Medium Top Writer in Journalism writes on the Top Hidden Threat to Journalism

“Here’s me planting an idea in your head. I say don’t think about elephants. what do you think about?”

Inception, 2010

Here’s politicians planting an idea in your head. Caravans! What do journalists do? Endlessly repeat the word. It doesn’t matter a jot if they say there is no caravan, and how far away this spectacle may be. The picture language association is fixed.

In his International best seller, ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,Cognitive scientist George Lakoff argues against using other people’s framing.

If you keep their language and their framing and just argue against it, you lose because you are reinforcing their frame.

We’ve already seen it with Fake News. At the heart of why you return a question with a loaded cue, is causal thinking. We’re predisposed to thinking in a way that is predictable, from our minds taking short cuts. It is both a survival mechanism and achilles heel.

When you hear gun fire, as I did reporting from the townships of South Africa, you ran for cover. Causal thinking almos means if I say don’t think about the elephant, the trigger, “elephant” can’t be avoided.

With knowledge of this and any number of books detailing how the mind works e.g. Richard Thaler’s Nudge Theory, Kahneman and Tversky’ Thinking fast and Slow, you’d think journalists would be better equipped at reporting events without falling for the traps laid by spins and PRs.

But that’s not the case. We tend to think of journalism simply as factual storytelling, yet If any other profession like Medicine, Law, or Health Management worked the way news journalism does today, we wouldn’t go near it. It would not be fit for purpose. This isn’t to denigrate the exemplar journalists who practice the craft with aplomb, but to question the way it’s taught, and how it’s kept up with the times — not because of technology but in spite of it.

Largely, new entrants to journalism are woefully under resourced with knowledge around philosophy, neuroscience, and behavioural theory which should be an integral part of their syllables.

We now know more about the mind and we continue to unlock its darkest untapped regions. We know fear sells, emotions are at the heart of reactions to stories and memory recollection, as written in Drew Westen’s Political Brain and that emotions aren’t fixed from How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Prof Lisa Feldman Barrett PhD . What works on one group may more likely not work on another; different value systems. Harari’s Homo Deus debunks human choice. If future A.I. can perform the role of journalism as with why don’t journalists simply pack up now.

We know all this, but we continue to practice journalism with the bluntness and crudity of a century ago, as if journalism boiled down to simply being able to get the message to recipient. Maybe that’s what it subconsciously is. Meanwhile Spin masters have us in their grip. There’s another dead cat, or squirrel story that worked a treat.

Brit columnist Matthew d’Ancona writes in the London Evening Standard, “If you thought liberalism was in a crisis, Brazil gets the Trump of the tropics”. Brazil’s appointment of Jair Messias Bolsorano for presidency is the challenge that awaits a new constituent of journalism, just as Brexit, Trump and the elective figures in Europe holding views to silence journalism will require a new kind of reportage. D’Ancona ends: “There is no once (sic)-size-fits-all solution to the crisis of liberal democracy”. This applies to journalism as well, and that “Bolsonaro and friends are just getting started”.

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