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Manufacturing dissent

Published: 
Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I’ve been waiting for the media experts to jump into the constitution cussout. Three universities and many other institutions offer under- and postgraduate degrees in media, journalism, and whatnot. Surely someone has noticed the journalistic enormities scudding through the “debate”?

A good example: the dailies’ front pages of August 12. Newsday’s front page was of crowds outside the Parliament. The other two ran a version of a single photograph, the PM passing by Verna St Rose Greaves. The T&T Guardian’s photo showed a security officer firmly between them. The mood was grave, but not hostile.

The Express’s front page showed a similar (if not the same) photo, minus security officer: Ms Greaves and the PM appeared to touch each other in passing; the PM was smiling, and Ms Greaves was glowering. Was this digitally manipulated to imply hostility? If so, naughty, nasty.

The second recent enormity was the dailies’ front pages on Sunday, referring to polls by MFO and Mori of London. “Majority backs runoff” shouted Newsday; “Stop the Debate” screamed the Express, while the T&T Guardian announced that Daren Ganga was “Open to election bid”, as a PP candidate. A small tab atop T&T Guardian’s front page announced the poll story: “Mori finds: Reform bill to help PP win.”

Newsday and the Guardian led with Mori on pages three and five. The Express’s exclusive on the MFO poll was on pages four and five with a brief story on the Mori poll on page ten, headlined “26 per cent believe reforms designed to help Govt win reelection.”

All the Mori stories carried relevant facts: that 54 per cent supported the runoff, 70 per cent supported the recall, and 55 per cent supported term limits for prime ministers. However, the Express broke the runoff finding into components of “strong support” and “tend(ency) to support” to avoid saying a majority supported it.

But equally important is the placement of information: in the Express, it was in the eighth paragraph of a ten-paragraph story. The Guardian had it at the eighth paragraph in a 15-paragraph story. Newsday’s story opened with these facts.

Evidently, then, the facts were reported in a way that emphasised the minority positions (in headlines and at the top of the stories) which the press supported. This suggests the press (with the exception of Newsday) is not going to let facts alter its predispositions.

This leads to another point: is the poll reliable? That issue was also absent from the Express and Guardian stories (mentioned obliquely in Newsday). Mori has been conducting polls in Trinidad since 2002 for government(s) and results of the previous polls (2002-2010) are on the Ministry of Public Administration’s Web site. No reports are available after 2010.

MFO polls are reputable, and this one came to different conclusions, because it asked different questions. (Why?) The Express was the only paper with access to both, and a compare and contrast did not seem to occur to the editors. Briefly, from the report, the MFO poll focused on whether people were aware of the bill. Of a sample of 459 people, 354 were aware, and of those, only 91 felt they had enough knowledge. Of that 91, 31 per cent were in support, and 54 per cent were not.

The Mori poll asked specific questions about support for various provisions, and was able to produce more definite conclusions, key among which was support for all the three hotly-disputed elements of the bill which media mavens decry.

More polls, more analysis, and more data are needed for definitive conclusions. However, a few things can be said from the present data. The main thing is that the media, and many NGO-civil society-concerned citizen types, have been frothing to discredit the government’s reform proposals, ostensibly in the “public interest.”

But if this poll is accurate, the public is not nearly as worried as they are. Could it be, as intimated in this space last week, that what appears to be a huge roar of lions of freedom could be the collective squawking of a few self-serving cobos, amplified via media megaphones?

Here is where the media experts come in. The media probe the government, and that’s their job. But who probes the media? Where is the research, number-crunching, and analysis of media coverage? In all western countries, many books, articles, blogs and airtime, are devoted to the media’s malefactions. But here?

There are Carnival Studies departments at UWI and UTT, which make public statements and produce, uhm, material. But more people are on Facebook that participate in Carnival, yet the only studies that I know of on the Internet and Facebook in Trinidad have been done by a British anthropologist (Daniel Miller).

That aside, a final issue arises. Of much greater importance than manipulating information to create dissent, and the absence of studies of the media, is the issue of access to and availability of data to the public. 

The PP has provided self-serving information, but not much else. Why do the Mori poll data posted on the Ministry’s Web site not go past 2010? Why is the CSO, for all intents, dead? Where are the crime, health, and education data which should be on ministry Web sites, which give something other than the government happy-talk? What about the government ad campaign trumpeting its achievements?

I’ve submitted FOIA requests to a Ministry and the Office of the Prime Minister, and one request for information from the Ministry of National Security. All have been ignored. So in this isolated skirmish, we have a glimpse of an anti-government stance, and the lengths some media will go to in its pursuit. But, as the government’s information strategy has shown, neither party is innocent in the battle.