How journalism and politics we trusted screwed with our heads, and how to rewire them.
There was not much notice given when journalism became a profession. You can pick your moment, even as close as the 1960s.
You as a journalist were doing what no one else was, and that is report truthfully an event. Yes, yellow journalism circa late 19th century with two US giant newspaper barons Heart and Pulitzer slugging it out proved there was an elephant in the room; they played a strong hand in the Spanish- American war, but journalism and its execs prefer not to naval gaze at their own faults. Pulitzer would transform his name to one associated with excellence.
Truthfully meant you needed to understand a plethora of frame works in journalism e.g. impartiality, objectivity, freedom of expression and so on to practise good journalism. Not by any stretch easy, simply for the fact inherent in these parameters is the impact of culture, race and diversity. journalism as widely practiced in global north countries renders these as almost invisible in constructs.
Generally speaking too governments did things in good faith. Yes they played psycho warfare particularly newspapers. The biography of Edward Bernays — the father of PR, his ‘santitised’ version of propaganda tells us that much. Just how did American’s 28th president of the United States from 1913 to 1921 Woodrow Wilson get the US to join the war?
Bernays would find out as someone connected to the president’s team. When the war was over he asked himself the question if it was easy to manipulate minds used in war could the same methods work during peace? Propaganda would formally be noted for its entry into politics.
There was, however, perceptively enough good faith in politicians’ interaction with journalists for objective truth and wrongdoing to surface. The system could still be trusted because there was an overall sanction. When governments were caught short, resignations followed.
And then something happened. That something was always present, but it become amplified and significant in recent times. Information, would become less about information. It was a trojan horse for other motives. Theories of human behaviour were gamed in the political and business world.
Remember the strike busting Mohawk Valley formula cited as an exemplar. To stop striking steel workers from rightfully claiming decent working hours and wages, political officials turned the public against them using propaganda and the press did their bidding.
For today’s politics rarely is an action executed without game theory (zero sum) in play. That seems to be the perception.
To that end journalism has found itself wholly wanting. Its craft skill may be the communication of a story told well, but the writing craft of a story, so laboured within trainees, has become the lowest of hanging fruits.
If there’s one thing, amongst many, journalism requires as a knowledge set it’s an acute and deep understanding of behavioural economics and cognitive science in motivation and language. The Fogg Behaviour model is just one of them by Standford Prof Dr B.J. Fogg. In his theory Fogg reveals how behaviour can be tied to variables such as motivation, ability and trigger.
It’s a boxed-set formula widely regarded for how tech companies make users become addicted to their products by a deep understanding of user behaviour. Hence Facebook isn’t about sharing as a way for social advancement, the company recognises behaviour amongst its base like FOMO ( fear of missing out ) as a strong social driver.
But behavioural economics isn’t part of journalism’s education. And for unassuming readers reading an account of a story is as obvious as interpreting this thing, which is nothing more than a blob on a page, or is it (re: Rorschach test).
If politicians seek to influence behaviour and rarely is any action superfluous, what’s triggering the motivation? This takes a wide understanding of heuristics — mental shortcuts people take for meaning e.g framing and anchoring effect.
Take this recent news about Fox TV about Rupert Murdoch.
Not only did he admit that he knew that Fox News hosts spread lies about the 2020 presidential election being stolen from Donald Trump, but he confessed that he had allowed them to keep on doing so on air to millions of viewers. The Guardian
And then this letter from UK PM Rishi Sunak is worth journalistic studies not for its content, but for its motive.
The backdrop, in case you’ve avoided UK news over the last few days is the murkiness after the BBC took sports presenter and former footballer Gary Lineker off the show he presents Match of the Day.
The reason? Lineker had tweeted a response to the Home Secretary’s Suella Braverman’s immigration policy comparing the language used as not too dissimilar to Germany in the 1930s.
Cue Lineker becoming the story overshadowing the real story and it was enabled by a gloved politics and journalism.
Journalism desperately needs a correction. Up and down the country scores of young people seek to make it their living for the future attending colleges and universities. But in 2033 is it possible this thing called journalism will be as credible as alchemy?
But what is this correction? Journalism’s form guarded by frameworks isn’t bound by, say, a hippocratic oath — do no harm. You can’t overnight claim to be a medical doctor, but you can to become a journalist — even when your NUJ card is terminally languishing in the post.
From politicians overnight to TV political presenters, as a new coined word posits ‘presenticians’ require no qualification. Truth is now deemed indeterminate. These problems are self inflicted.
I got an email last week from an international consortium looking at ways to overhaul journalism not by adding on what’s already been done but by a ground up different model.
There’s a journalism module I teach to Masters students where we treat journalism as a hydra, trying to get students to understand story forms and how some practitioners have become instruments of subterfuge, often too by inaction to stand up to others.
For me it’s an atrophying war. Hence we prefer to refer the idea of a journalism reboot without the name as an example of Applied Storytelling.
I’ve written extensively about this in which the discipline openly acknowledges a multi-hyphenate approach to the craft. We examine storytelling for instance in where emotional triggers and Foggs theory, alongside Daniel Kahneman’s decision making model reveals user interactions.
In 2033 with the use of AI detecting embedded motives will become common place, but for the meantime, here’s the PM’s letter.