In 1979, in his very funny series of books, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams conceived of the idea of purging a useless third of society by building three space arks with a promise of launching all of them into space. Into the A ship would go all the leaders, scientists and other high achievers. The C ship would contain all the people who made things and did things and the B ark would hold everyone else such as hairdressers and telephone sanitizers. They sent the B ship off first and mischievously the other two thirds of the population stayed on the planet and lived full, rich and happy lives (until of course they all got wiped out by a virulent disease contracted by a dirty telephone!)
He wrote the book, tongue firmly in cheek, 35 years ago but I can’t help but I wonder if he were writing today who would suffer the fate of a ticket into the B ship? He’d probably be spoilt for choice and hairdressers and telephone sanitisers would most surely be assured a place on the C ship with the doers and makers because the B ship would be overflowing with unscrupulous politicians, talentless celebrities with their moon-sized egos and matching wallets, and estate agents. If he had asked me today who I would want to launch into outer space and never hear from again it would all lazy, easy-headline-grabbing journalists, feature writers, bloggers, hosts of pointless and dumbed down day time TV news programmes and anyone involved in Talk Back radio who doesn’t bother to check their facts before running potentially hurtful and damaging stories. I would also happily make room (or possibly build another ship) for anyone who responds to sensationalistic stories via the comments section of interactive media and even the old good old fashioned phoner-inners (although I hate them less, probably because I at least relate to their lack of computer savvy) just because they have an opinion (however ill-informed) and they think they have the right, nay, responsibility to share it with the world!
And what has got me so fired up today? Cupcakes!
A few weeks ago one of the mums from school wrote an article for our school magazine about cupcakes. She was concerned about how much sugar our children are eating at school because every time there is an occasion (child’s birthday, teacher’s birthday, someone is leaving) many parents bring in cupcakes to celebrate. We are lucky – I live in a very well-heeled and highly educated part of town where kids health, well-being and nutrition is top of the agenda so the cupcakes are mostly home-made and usually are of a visible standard that would put Martha Stewart to shame. So as far as cupcakes go, these ones are probably about as “non-unhealthy” as it’s possible to get but they are still cupcakes, they taste nice ergo they must contain lots of sugar.
I don’t hold a strong position on whether cupcakes should be brought into school or not. Coming from a background of English schools where, for decades, the food police have been examining the contents of kids’ school lunchboxes, checking for anything that wasn’t organically grown in grandma’s garden, with more vigilance than a Heathrow sniffer dog, I was initially surprised by the permissive approach to sugary snacks in Australian schools. But just as I have got used to mosquitoes the size of house cats, snakes in my laundry basket and raindrops so large they can literally knock you off your feet, I have got used to teachers handing out the odd sweetie as a reward for good behaviour and legions of mums with far greater baking talents than I could ever aspire to bringing in beautifully decorated baskets of cupcakes for their children to share with their friends. With regards to kids’ nutrition, I am girl of Pareto principals where as long as 80% of what goes in their mouth is on the “this is very good for you list” they should be able to live a long and happy life taking the other 20% from the “Ah but this tastes so good list”. I think Mark Twain was right, “Everything in moderation including moderation.”
The school mum who had written what I’m sure she considered to be a fairly innocuous article could not have anticipated the media dust-storm she would later create. She had suggested some healthy (am I have to say very creative) alternatives to cupcakes including a rather inventive “watermelon cake” which I thought was a great idea, not especially because of its nutritional value but for its ease. Baking, decorating and transporting (on my bike!) cupcakes for 30 kids four times a year is not something I can be faffed to do but cutting a watermelon in half and poking a few candles in it seems right up my lazy street.
The article was included in our school newsletter which is available on line. From there it became a story in our local paper and they more or less got their facts straight but sensationalised the non-story to attract more readers and more commentators with their headline “Sugar Free Diet Sees Birthday Cakes Discouraged at Beauty Point School” and “School declares war on sugar in lunchboxes”.
Yesterday must have been a very slow news day. I can only assume there is now peace in the Middle East, the E-bola crisis has ended and no old ladies had their handbags stolen by hooded youths wanting to steal their pensions to buy crack cocaine. There can’t even have been any parking tickets issued, cyclists not wearing helmets, cats stuck in trees or children eating red frogs in the park. Or even any famous women of child bearing age having babies, getting married, getting divorced, losing weight, gaining weight, wearing clothes, not wearing clothes, changing their hairstyle (or even worse, not changing their hairstyle) or heaven forbid, having wrinkles or cellulite. There can have been absolutely no news to report because, suddenly, Chinese Whispers style, the hot topic of the day in pretty much every local and national news outlet was that our little school was starting a revolution by “banning birthday cakes”.
Two things were shocking – 1) that large news outlets would think it was story in the national interest that must be reported on and 2) that it could be reported in such a sensationalistic and grossly exaggerated way as to bear little if any resemblance to the truth. This is the inherent danger of very lazy “bandwagon journalism” reporting on reports without writers or their editors taking time to verify any facts because they need to be seen to be reporting immediately on “breaking news”, and inviting readers to comment via their social media sites to keep their ratings up.
The headline in one very popular on-line women’s magazine read: “Ridiculous; the latest primary school ban is a step too far” and went on to say “The ban has taken place at a Sydney primary school, Beauty Point Public in Mosman. A newsletter sent to parents has requested they provide a healthier option for students than a traditional birthday cake to mark each kid’s big day.” There are two complete fabrications right there; there is no ban, there is no request. There was merely a suggestion but that wouldn’t be quite sensationalistic enough.
Then there were some snarky attempts at humour.
“Guaranteed to make any birthday boy or girl feel super special when they blow out the candle on the pineapple.
The fun police school authorities even suggested that parents could donate a book to the school instead, or create a “birthday treasure chest” with small gifts at the beginning of each year.”
Well actually if we are splitting hairs it was a watermelon and neither the fun police nor the school authorities ordered it, it was one of many suggestions by a parent.
It went on to report the “great cake ban” (there is no ban!), it showed a photograph of our lovely little school with the caption “Do you support the ban?” (Again, there is no ban!). And finally, in its closing paragraph, it asked for readers’ opinions; “What do you think? Is a cake ban a good idea in our current climate of childhood obesity or a step too far?” (and again, there is no ban!).
Then it got really interesting as the public accepted the invitation to comment and did so literally in their hundreds! (As I said, a slow news day). Some of the comments were so incredible as to defy belief with people who had clearly forgotten to take their medicine saying if their kids attended our school they would send them in with a peanut butter cake once a month just to prove their kids could do what they liked. All I can say is I hope they stick to casting their votes in on line-polls about cupcakes and Australia’s Got Talent and don’t vote for anything that really matters, like politicians or world peace for example.
This is a non-story about a humble birthday cake that has been taken out of context and had the facts origamied to make a few tabloid headlines and relieve the boredom of the keyboard trolls until the next unsuspecting cupcake or celebrity with a new hairdo comes along.
But my point is a serious one. To what extent can we trust what we see or hear in the news? How much is fact and how much is “faction”, an amalgam of fact and fiction to titillate an audience and increase ratings?
How often do we read the same story in different newspapers and find inconsistencies in very basic and easily verifiable facts? Names and ages of people for example? If journalists can’t get these basic things right how much can we rely on the other more important information?
Today it was birthday cakes. No real harm done, except maybe yet another chink in the armour of journalistic integrity. But as the wonderful and incomparable relieving principal of the school at the centre of Cupcakegate said in this week’s school newsletter, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?” I’ll drink (some home-made, sugar-free, organic, non-alcoholic, non-GM modified, additive and preservative free elderflower and nettle tea) to that.