freedom of misinformation

Listening hard: Ian Bertram, Florence Syme Buchanan and Vaine Wichman, one of only two MPs at day two of the media training workshop, the other being Deputy Prime Minister Ngamau Munukoa. Prime Minister Dr Robert Woonton was at the first day, the highest level interest yet shown to freedom of information discussions. comment by jason brown avaiki nius agency An audit officer asks whether media would report rumours if they could not get hold of the hard facts. Sticky bun in one hand and instant coffee in the other, I consider the options. “Yes.” The audit officer smiles as if her worst suspicions are confirmed – the media really are a cheeky bunch of rascals. “Yes, we would if government or someone else was refusing to release the facts.” She keeps smiling. No excuse. Irresponsible reporting. It is one of the great debates of journalism – when does a rumour become a fact? When enough people say it is? Or only when someone in authority confirms the rumour? Years ago, a former private secretary to the then prime minister let rip with her frustrations. “If you knew what was really going on you wouldn’t write any of those rumours,” she said accusingly. Umm, well, yes. Exactly. All too often, however, government refuses to discuss ‘what is really going on’ — and gets very annoyed when people refuse to stop talking about what might be going on. Conjecturing. Speculating. Rumours, in other words. Rumours become another sort of fact when more than a few people talk about them. Some news organisations won’t report a rumour unless they get it from three or more sources, hopefully credible ones. But, credible or not, it is often a fact that people are passing around rumours. For example, controversy over pollution levels in Rarotonga lagoons started with rumours of people falling ill in Titikaveka. Investigating, the media found that, yes, people said they were getting sick. Is it because of pollution? No one knows for sure. One boy died from what the prime minister described as blood poisoning. Any link with lagoon pollution was denied. Now many months later, government officials confirm that bacteria levels are five to ten times the World Health Organisation limits. Should the media hold back for months and months from reporting on rumours until the facts are known? As the audit officer later said during session, rumours have the potential to cause a lot of harm and could be, for example, destructive of the economy. True. But as a journalist told today’s meeting, 14 students who had been visiting from a New Zealand university all fell sick after swimming in the lagoon. The rumours of lagoon pollution may not be true. Or the rumour may not yet be proven true. But they do exist. “They emailed me and said that if they had known the lagoons were not safe they would have been more careful,” the reporter said. One senior police officer called for careful handling of information that might cause damage to the country’s economy. “It’s important that the media handles this information properly.” Southworth said information like this should be released so the public has the facts. “If you want to kill a tourist industry then try and hide something because if something happens then that will kill the industry.” Something? Until government opens up and presents the public with the facts, rumours — sensationalised, speculative misinformation, according to the critics — is often all the media have to go on. And all the public has to protect themselves. quote: “The countries that have the least corruption have Freedom of Information legislation and the ones that are most corrupt don’t. So there’s got to be some message in that.” — Bill Southworth