Journalism’s funereal journey to becoming Journal-liars. Can we ever get redemption from the next generation?
All journalism starts of as untruth, before it gets stress-tested. It then either finds its way further to purgatory sating the appetite of what the impressionist wants its audiences to hear or it attempts an ideological contusion, a nay impossible, but striving to acquire task - to capture a truth.
All those words you hear: objectivity, impartiality, balance etc. was modern journalism’s attempt to ape science’s trustworthiness through philosopher Auguste Comte’s social empirical enquiry. Comte’s second stage inquisition, for instance, looked to how we could rationalise events in the absence of evidence.
The BBC’s now retired Rottweiler Jeremy Paxman captured this essence of untruth in this inaccurately attributed meme: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” referring largely to politicians. The stress tested would hence continue. Sometimes Paxman’s verbal assault resembled waterboarding to get at a single truth.
Today a gargantuan alliterative headline, as Trump catchers reveal, shows up the woman in the red dress when everyone is wearing black. “D’you like that”, the scrawny kid says in the Matrix. “Look again”. Ah gun barrel. The stress-testing momentarily failed. That thing has mutated in a malicious virus spreading incalculable pain.
It’s easy you’d think. If you bin all the opinion journalism stuff, you’re left with its sibling who observes, listens and tries hard not to take sides. Mum asks why there’s no longer any Kool Aid in the fridge and Mia tells what she saw. She asked Jimmy and his five friends, as well as Dad who picked up two bottles: “Why don’t you leave some. Mums going to really tell you off”. Mia is stress-testing.
When mum calls out Mia and Jimmy, what follows is a contextual argument to get at some truth. Imagine if little Jimmy, or dad blurted: “Mia drank five bottles”, and then mum says, “Ok then, moving on. Have you guys done your home work?” Great whopping lie and we’re not going to bother to ask how she did it. D’you see where this is going in journalism?
It’s pretty toxic. Everyone’s at it, even some of your beloved networks. Just say anything; an emotional inducing headline, and better still one whose metronome is scientifically attractive by falling between 3.0 and 3.5 words per second and is between 15–30 seconds in duration— how long on average news speakers talk before catching another breath.
Yet journalism’s abrogation of its duty ( did it ever have one?) is not as darkly pernicious as the egregious journal-liar. Except when ignorance isn’t feigned and journalism is journal-lying.
In the 1900s it was yellow journalism: a Randolph versus Pulitzer production. Two super newspaper moguls of their time trading sensational unethical stories and according to Professor Stephen Vaughn’s Encyclopedia of American journalism were part of a new journalism that contributed to the 1898 American-Spanish conflict. Today, the colour of journal-lying is every shade of the spectrum.
Sometimes the audience is passed a bone, in the shape of a fact-checker, yet it’s presented as an other — not part of the reportage. It’s like buying your groceries and being told if you want to check if the sales assistant has given you the right change, you need to go to that other shop down there. Right!
Your journalism friends will tell you, journalism is going down the tubes, quite literally. CBS, Les Moonves’s gleeful quote: “It [Trumpism] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” is only articulating what other networks feel. Journalism is like a trusted doddering grandparent, dressed up in chic pink to look hip, roaming the woods without a physical or moral compass. It suffers from grumpy old person syndrome, not giving a F*** what you youngen or others think. After all, which ever way you cut it, journalism is a construct (opinion), and when you add profit into the mix, is it any wonder?
This is the world of garth, “stupid, stupid, stupid” or Dooley — the roguish alt-ego of Finley Peter Dune whom with eloquence and a piquant turn of phrase made himself a good living. Who cares about the truth anyway, so long as you can sell copy?
So who’s going to save us?
No one. Nadda. Nilch. The genie smashed its bottle a long time ago. There’s a moment in journalism’s burgeoning history where you’re made to think that’s a good fix. Before he wrote one of the most seminal novels for its time Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flander Daniel De Foo was described as a good reporter in Andrew Marr’s My Trade. Unlike the inglorious reporters of his 1700s time, De Foe, as he would change his name to, believed the best way to get to the truth was to observe and ask people afterwards. What’s now called eye-witness reporting.
It seems commonsensical, but back in the 1700s in London’s 500 or so newspapers you wrote what you wanted. Defoe, the son of a working class tradesman was having none of it. In My Trade he says ‘What is the Lye of the Week? Or what is the Lye of Courant of the Day’.
Air-conditioned journalism wasn’t for him, even if air conditions were some two hundred years away. He was out and about, and much of Defoe’s practice, though sneered upon by toffs, is seen in today’s journalism but there’s a catch.
I can best illustrate this through the actions of one of my Masters students a decade ago. She was an international student from an African state writing about sexuality and wrote a strong passage condemning anyone who was gay. Impartial reportage had suddenly become overt opinion. “You the reporter would do well not to express an opinion. You syphon your material to report was others say”, I said, adding that, “at some point when your pen is trusted and you become a correspondent a level of opinion is accorded you to tell us the audience”.
She took the advice and after much head-movement from side-to-side she sat down to rewrite her copy. About two hours in, I heard a loud yelp from the back of the class. She’d found it. Found what, I asked. She showed me her new copy. Being gay WAS still condemnable because she had found her quote from a senior retired unpleasant personal from the US Army. Attributional journalism had been usurped by ethics.
The greatest threat to today’s journalism is techs onslaught on its foundations, particularly its universality. Er, not quite because this ignores the following, that while largely tech has been involved in the swift transmission and adroit distribution of text, and taking into account McLuhan’s message aphorism, the philosophy of self matched to journalism remains largely under developed. Comte’s critical investigation, as a universal form, seems largely abandoned.
In a paper I’m delivering next week at the IAMCR International Association for Media and Communication , I challenge the way news is made based on its ideals of the later 1940s and the Monkey, Ladder and Banana experiment. In Cinema Journalism, my area of expertise and post doc research, I acknowledge that news is an artificial construct and how we visualise cinematically.
Journalism, for instance likes to pretend that culture, race and your self memories have little to do with your professionalism and output but if you were brought up foster homes or a 50-acre stately mansion, your autobiography shapes you and your views. It doesn’t mean you can’t empathise and be liberal or lean to alternative political spectrums, it just means you posses a different perspective.
In a theoretical democracy model it’s the reason why diversity is an important issue. It’s the reason why, say, public bodies like the BBC should see an ethical for diversity across various variable.
It has no counter insurgency strategy for lying, either from others or often internally. It doesn’t need one. It (broad statements here which I recognise as absurd because journalism is not a unitary form) sees profit over anything else, whether that’s in physical notes or time. We’re in the realm here of mnemonics when talking of the psychology of attention. Perhaps something for another post.
How do we undo this?
One way, not by any margin the answer, is to use data, more data, lots of data, to help you the reader come to your own decisions. Imagine if, and howls of head-shaking will pursue with this, that your likes and dislikes, your preference data DNA were visible for everyone to see.
Yep it’s a privacy issue wrapped up in amendment rights and freedoms of this and that but imagine you the reader online or viewer had those facts available, you could gauge yourself whether you trusted your source.
In all likelihood too it would set up its own confirmation bias. If your own characteristics or likes don’t match those you’re being acquainted with, you’ll ignore that other worldly view. That happens now anyway in social media. It won’t stop journal-lying but it’s a thought.
That probing of the person and their notion for being self critical, or recognising different points of view to get a truth was a hallmark of Dan Gillmor’s We the Media. Journalism knows the way. It just don’t care.