Once the media create a myth can it ever be ‘uncreated’ ?

9 Jan

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I regularly use the MMR vaccination fiasco as an example of the way in which media misinterpretation of scientific material can lead to ‘myths’ being established in the public consciousness. In particular I find it intriguing that even long after evidence has been produced to conclusively refute media created ‘myths’ (and the media have moved on to a new story) the myth remains firmly established in the public consciousness. Every time I teach this session I wonder about simpler examples of the phenomena that I could use as an introductory example.  Over the Christmas break I was reminded of a story that I will begin next year’s lecture with.

Back in the winter of 1997 Birmingham city council in the UK were looking at ways of producing a coherent marketing strategy for the wide range of events that took place in the city centre over the mid-winter period. The Head of events was looking for a ‘generic banner’ that could encompass all of the events and thus allow him to do things like seeks a single corporate sponsor. Eventually he came up with the seemingly inoffensive term ‘Winterval’, a simple contraction of ‘Winter’ and ‘Festival’.

The media reaction to ‘Winterval’, when it first appeared in November 1998 was extraordinary. The media reported ‘Winterval’ as a ‘rebranding’ of Christmas to avoid offending ethic and religious minorities. Even the Bishop of Birmingham bought into the media interpretation of the story  and condemned ‘Winterval’ as political correctness. What is unusual about this case is that ‘Winterval’ very rapidly became a synonym for ‘political correctness’, even though the council pointed out immediately that the promotional material for ‘Winterval’ included images of Angels ans Carol singers, and thus was hardly ‘politically correct.

What’s intriguing is that the ‘Winterval’ myth lasted for over a decade, and it was only in 2011 that the Daily Mail printed a tiny retraction confirming that the whole thing had been a myth. In the intervening decade hundreds of newspaper articles appeared citing ‘Winterval’ as the height of political correctness. I’m going to start trying to compile a list of these types of media myth. The obvious starting point would be the various EU scare-stories that regularly appear in the UK press i.e. Bananas are going to have to be straight, hedgehog crisps will be band etcetera. but is would be nice to come up with a list of less obviously comic stories.

This seems like a really good way of introducing students to many of the tenets of rational thinking, particularly that they should question material they believe to be fact because it has been repeated so often ! (The academic in me is also conscious that I really need to go and read something about meme theory !)

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One Response to “Once the media create a myth can it ever be ‘uncreated’ ?”

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  1. Learning Styles: A topic in need of some rational thinking | Teaching Rational Thinking - February 7, 2014

    […] I like to use this a an example for students who have already understood the importance of the scientific method. They can then easily come up with the experiment suggested above for themselves. Equally, I think it’s a lovely example of yet another idea that once lodged in the public consciousness is very… […]

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