How to tackle truth in a post truth world

“How do you know it’s true?”, she asked.

Two trains coming at you. One’s chugging along through idyllic foliage evoking nostalgia and Harry Porter-esque recalls. This is Britain as it once envisioned itself. Great, without the brutal consequences of its empire reign. America, presumably in the days of The Waltons. The other, sleek, curved, modern and bullet-like is clean, shiny data — information addressing the future.

One of these is your preferred mode of transport. It matters to you, but for this piece it’s a moot point. This is the metaphor for communications, political spin, fake news, mendacious politicians, lies and journalism.

We’re drawn to a train of choice. It solves an internal problem. This is emotion at play which is learned. The passengers on board are its content. They carry the message; one group abound with facts and evidence, but in the politics of now, evidence and facts have become somewhat immaterial, reduced to second class commuters — standing room only.

For Trump’s core supporters, Britain’s leavers from the EU, the hard left and liberals with cloth ears, no amount of facts offer a counter to their narrative, their filter stream of truth — whichever train they travel.

We’re made to think this is a new phenomenon. Truth as detailed by Simon Blackburn in Truth A Guide for the Perplexed has always been under assault and in telling the truth …”you can’t please all of the people all of the time”, said the British monk and poet in the 15th century Reverend John Lydgate. Is this it for journalism? THE existential threat in a world where dead cats (PR ruse), squirrels and outright lying has become the norm for people in power.

Journalism’s woes too stem from the Internet and the lack of a viable business model to make a profit that’s vampiring the life out of itself, giving clickbait prominence. It wasn’t the case when we ( me presenting the news) dived in headlong in 1995. Finally, we thought more choice for the voiceless. Behavioural theory proves people generally like simple easy-to-follow answers hence by giving you too many sizeable options, the paradox of choice, psychologists say your brain (memory) shuts down. Here’s simple.

Yesterday I started reading James Ball’s Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World. It’s an instructive engaging book, widely received and praised by critics and journalists which helps us understand these times. It spells out how President Trump’s narrative amounts to bullshit, as opposed to lying, and as such presents a different problem for journalism.

Trump just simply doesn’t care saying one thing and evidence suggesting another. And there seems, for the meantime at least, to be no consequences. Bullshit as framed by philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University is a deliberate act to ignore truth in the face of evidence.

The book sparked various thoughts that I’d like to throw into this topical discussion from my vantage point. I’ve been a journalist (ex BBC/ Channel 4 News), mainly broadcaster, coming on thirty years, covering international and national stories and politics in particularly in South Africa and UK elections — the last for Channel 4 News’s The Politics Show under Andrew Brown (Gordon Brown’s brother).

News Disruptors

I was one of the UK’s first journalism-disruptors as the Net and cable allowed Britain’s first national newspaper to become a broadcaster that pioneered videojournalism as something called the Internet was taking off.

In 2005 I became the first Brit to win the US’s coveted Knight Batten Award for innovation in journalism for building a journalism platform US judges called heralding the future. Then I pursued six-years of research for my PhD at University College Dublin examining journalism and videojournalism which threw up some of its fault lines. This to led citations in various academic and trade books, such as Ed Madison’s 2018 Reimagining Journalism in a Post-Truth World: How Late-Night Comedians, Internet Trolls, and Savvy Reporters Are Transforming News.

Yet, my route into journalism was a trying one. I’m a science grad (trained to rely on evidence), but also an artist. I was a former artists in residence at the Southbank Centre so see creativity as key in communications. I come from a working class background, was brought up in foster homes in the UK and then Ghana, and had no contacts or a leg up into the industry. Each place I worked, and there were many layered my perspective which I share as a journalist and academic with Masters students.

The horcrux journalism faces isn’t new. At the turn of the last century the green shoots for a host of multi-variant problems were sprouting. I could write about how the seeds were watered by the powerful and UK parliamentarians seeking to kill journalism throughout the period when it catered for the working class. First they tried sedition laws, then high taxation, and finally in the 1900s gentry and land-owners would come to the rescue convinced that they should put their money into this tawdry thing called newspapers rather than stock assets, land and merchant trade. Newspapers therefore became an organ for control, particularly during political coverage.

I could talk about journalism’s lack of diversity both in its coverage of stories and personnel which has become its achilles. Journalism hovers around the drinking wells of Washington and Westminster — a few people. This weekend’s news of footballer Raheem Sterling’s alleged racial abuse, in which the footballer says newspaper foster this climate of prejudice cannot be dismissed as illogical reasoning.

Newspapers, the media, are at best an imperfect medium, at worse a vehicle for ideological punditry that pressumes perfection. This problem has been identified within the profession by several figures and industry publication Broadcast. But proprietors say journalism is a business catering for its audience, its primary group whose ideology to which it’s most aligned for profit, financially and physically.

But I’ll talk briefly about the obdurance in journalism education, which reveals a shortcoming that should be addressed. If Trump is a phenomenon symbolic of a new type of obfuscation, he’s this generation’s marker, a Truman of his time.

