The Media and Misinformation

Local media reflect local culture, right down to the false information

Saltwire’s Peter Jackson tapped out a short piece last week on a few people connected to Newfoundland and Labrador who have opinions about COVID vaccinations that Peter doesn’t personally agree with.

As you can see from this link, Jackson has written before about vaccines and misinformation. The thing to notice is not that Jackson wrote about a familiar topic.  Look at how he dealt with the people.

Jackson’s latest screed is a visual vomit of screengrabs from social media posts. He started with former Premier Brian Peckford, who now lives in British Columbia, and the transcript of a speech Peckford published on his blog. It’s about a doctor in Alberta, Ivermectin, and the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines. At the back end of the piece, Jackson mentions some local business owners and their opposition to a vaccine passport and mandatory vaccination.

The anti-vaccination lot are a small bunch. They don’t all share the same reasons for doubting or opposing vaccinations. Some are just concerned about the impact on their businesses. Others are concerned about individual rights and what power the government should have over individuals. Others believe the vaccines are ineffective and that there is a conspiracy underneath everything.

Jackson didn’t really deal with any of that. He had an opinion – all these people are wrong-headed nutters  - and he wrote an opinion piece disguised as a news story to show it.

The problems turn up quickly. His first sentence referred to a “social media rabbit hole of lies”. Then he quoted the chief medical officer, as if what she said had the same meaning as Jackson’s words.

“Misinformation is among the top reasons for vaccine hesitancy,”  Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said, “and in the age of social media, misinformation is abundant, highly accessible and even convincing.”  You can see the two comments aren’t the same, although Fitzgerald obviously shares popular opinions with Jackson,  - that is, misinformation  - about social media and why people aren’t getting vaccinated.

Jackson’s editors then dropped in a wonderfully dismissive pull quote from Jackson himself about “nameless gnomes, bathed in computer screen light while they sit in dark basements. “  Colourful, yes, but it’s nothing more than an old dig at people who write online from people in the old-form news media.

“The truth,” Jackson tapped out without a hint of self-awareness or irony,  “the truth is [that misinformation] is often spouted by otherwise prominent and successful members of society.”

The truth is that Jackson used to be an editor at the St. John’s daily  where he now works as a reporter. Sure, he turned on Muskrat Falls eventually but during the Danny Williams years, Jackson was in the Fan Klub. He was an enthusiastic supporter of whatever Williams was pushing.

In his spare time, Jackson wrestled with Williams’ critics online. During working hours, Jackson spread misinformation and encouraged the government to toss aside the rule of law. He built strawmen and set fire to them. Along the way, he dismissed out of hand arguments and evidence about Williams’ efforts to manipulate public opinion polls and public opinion.

Jackson’s capper was a series of columns in which he accepted at face value whatever NALCOR officials told him about Muskrat Falls and water rights. What’s more he went after the folks who criticised Muskrat Falls and – as it turned out – were right.

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Let’s take a break from the Saltwire world for a second and look at electronic news media. Chris O’Neill-Yates is a veteran CBC reporter in St. John’s. These days she is filling a billet in Halifax but last week she tweeted about some story she is chasing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

People keep dying in custody in NL. Per capita it’s extraordinary. Yet the new Minister of Justice refuses interviews, hiding behind the same platitudinous news releases generated by his PR machine as his predecessors “for privacy reasons”. This. Is. Not. Good. Enough.

They should always be accountable. How many ministers this week have gone underground refusing interviews?

Chris is talking about something very familiar these days. You see, if the justice minister ducked an interview last week, he wasn’t the only cabinet minister who ducks into WitSec when reporters call about a story the government isn’t pushing.

Chris’ colleague Ted Blades took a shot last week at health minister John Haggie about an interview request to discuss whether or not Haggie was working on a plan to deal with the doctor shortage.

In an interview with NTV in early August, Haggie said the doctor shortage was worse than he could recall seeing it. Haggie told reporter Dave Salter there was a plan “in the works” to deal with short-, medium-, and long-term issues. ‘There’s no secret sauce” that could fix things quickly and easily, Haggie said.  

On October 1 – a Friday - the province’s medical association told reporters their research into a plan turned up nothing. Implicitly, they called Haggie a liar. Haggie didn’t call reporters on Monday morning to refute the NLMA. At least two reporters asked for interviews but Haggie didn’t book a time with either of them.

Notice, though, that when Haggie turned up, as usual, for a weekly media briefing on COVID, none of the reporters asked Haggie about the NLMA.

Not one.

Not a peep.

Very strange stuff.

There’s a cloud over Haggie’s reputation.  There’s  a black cloud hovering over the administration’s reputation too, by extension.

And there is the lingering crisis in family medicine.

