Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘tabloid’

South Africa takes a further step back into darkness

In Eish!, Science, Scoundrels on September 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm

CandleWhat do the following have in common: cheese, butter, coffee and oral sex? If you’re a science journalist you’ll probably know. The answer: they’ve all been ‘linked’ to cancer. The word ‘link’ is contentious at best.

The list is by no means complete. It’s a long one and includes such gems as air fresheners, bras, hot dogs, talcum powder, and…well, Ross Pomeroy, the author the blog Real Clear Science, has attempted to track them all down.

I was reminded of this because of two recents events, coincidentally linked. The first was the Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop its science desk as part of a series of retrenchments in the face of a cashflow crisis. I learned about this – the day before it happened – when chatting with the title’s (now former) science editor, the award-winning journalist Sarah Wild. It couldn’t have come at a more absurd time – Sarah has just published a book that champions the work of South African scientists, expertly putting science into context for ordinary South Africans.

The second was a piece in the Daily Maverick by one of the few journalists still bothering with employing an investigative eye – Ivo Vegter.

Ivo’s point, and it’s an oft-ignored one, is that science doesn’t know everything (if it did it would stop), and that it’s not so much a repository for knowledge as a process for learning about our natural world. More importantly science acknowledges this (as opposed to religions that claim to know the absolute truth), and so it’s quite comfortable with making mistakes along the way – after all, as I’m sure your mother told you, ‘we learn by our mistakes’.

Now this wouldn’t be the problem if more people knew this when reading the paper or going online. Instead they’ll read a ‘science story’ and just believe it, because a) it’s in the news, and b), well, it’s science.

Editors know this, which is why they like ‘science stories’ that ‘link’ something everyone fears (cancer) with something that everyone consumes or does (coffee…sex…etc.). It’s also why science journalists – real science journalists, not inexperienced journalists given a science ‘beat’ – are sorely needed. They can expertly cut through the research clutter and correct the claims (the ‘links’) editors want to make. That’s how they get in the way of tabloid content dressed up as ‘science’, and why they’re often the first to go in any title’s shake-up.

But in South Africa there’s an added reason why science journalists are needed, but paradoxically not: We’re a nation that still believes in spirits, ‘throwing bones’ to diagnose maladies, and that a man who calls himself ‘Doctor’ can help you win the lottery while making your penis bigger. This would be quaint if it weren’t culturally protected under the title ‘traditional healing’. So any journalist that forces uncomfortable questions about the merits of cultural claims, is, in such a politically and culturally sensitive media environment, bound to get in the way.

The Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop the science desk – claiming the decision is a purely economic one – risks dragging the country deeper into ignorance; and that’s not only short-sighted, it’s wholly irresponsible.

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Beautiful = good, and ugly = bad, apparently.

In Eish!, Fools, Scoundrels on June 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm

camilla vs diHere is an interesting exercise: ask a group of friends to list the words that come to mind when they think of the former wife of Prince Charles of England – the late Diana, Princess of Wales. I’d imagine ‘Diana’ words would include ‘princess’, ‘fairytale’, ‘beautiful’, ‘caring’, ‘mother’, ‘tragic’, and ‘humanitarian’.

Then ask them to do the same for the current wife of Prince Charles – Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. I can imagine Camilla words would be ‘Rottweiler’, ‘ugly’, ‘fox-hunting’, ‘frumpy’, ‘cheat’, etc.

I doubt very much if this impression would have evolved through their actual meeting and interacting with the two women in question. Therefore it would have to have come from that mass interface between people and society – the media.

And who’s ultimately to blame? We are – the consumers. We have supplied the demand. We’ve helped create the environment for a beautiful/good versus ugly/bad polarity by telling our children stories of beautiful princesses and wicked witches. Princes are handsome; they tend to slay the occasional dragon or two and then live happily ever after in a majestic castle with the beautiful princess as their queen-to-be. They are supposed to do that because it is their destiny and because they are both incredulously good-looking. Anyone who interferes with the plot – such as the wicked witch – is evil. And ugly.

As a sidebar, the reality behind fairytales is, of course, somewhat unflattering. The complete absence of internal plumbing in castles in the days of the knights meant that bathing was probably a two-weekly or even a monthly affair – so princesses would have always smelled more than a little ripe – and female hygiene products were completely non-existent. Dental care amounted to little more than prodding a twig between the teeth, so rampant decay would have taken more than a little sheen off any pearly-whites. But then who are we to rob our children of a little fantasy by rubbing their faces in the harsh realities of life?

Of course we eventually grow out of fairytales. Or do we? Don’t the good guys always win in the movies and invariably ride off into the sunset with the beautiful maiden? It seems Sleeping Beauty is alive and well, just living in L.A! That’s right – we’re still getting sucked into the fairytale plot. We are continually inclined to root for the good guys because they are generally handsome heroes, and the maidens aren’t half-bad either. To affiliate with the bad guys is to affiliate with ugliness. We aspire to be good because good is half of good-looking. Professor Howard Stein, editor of the Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology once summed up this polarity nicely when he commented ‘there is no “us” without there being a corresponding “them” to oppose’. (If you have time to kill, you can compare those actors in the Digital Dream Door list of 100 greatest heroes, with those in the 100 greatest villains. You won’t find many names on both).

This is so wonderfully evident in the burgeoning ‘morphing’ entertainment industry that was kickstarted by the likes of Extreme Makeover, The Swan, Queer Eye for a Straight Guy and Idols, that show how ugly can be morphed into beautiful; how a woman with pumpkin hips can become a princess and a plumber become a pretty-boy pop star (did you honestly think the guy in wheelchair had a chance?) – and look how happy they are! By showing viewers what they look like after the morphing they separate them from what they looked like before – a bit like us. How’s that for irony?

There’s no denying Diana was beautiful. Editors of women’s magazines were well aware that simply putting Diana on the cover would assure them record sales; and in her death the cover-image of Diana is the one cemented in our minds. Prince Charles’ second wife will always be measured against that. She finished second; she’ll always be second-best. She also interfered with the fairytale plot, which makes her the wicked witch against the people’s princess. Poor Camilla.

The reality of the tale of course is that Diana was flawed. We all are; and no amount of nip and tuck and panel beating of cellulite is going to change that. We should realise that just as Camilla may be a little off the media-dictated beauty chart, so are we all. And whereas neither she, nor we, will ever win a shallow beauty contest, perhaps she and Charles should enjoy what years they have left together, free of the interference by the tabolid media and its shallow, wretched consumers. It’s the closest the Prince and his princess will have to living happily ever after.