Journalism Education

As I have written elsewhere on @medium

In 1948, the election of America’s 41st U.S. president, president Harry Truman was truly seismic. Truman was not supposed to win against the favoured Republican Thomas Dewey. At 5.6 ft, Truman had what critics referred to as a small-size man complex. His negotiating style was testy. On a number of occasions on foreign policy negotiations he threatened to drop the big one (nukes) on his adversaries. He did on Japan. Astutely connecting to rural communities akin to today’s Trump play, Truman was in contrast to Trump a feisty liberal who supported African American rights.

Ask journalists and scholars what journalism is, and you’ll receive a flood of responses. There is no essence. The eminent US professor Michael Schudson sums it up when he describes journalism as a man made construct informed by conventions, cultural and literary values. Journalism has proved itself malleable since its birth, but equally has hemmed itself into a particular mindset. Here’s an antecedent that shows something interesting.

Let’s call it the Lipmann-Bernays axis. Walter Lippmann (1889 — 1974), generally cited by scholars as one of the most brilliant journalists of his time possessed a deep understanding of mind management, propaganda, through the written word. Amongst his famous work is the manufacturing of consent — his benevolent notion that the general public were too irrational to make important decisions in a democracy. Leave that to the elites.

Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, reworked Lippman’s ideas towards creating the term and and blue print for the practice ‘public relations’. He replaced propaganda after, he says, it had been tainted by the Nazi machinery.

Whilst the assumption is Lipmann was not alone, he represented a type of journalist who combined an understanding of propaganda and its overlap and separation with factual reportage. He had firm practical knowledge. Lipmann and Bernays advised President Woodrow Wilson to turn around American public opinion towards entering WWI.

That was over a hundred years ago. It’s not unusual today for many journalists to later turn to jobs in PR, they’re generally better paid, and journalism works under a rubric of understanding the minds of its audience proclaiming “what will their audience be talking about at the pub”. However, you’d be hard pressed to find university courses that teach behavioural theory, propaganda, and mind/ behavioural sciences. A University of Salford course that aims to combine PR and Journalism received widespread criticism. If the distinctions are clearly made, then learning about your adversary is a rare development in our times.

The visual medium of television deserves special attention. The explosion in advertising and television in the 1950s presented unique opportunities for this bifurcated medium. Television news sought to ignore any discourse and practical application around symbolism and metaphor in storytelling. WYSIWYG even when the body language and beads of sweat say otherwise. Leave that to AI eh?

Purposeful or thick use of expression was to be avoided. Furthermore, as the mantra went, “if it’s not on tape it didn’t happen”, This framed an explicit thinking for a medium rich in cinema cues. What largely is practiced today is a fixed truncated language, wrought with stereotypes and memes failing often to parry incomings within a dynamic fluctuating world.

In contrast, propaganda and psychology to exact the art of persuasion would become marketeers, advertising and political parties’ stock in the trade. Faced with saturation in the market cinema’s richer storytelling language was co-opted. From television news clothes line, advertisers and political parties pinched techniques like “latest report”, “a survey”, and “new” and “improved” writes Sean Brierley in the Advertising Handbook. He adds.

Two other linked news values are prominence and proximity. Proximity includes elements of the message which directly affects the target market’s lives. The classic example of this in journalism is Budget day… A much more common news value criterion because of the over mediation of modern life is co-option.

Here advertisers sling themselves on the back end of news items. A news report on a new passenger plane is just as good in advertising, but then add the companies commercial soon after and you reinforce by repetition the product’s brand message.

Television news’s genius was devising and perfecting over a fluid period of twenty years from the first identifiable TV report to the news package an ability to tell a story in under two minutes and understand their audience. “If it bleeds it leads” said editors and no one wants to see a good uplifting story. Scary sells. It was, to say the least, a brilliant piece of reportorial engineering, helped on by Tech to expand its capabilities left exposed its soft belly — its weak point, exploited by PRs, Spin doctors and canny politicians. Fox’s pulling Trump’s anti-immigration ad was a rare sight.

What became clear is by their own design as a convention they settled upon ignorance or a general mistrust of the medium, meant television execs throughout the 50s and 60s (and a legacy today) shut out any other prevailing mode from cinema’s expansive language. Conversely they saw the PR industry as bed fellows that fed them stories and built an allegiance with politicians to absorb their modus at work.

In the 1960s Robert Drew tried introducing television execs to Cinéma vérité or Direct Cinema. They took my equipment said Drew, but not entirely my ideas. Television’s conventions determined they required a reporter as central to the report. Television news will repeat what you say in a metronic voice, whilst dismissing availability, anchoring or confirmation heuristics whilst a dead cat (e.g. Space force) floats across the screen.

In my post-doctorate work, I build upon Robert Drew’s Cinéma vérité and videojournalism first introduced into the UK. What emerges is evidence-based reportage, technology agnostic, which acknowledges the spectrum of cinema and its rich tapestry of storytelling. Appended to it is psychology and the science of how our mind works that allows us to reinterpret in situ what we’re being being fed and how we pass this on. I’ve taught this around the world, such as Beirut, Russia, China and near the Syrian border.

I don’t profess this will halt lying and fake news, but it goes some way in making a comms practice become more adept in the 21st century. And our ongoing research suggest the use of A.I. that provides sentiment analysis on truth, but that’s for another post.



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