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Bias and diversity in media sources

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At first, this may look like another post on the silliness of a mental heath departmet looking for a Klingon translator, but the point I wish to make is something a bit different – it just uses this story as an example, so please, keep reading.

Below is the text of the AP article regarding Multnomah County’s recent decision to include Klingon on a list of languages that their mental health officials may need a translator for.

Contra Costa Times | 05/11/2003 | County needs a Klingon speaker

Position available: Interpreter, must be fluent in Klingon.

The language created for the “Star Trek” TV series and movies is one of about 55 needed by the office that treats mental health patients in metropolitan Multnomah County.

“We have to provide information in all the languages our clients speak,” said Jerry Jelusich, a procurement specialist for the county Department of Human Services, which serves about 60,000 psychiatric clients.

Although created for works of fiction, Klingon was designed to have a consistent grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

Now, Multnomah County research has found that many people, and not just fans, consider it a complete language.

“There are some cases where we’ve had mental health patients where this was all they would speak,” said the county’s purchasing administrator, Franna Hathaway.

County officials said that obligates them to respond with a Klingon-English interpreter, putting the language of starship Enterprise officer Worf and other Klingon characters on a par with common languages such as Russian and Vietnamese, and with less common ones as Dari and Tongan.

Given the lead sentence, it ends up sounding like Multnomah County is going to be adding a Klingon translator to their staff, which, of course, would cost the county money. Reading the original story, as published in the Oregonian, however, shows a slightly different picture.

The county would pay a Klingon interpreter only in the unlikely case he or she was actually called into service.

“We said, ‘What the heck, let’s throw it in,’ ” Jelusich says. “It doesn’t cost us any money.”

[…] Jelusich says that in reality, no patient has yet tried to communicate in Klingon. But the possibility that a patient could believe himself or herself to be a Klingon doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

“I’ve got people who think they’re Napoleon,” he says.

[…] Next up: another mythical language popularized by The “Lord of the Rings” films.

“The kids,” Jelusich says, “are learning to speak Elvish.”

So, while the county may be looking for a Klingon translator, it’s not so that they can keep them on staff, but just so that they can contact them in the event they’re ever needed.

Either way, it’s a funny story, but the way the AP article reads, the situation sounds ridiculous, when it actually isn’t that out of line. I mean, think about it – if you have a mental health patient that only speaks in Klingon, and refuses to recognize any other language (and, while probably rather rare, it’s not outside the realm of possiblity, especially for a delusional patient), how are you going to reach them or help them at all if you can’t communicate with them in any way?

It’s certainly not unheard of for news organizations to “punch up” a story a bit to make it sound more interesting, but in this day when we are having more news outlets (newspapers, networks, radio stations, etc.) owned by a small number of companies, and many rely on news wire services for a large portion of their stories, it becomes more likely that a potentially biased, slanted or “punched up” version of a story may end up being the only version out there.

This is one of the benefits of a more diversified media. More unrelated news outlets means that more versions of a story can be put into play, each focusing on the details their particular author or editor feel is most pertinent. The result is more information available through the media marketplace, and a clearer picture emerges of what a situation really is.

Sadly, with the direction the FCC is heading, allowing individuals or corperations to own a large number of news outlets, the problems due to too few sources are only going to be magnified. The cost is that the populace become less informed and more vulnerable to biases in reporting and editing that often conform to what the big businessmen in charge want – and, as we’ve seen in the last few years, that tends to be a very conservative vision of the world.

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