The issues with family doctors  in August didn’t disappear. In October, they are just as bad as they were two months earlier.

Haggie’s silence stands out. After all, his August answer was factual. The problem isn’t new and there are a bunch of factors that come together to make the current situation what it is. Haggie had lots of ways he could tackle the questions that come out of the medical association’s statement.

That he is ignoring it stands out.

This column isn’t about Haggie’s comments, Brian Peckford’s blog, or what some local people say on social media about anything.

It’s about false information, how it spreads, and why people keep believing it.

And it’s about the media’s role in spreading misinformation.

If you want to understand how false information spreads, look no further than the quote Jackson used to start his screed. “You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.”  Jackson and his editors credit Dr. Ben Goldacre for the quote.  He is a British medical doctor and columnist. His 2008 book about medical quackery includes the quote.

But a quick check of the Internet shows the quote has been incorrectly attributed to many people, including Goldacre.

It’s actually a paraphrase of something Jonathan Swift wrote in 1721:  “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.” 

People who read the Jackson piece will accept the credit to Ben Goldacre as correct because it is from a source they trust, there’s no reason to doubt it, and there’s no penalty for believing it. That’s the simplest way false information spreads.

False information will spread more easily still if it confirms what a person already believes.

False information will spread if believing it offers a reward for believing. That reward could be reinforcing existing beliefs or it could be the reward of confirming membership in a particular group.

There’s nothing more complicated to it than that. A 2012 paper by  Stephen Lewandowski in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest explains it in greater detail. Lewandowski and his co-authors say one of the main reasons that false information sticks is that it takes work to reject information.  It’s harder to dislodge false information once people take it in for the same reason. It takes even more work. 

Plus, changing beliefs increases the personal psychological cost to reject something we already believe. We have to admit we were wrong, which many people find embarrassing. It goes to the core of our beliefs about ourselves. If the information turns out to be false, then there’s the implication we were stupid or gullible enough to be duped. The cost of changing views can be incredibly high.

False information is easy to spread. The same psychological factors that make it easy for us to believe wrong information make it doubly hard to take on correct information afterward.

Around these parts, those psychological factors get social reinforcement. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we live in a society that favours the group over the individual. That multiplies the impact when, as Lewandowski notes, government and the media can be sources of deliberate misinformation. Our society values conformity and tends to reject those who don’t go along. We treat any statement by an official as automatically true even if it is doubtful or even obviously false. We favour the urban over the rural.

You can take Peter Jackson as an example of how that works. The difference between Peter Jackson a decade ago and now is that Jackson used to write his opinions in columns, which are supposed to be for opinion. Now he writes opinions and his editors call it news. But then, as now, he reinforces government authority and isolates and denigrates dissidents.

That he can now write opinion as if it were fact just shows the way some conventional news media attitudes have changed. Not only is there no interest in fairly presenting differing points of view on significant public subjects, it’s actually acceptable to attack those that go against the official line.

Jackson doesn’t even pretend to treat people fairly. He doesn’t consider the valid reasons some people do not want to be vaccinated  - there are still concerns about how effective the vaccines are - or the valid reasons why others reject the idea that the government should be able to force people to be vaccinated. There’s no sense, in other words, that the newspaper Jackson writes for has a role to play in fostering debate and discussion and that the issues about vaccination deserve to be aired.

 News media reinforce existing social attitudes. In this case, Jackson’s editors show the decreasing value news media place on informed public debate. You don’t have to agree with people to treat them fairly and respectfully but that wasn’t on anyone’s agenda in publishing this piece.

The Saltwire story is just a version of what anyone can see on social media coming out of Newfoundland and Labrador. The irony is rich. But you can see this wider tendency to reinforce social biases in the way all news outlets covered the COVID outbreak in central Newfoundland. generally.

From the start, it was a big deal. It turned into one of the most serious outbreaks in the province since the spring of 2020. Five people are dead within a mere two weeks. That’s almost as many as in the first wave but inly a fraction of the time. Normally, a big story like this – like say, a hurricane – would get much more attention. Television news would send out one of their news desk people for live remotes. No one would rely on just the local stringer they have for other stuff. This is a story with provincial implications.

Not in this case.

And if you look at the local coverage,  you can see a curious pattern in what hasn’t been covered. News outlets covered the official reports. They played up the need for everyone to get vaccinated. They even covered the dispatch of a couple of nurses in a van by Eastern Health to Bell Island. That was the best remote they did. Bell Island.

Bell Island had no connection to the current outbreak except that it turned up as one of the regions with the lowest vaccination rates in the province. That’s what government officials talked about. The Premier’s twitter account even distributed a spreadsheet at the end of September showing vaccination rates by region and age group.

