Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

When fiction replaces reality

If anyone's still in any doubt about the impact that fiction has on shaping real world opinion, some of the coverage of the Yazidi refugee crisis in Iraq is a classic lesson in how pervasive myth can be, especially when there's no equal volume of reality to displace it.

I finally stopped watching a particular morning news show this week because of its increasing tendency to populate its studio sofa with Z-list celebs, minor sports stars, and others with no qualifications to shed light on actual news events. Now, everyone's entitled to an opinion: but if we're discussing what can be done to sort out an ongoing genocide, or the latest advance in particle physics, I want to hear from someone qualified in the subject, not Mumsnet or someone from reality TV. Talking about whether to launch a massive airlift by helicopter? I want to hear from a helo pilot, a pundit from the RUSI, or UNHCR spokesman. But no, we got a random bunch of minor entertainers who dished out great advice to the RAF on why it was wrong and what it should be doing with its Chinooks.

I know you have to take who you can get at the time a live programme's on air. I worked in TV for years. I know it's a slog to get studio guests within certain windows. But even so... this was feeble.

The sad thing was that these people looked genuinely moved by the crisis, but they seemed to have formed their opinions on what was physically possible in warfare and humanitarian relief from the mishmash of movies they'd seen – maybe even books they'd read. They had no idea of what it takes to get a helicopter to a location or why you just can't run aircraft like mini-buses getting people home from the pub. The logistics of what you do when you need to move thousands of people in a war zone was beyond them. There's no reason why they should know, of course: it's not their job. But somehow fiction in its various forms is so much more seductive, and so much better able to lodge in the brain than facts, that these people thought they knew how things happened in the real world. And if you start basing real decisions on myth, or voting accordingly, then it's dangerous.

I don't know how to fix it. The tendency is as old as humanity, just more pronounced these days in a world of global media. All I know is that I make every conceivable effort to tell the truth in fiction for that very reason, even if it's aliens and pulse rifles*. I know how powerful fiction is: I've been a news journalist, and I've also worked in political PR, so I know first-hand that myth trumps fact most of the time. Emotional memory is more persistent than factual memory. Alzheimer's patients may not even recognise their loved ones but their emotional memories can be triggered. But PR worked that out many years earlier. The first rule of PR was pinned to my office wall: they may not remember what you said, but they'll remember how you made them feel.

I worry about what's called the CSI effect. Friends who are cops tell me that juries are more prone to judge forensic evidence by the impossible fictional standards set on TV. If CSI can prove X did it with their super-fast tests, why is this test in the real trial not 100% conclusive? Worse, other cops tell me that fellow officers base their expectations of forensics on what they've seen on CSI too. It's wrong to pass off fiction as accurate fact when it isn't. It's why I object to docudramas both as a fiction author and as a journo. You blur the line at your peril. It can end up doing damage to real people.

Swedish cop show Wallander (the actual Swedish TV one, not the UK version) manages to entertain without losing sight of reality. When Wallander asks an officer to enlarge and sharpen a blurry security camera image of a suspect, he gets a very real world answer. "Sorry, that's the maximum resolution on that camera." If that had been CSI, it would magically resolve into an HD image verging on the minute clarity of a bloody electron microscope.

People absorb that stuff not because they're stupid but because they have no real-world data to compare it with, or because they're exposed constantly to it ("drip-drip" PR) in a medium that they're not on their guard against. Fiction gets under the radar; it produces emotional reactions, and emotions stick in the brain. They're an integral part of the learning and reinforcement system we depend on for survival. And that's the principle behind product placement and all those agenda-ists trying to get their particular cause or idea aired in a TV soap series. Next time you're watching a movie or a TV drama and taking something for granted as accurate, ask yourself what you really know about it.

(*Don't get me started on why Battle: Los Angeles is actually a more authentic military movie than The Hurt Locker, either.)