Why can’t journalists just seek out and tell the truth?

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We’re in an era of discrediting journalism, of obfuscating rational thought, deep mining emotions, of trumping truth, and deliberately confusing a public.

We’ve been here before, many times in history. Generally, in the US the tussle between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst characterised as yellow journalism, 1895 onwards. And the UK about the same time the acquisition of print titles by land gentry to promulgate the sitting government’s ideology. Truth had a major political cost (read here).

Practising news journalism has always been a fight to find the truth and tell it. If like me, you grew up in a state where governments owned the media, where the smell of corruption tainted them, where telling the truth landed you in jail, what’s happening in the US at large is nothing you’ve not seen before.

The surprise is that this is the world’s leader of democracy of so called righteousness, truth and freedom, which in your lifetime is doing something not associated with its head of government — a deliberate, openly brazen attempt to say something, which is interpreted against a credible body of available evidence (Vox, ABC, WP etc.) as a ‘falsehood’, or plainly a lie.

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Photos © The Guild of Entrepreneurs and Jonathan Cherry

Moreover, from reading Roman Skaskiw’s “Nine Lessons of Russian Propaganda” it’s difficult not to see its several bullet points e.g. Headlines are more important than reality, especially while first impressions are forming as a playbook for how several government’s seek to stay in power and confuse the electorate.

Frankly every journalism conference should be discussing these, amongst dead cats and squirrel I mentioned at a keynote to city businesses in London three weeks ago. We should know how to see it coming and possess methods to address them

Why can’t all journalists seek out and tell the truth? There’s a philosophical argument for what is truth, but that’s for another post.

I can’t of course speak for any journalist, let alone any industry. Prof. Schudson’s quote about journalism being a social construct comes to mind. I have worked in TV news for several brands for a considerable number of years and now teach it. However, my problem had I still been in the industry would be working to the news outlet’s policy, that memo. That doesn’t negate journalists lobbying their editor’s framework i.e. “don’t call it a lie call it being economical with the truth”, but…

You don’t need a PhD to know there’s something wrong, though I decided I wanted to look at news via this depth of research. Embedded conventions, political economy, behavioural sciences, political motives, an easy solution is weighted down by competing interests. That tier where the guardians of journalism reside, who promote its practices, guard its conventions and sometimes propositions that have mislabelled rules, such as Walter Lippmann’s ideas on objectivity misinterpreted, have so defined its boundaries it’s seems change is difficult.

I’m reminded of one of the most substantial, perhaps, publicised attempts at change brought to journalism occurring at the BBC . It was via the then DG John Birt’s mission to explain. That was decades ago.

I spoke to Robert Drew. His idea of Cinéma vérité and that of Jean Rouch’s looked for something else — an art in journalism. They were considered outsiders by News folk. McLuhan referred to art as:

…precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology…

Or for that matter next psychological onslaught. Could Cinéma vérité be rebooted? Could journalists be taught to locate and push back where they’re being duped, dead cats and squirrels n’ all? Could storytelling break free from conventions to surprise its hosts, to afflict the uncomfortable and more says Mencken? This is what journalism ought to be doing, but alas it slips quite often. It needs to find what it stands for if a new generation are to be the truthful ( difficult word) lens between the public and politicians, spokespeople and the rest.

I don’t have the answer, however a wider discussion is contained within a 100,000 word thesis. As one of the first official videojournalists in the UK circa 1994, which itself has been reframed, I now teach something broader, influenced by aforementioned pioneers called Cinéma Journalism. Cinéma has multifaceted influences. There is no essence, but it imbues a cognitivism that is implicit, and symptomatic in comprehension as laid out by David Bordwell.

It’s not an answer to the status quo, but strangely lets me call a spade a spade and a lie, a lie.

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David leads the disLAB, a multi-faceted digital-agency course at the University of Westminster. He is a leading writer in Journalism on @medium and the recipient of several awards e.g. Knight Batten for Innovation in journalism. He’s worked in the media since 1987 for the likes of Newsnight, Channel 4 News and ABC News in Apartheid South Africa and is this year’s Asper Visiting Professor for Journalism at the University of British Columbia,

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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