The Reality

November 14, 2006

by Leslie Cannold - Sydney Morning Herald

Should arguments stand or fall on their merit? Or is it critical that media consumers get full, accurate and relevant information about who is providing facts or offering opinion about matters of public interest? It may be nice to think the quality of ideas - not those who promulgate them - determines their persuasiveness, but the reality is more complex.

A pro-nuclear argument made by a mining magnate will be evaluated differently to the same one made by an environmental activist, a professor of nuclear physics or the chief executive of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

And rightly so. The credentials of individuals and organisations give us important clues about the expertise and motives of those seeking to influence us. They give us the chance to evaluate for ourselves whether an individual or organisation's contribution is influenced by memberships, affiliations or sources of funding and, if we believe it is, to adjust the weight we give to those views accordingly.

Motivations are complex and hidden. Political parties regularly discount the possibility that corporate donors purchase influence over party policies. Think tanks pooh-pooh the idea that their spiritual or financial relationships with religious, political or corporate donors influence their views on matters of public interest, insisting instead that donors simply give to those who share their views.

But unless full, accurate and relevant information on these relationships is disclosed, how can we make up our own minds? We can't. And the truth is that some who seek to influence us believe that some ways of identifying themselves increase the credibility of their message. Regrettably, on the basis of this belief, some provide credentials and make disclosures that are incomplete, misleading or irrelevant.

As the talkback radio cash-for-comment episode revealed, editorial space is preferred over advertising space by those who want to get their message across. The reason is simple. The views of journalists, academics, scientists and doctors are presumed to be the consequence of sustained and dispassionate analysis, not prior commitments, loyalties or the hope of financial advantage. This impartiality gives credibility to their views unavailable to those with known religious, corporate or political commitments, or who stand to make money from opinion being shaped one way instead of another.

This may explain why some organisations choose scholarly sounding names such as "centres", "institutes" and "think tanks". The reality, however, is that unlike academics, the staff of such organisations are not required to have advanced degrees nor adhere to the rigorous standards of research necessary to publish in academic journals.

Many think tanks are reticent about disclosing who funds them, and their employees can be slack in ensuring past political affiliations are a consistent feature of their biographies. We do know that Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have donated to the Institute of Public Affairs, for example, which takes the view that passive smoking is not based on science.

Academic gloss is not the only quality sought by those seeking influence. A connection with the "little guy" - community-based or grassroots activists - also lends credibility to messages the big end of town (corporate Australia, political parties or the church) want us to hear.

The Institute of Public Affairs and some of its staff/members contributed to the establishment of groups such as the Australian Environment Foundation, which campaigns for weaker environmental laws, and Independent Contractors of Australia, which campaigns for deregulation of the labour market.

Such "astroturfing" - the creation or nurture of individuals or groups that falsely inflate "public" opinion - may be behind the popularity among pro-life organisations and activists of rebadging themselves for every campaign they undertake against abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

A well-known anti-choice activist and several women with links to Opus Dei recently became directors of Women's Forum Australia, an organisation that claims to have feminist grounds for opposing stem-cell research and abortion. The Coalition Against Decriminalisation of Abortion seems like a new pro-life grassroots organisation but shares a mailing address with Right to Life Australia and Catch the Fire Ministries. In its first year of operation the coalition found $34,000 to fund anti-decriminalisation newspaper advertisements.

What can be done? The code of ethics binding journalists requires them to be honest, to refrain from suppressing or distorting relevant facts, to refuse to allow personal interest or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit to undermine their independence and to disclose conflicts of interest that affect - or could be seen to affect - their independence.

Perhaps the time has come for other media participants to be asked to conform to similar standards. Anyone who really wishes to conduct their dealings transparently shouldn't find it too hard to work out what disclosures are required.

Beyond this, the best the public and decision makers can do is to approach the credentials and disclosures offered by media players with scepticism.


Dr Leslie Cannold is a researcher and medical ethicist at the Centre for Gender and Medicine at Monash University. She is also a spokeswoman for Reproductive Choice Australia.



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