Is ignorance bliss?

August 17, 2011

“Ignorance is bliss” is an English-language phrase used when someone does not understand the bitter reality of a situation and has peace of mind as a result. This may exist when a person is not in the business of supplying information.
We as journalists and the public often have legitimate complaints about the authorities not providing information, but the sad reality is that in most cases even when we have the information in front of us we don’t verify it or understand it.
I often hear officials say that they think twice before giving interviews to local journalists. Their main complaint is that they do not understand the issues and as a result their reports are inaccurate.
This became very clear when some of our media outlets last week published a report alleging that the British government supports the establishment of a Kurdish state. The report came after a government-sponsored website published a petition by a good Kurd who called on the British government to support the establishment of a Kurdish state. This was a very clever step by a Kurd who read the website and decided to work within the system.
Yet our media immediately leapt to the conclusion that the British government was supporting the establishment of a Kurdish state! All they had to do was to go to the petition’s website and read the first page:
“What are e-petitions? E-petitions are an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK. You can create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons.”
This simple step, which is standard practice for any journalist in the world, was overlooked by most of those who reported the story here. It indicates very serious shortcomings of our media and our journalists, including the lack of general knowledge, awareness and access to the outside world.
When I run trainings for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) I usually warn students: If you think our courses are going to turn you to a journalist, then do not waste your time.
To be a journalist, you need to have the following: 1. Common sense enabling you to spot a good vs. bad story and sense whether something is fact or fiction. 2. Strong general knowledge — you should know something about everything.
Both of these prerequisites empower you to determine whether the information you have is true or false, and whether it is worth supplying to the public or not. Only then can someone start taking a journalism course or start working as a journalist.
Last week’s story failed both tests. There is no way, given the current realities, that the British government supports an independent state for the Kurds or would dare start lobbying for one. The journalists who reported the story should have been more careful.
Looking at our situation in the region, we can see the need for a better-educated elite in order to avoid embarrassments like the one last week. One of our biggest barriers is language.
The younger generation of Kurds, who are today’s journalists and tomorrow’s opinion-makers, will no longer be able to live with the notion that “ignorance is bliss.”

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