Media Sauce: What's wrong with journalism today?

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This week, Doc Martin delves deeper into the psychological, philosophical and intellectual roots of the post-truth media landscape where fake news and anti-intellectualism masquerade as independent reporting. 

THE SUDDEN global interest in “fake news” sparked by the U.S. elections and allegations of Russian interference to support Trump’s campaign has led several IA readers to contact me asking why both the mainstream media and the alternative social journalism sphere both seem to lie with impunity, or at least are prepared to promote unverified rumour as actual news.

I’ve attempted to provide some answers in recent weeks in terms of the so-called “post-truth” media landscape, the widespread dissemination of propaganda in the guise of independent reporting, and the deliberate misinformation spread by both the Clinton and the Trump camps during the election season. (See stories HERE.)

But it seems that these are only partial explanations that deal with the surface issues and practicalities, without delving deeper into the psychological, philosophical and intellectual roots of the problem. This week, I thought I might attempt to answer some of these more puzzling questions.

It must be true, it’s on Facebook

A good example of the confusing feedback loop between journalism and social media is this illustration, which was sent to me by a friend on Facebook. How do we account for this deliberate attempt to tailor perspectives and expectations when it is done by a so-called “respectable” publication, the Wall Street Journal?

Example of a #fakenews meme which fooled thousands (Image supplied)

The ‘Trump Softens His Tone’ headline was for the New York market, which is more soft-l liberal and therefore inclined not to like the idea of Trump’s wall. The ‘Trump Talks Tough On Wall’ headline was for the Texas edition of the WSJ. In Texas, there is likely to be more support for the idea of a wall on the border with Mexico. This manipulation might be simply about pandering to a particular demographic and, given the headline is always bait to hook the casual reader, in this case it’s straightforward: a “gung-ho” headline for the rednecks and a softer tone for the liberals of New York.

However, it’s not true. The meme circulating on social media with the photograph shown here was itself faked. The WSJ copies in question are from 31 August this year and, according to the myth-busting website Snopes, they represent an early (on the left) and late edition (on the right).

So, who is fooling whom? It is difficult to tell. We trust our friends and when they circulate material into our newsfeed on Facebook, we want to believe them, we assume the information they present to us is true.

But what if they don’t check? The original tweet alleging the WSJ scam was retweeted more than 2,000 times.

As you can see from the comment thread this tweet generated, plenty of people – and especially Trump supporters – were inclined to believe it. The belief comes because the prejudice of conservatives (of course, the WSJ is lying, it supports Hillary) is confirmed and they are more than happy to accept it as gospel without checking. But Hillary supporters also want to believe that the WSJ was secretly aiding the Trump campaign. Both lies can’t be true.

We believe what we want to, but is it true?

What really happened is that Trump was presenting two different messages on the same day, which was a hallmark of his campaign. The original headline referred to a meeting Trump had with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, in which he took ‘a remarkably subdued and cooperative tone’, according to reports. The WSJ story was updated following a speech by Trump, later the same day, in which he made the yet-to-be-tested promise/threat that he would make Mexico pay for the infamous “wall” he pledged to build on the USA’s southern border. The speech was after, but close on the heels of his visit to Mexico.

In this example, the problem was not the Wall Street Journal, it was (and is) Donald J Trump. In this case, the WSJ was legitimately updating its coverage of Trump’s campaign and quite rightly highlighted the shift in his rhetoric — a softer tone for the Mexican president and a belligerent outburst for his domestic supporters. Both Trump and Clinton supporters were prepared to believe that the WSJ had doctored its coverage and social media helped both sides to spread misinformation to their own supporters and followers.

However, there are clear cases where, for whatever reason, journalists get it wrong.

Journalists don’t always get it right

A week after the election, the world got a good sense of Mr Trump as perhaps the first “post-truth” President in U.S. history. The New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik explained how a fake news story began with a tweet from President-elect Trump that was itself factually incorrect and then did the rounds of several reputable news sites before becoming a trending story in Google news feeds.

Along the way, the incorrect tweet from Mr Trump was retweeted more than 45,000 times and garnered over 140,000 “likes”. Trump’s supporters, like blogger and podcaster, Wayne Dupree, happily spread the false story.

Trump supporter @WayneDupreeShow retweeted the incorrect story as an example of the PEOTUS 'winning'.

Reuters news agency the ran the story under the headline ‘Trump says Ford not moving U.S. plant to Mexico’, without running any checks on his Twitter claim.

USA Today ran a more correct version of the story, but without mentioning that the initial tweet was wrong. It was not until the next morning’s news cycle that the record was corrected.