No reporters asked why it was that the provincial government had this information and didn’t act on it *before* the outbreak. After all, officials knew some parts of the province were trailing badly behind the rest in getting one shot or two.  They also knew the risk unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people posed for spreading COVID. The risk from the Delta variant is especially large, as the outbreak proved.

So why didn’t public health officials target those areas and the under-vaccinated age groups before now? And why did it take Eastern Health two weeks *after* the Premier released the spreadsheet and almost month after the outbreak started to organize a van, some syringes, and a couple of nurses to visit Bell Island.

Logical, simple questions.

No one asked them.

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Jackson isn’t the only example from Saltwire this weekend of how news media reinforce conformity and spread misinformation. Saltwire this weekend published a piece on Wilfred Grenfell that claims he has a “troubling” legacy of collecting Indigenous children and bringing them to his “residential school”.  The piece  takes events of a century ago out of context. It relies heavily  on a book recently published by Memorial University that itself has some pretty serious problems with the research and evidence it ignored.

Both are part of a modern movement in Newfoundland and Labrador that treats past events in this province as if they were exactly the same as they were in Canada, even though the two were clearly different. In this fabrication of the past an orphanage in Newfoundland and boarding schools in Labrador that accepted both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students become residential schools created and run just like racist Canadian schools intended to assimilate First Nations people.

The boarding schools and orphanage in Newfoundland and Labrador actually look more like Mount Cashel than the Canadian racist schools.  An official using the police to take children from a parent who didn’t want to let the child go is a common one across Newfoundland and Labrador today as it was in the past. It applied to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. What we now call physical abuse  - caning, strapping and so on - was normal for children a century or more ago, again regardless of a child’s race.

That doesn’t make it morally acceptable now, but that’s not the point. We can only understand events in the past if we understand the beliefs, attitudes, culture, and other circumstances at the time. Otherwise, we impose a false meaning on events and ultimately deceive ourselves.

Today’s opinion leaders ignore the important context and replace it with another version that conforms to the external, very different, Canadian one. They do it for their own reasons that have nothing to do with either the past or understanding. The root of the “we are just the same” movement in Newfoundland and Labrador is not evidence, facts, or truth but a modern social need that involves aligning with a powerful group. That it creates misinformation is less important than the social need believing the misinformation fills.

There is some irony here as well. People who rightly oppose cultural assimilation are – in effect - voluntarily assimilating into a different culture even if it is that of another Indigenous culture. People in Labrador were upset at being left out of the truth and reconciliation process even though factually, historically they did not belong in the same group. Rather than explore their own history and find their own story, including stories of abuse and neglect that align with similar ones for non-Indigenous people locally, they simply adopt what is essentially a foreign story.

Others  - especially non-Indigenous people - repeat the assimilationist narrative for the same reasons that false information spreads everywhere. It comes from a trusted source. It aligns with their assumptions and existing beliefs. Accepting the “Same” narrative lets them align with people they want to align with. On social media, they signal their belonging to the desired group by criticizing others who do not share their views. The same thing happens in conventional media as well and can encompass the editors and writers. It’s not like we haven’t seen this conformity on everything from Muskrat Falls to censorship.

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Chris O’Neill-Yates has a point. People in authority these days can easily avoid public accountability if they want to. They can get away with it because there’s no social cost. There’s no political cost. Opposition parties that used to challenge government ministers now support the government at every opportunity. If officials want the power to arrest people and spirit them off to detention camps without a court order, then progressive members of the legislature will agree. No questions asked.

News outlets that used to challenge government officials now enable them as often as not. Once it would have been unthinkable for reporters to send their questions in advance to an interview subject. It happens a lot more than people think. Some reporters even volunteer to send them along in advance. Not so long ago, it was only a rare case when the subject of an interview would try to dictate who could do an interview. These days, cabinet ministers can do that *and* get reporters and editors to censor their coverage of the same media event.

Local news media aren’t immune to the social and political forces that have fundamentally changed the way newsrooms work across the western world. They’ve been economically squeezed and, in two cases,  the mainland editorial control has shifted the sorts of stories they cover. When it comes to covering politics, that leaves little time and scarce resources to do much more than recycle the meagre pickings from government.

Those changes that affect all news media just reinforce the dominant attitudes in local society that were there in the days of poll goosing and the Danny Williams Fan Klub. Local newsrooms still reflect the dominant local attitudes and dominant local elites. Those of us who share Chris O’Neill-Yates’ concerns are definitely in the minority. Misinformation spreads easily, the powerful can escape scrutiny, and counter-acting either is that much more difficult.


“I’m sick of these Laurence Fishburne comparisons. The shit’s getting old.”

If you know the movies and the actors, you’ll get the quotes and the joke. If not, let Google be your friend.