The WaPo summed it up with the banner headline Trump just took credit for stopping Ford from moving a plant to Mexico. But it wasn’t planning to.

James Poniewozik laid out the sequence of events in a series of 12 tweets and began with this ominous statement:

'New reality for the press: the president-elect’s Twitter account is a competing media outlet spreading fake news.'

This is a disturbing example of how a reputable news organisation gets sucked into the need to be the first to report something that seems newsworthy, but along the way accuracy is sacrificed.

So, today, we have to ponder what it means to live in a world where, for some people and under some circumstances, truth itself has become irrelevant. It certainly raises the very difficult question: If truth is now irrelevant, what is the point of journalism and journalists?

How does this happen?

The concept of “truth” is central to the mission and values of journalism. If what journalists report is not the “truth”, then what is the point? How can we be expected to navigate the complexities of politics – such as a Presidential or Parliamentary election – if the news we are reading is “post-truth”?

Does it mean that as journalists we can write whatever we like? Or, that if we write something that is not true, when it’s written that it somehow becomes the truth, or at least a version of the truth? Perhaps not, but it does mean that as consumers of news we have to be alert to the possibility that the news we are seeing, hearing or reading may not be a true representation of the world.

In a sense, we’ve always had this problem, so “post-truth” journalism is nothing new on one level. There has always been bias in journalism, right from the very first attempts at transmitting news from one person to another.

There are several reasons why the reported truth may vary from a wholly accurate rendering of the actual event being reported on. Photographs, or audio and video recording, are technological attempts to deal with the problem of truth in journalistic accounts. However, history shows us that sound and images (still and moving) can be doctored, or edited in a way that conceals reality, or in a way that presents a skewed, or even totally false, picture of what happened.

Eye-witness reports are notoriously unreliable. Two people witnessing the same event may later have totally different recollections of what they saw. This means that reporters have to check the facts and seek some form of verification — usually by asking more than one or two witnesses about what they think they saw. Cross-checking, or the process of “triangulation” of the facts involving three or more reliable sources can help to ensure a reasonably accurate version of the truth is presented in reportage.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is not an infallible process that guarantees “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. We increasingly see instances where this doesn’t happen as it should. The best explanation I can give for that is a lack of resources for fact-checking and testing claims made by sources.

A bigger issue in journalistic truth-telling is the bias of the reporter. We can do nothing about the bias of our sources; we can only be aware of their bias and hope to counter that where necessary with other points of view. The bias of the journalist is something that we can deal with, particularly if we are that reporter. If we are honest with ourselves and we are prepared to behave ethically in our role as social journalists, we should have no trouble admitting to our prejudices. Most of the time we don’t want to change them, but we should be able to acknowledge how they influence our reporting.

Our bias may well inform our motive for wanting to be a reporter, whether in a large news organisation like The New York Times, the Fox News network or MSNBC, or their Australian equivalents. Personal beliefs play a part, even if we’re working for a small-town news website or print outlet. Bias certainly plays a role in social journalism, in blogging, and in partisan political reporting. In these situations, bias is really just another word for our belief system. Unfortunately, most of us do not challenge our assumptions, we amplify them. When journalists do this, it is easy for them to get sucked into accepting things at face value that should be questioned and challenged.

The sad truth is that reporters are often too close to the people they’re reporting on. I don’t mean physically close, though in the cloistered atmosphere of a parliamentary or congressional press gallery, the intimacy of proximity plays its part. More importantly, journalists are often too close ideologically to the people they report on. Their stake in the system (consciously or not) means that they are susceptible to seemingly innocuous common sense beliefs that are actually highly political and intellectually problematic.

It is certainly hard to find news that is entirely impartial or that is only factual. News has never really been without bias; there is an element of interpretation in every news story and with interpretation comes the privileging of one viewpoint over another. Allied to the problem of objectivity is the obvious issue of news that is poorly sourced or invalidated because it is badly written and, perhaps, from an unreliable news outlet.

Is education the answer?

There is an unfortunate air of proud anti-intellectualism in our journalists. They like to feel superior to their audience, but they also sneer at academics, particularly if they are "progressive". The view from the newsroom is that “pointy-heads” are do-gooder know-it-alls, who should be put in their place if they try to laud it over the commoner. Tabloid values rule, even in the most "broadsheet" of environments and this, in turn, inhibits any critical thinking on the part of reporters. Instead there is an air of “we know best” and “giving the audience what it wants”, even though nobody is really sure what that is.

The empiricism of the newsroom is also mirrored in academia. Journalism schools focus more on the “nuts-and-bolts” of reporting than they do on media critique, philosophy and theorising the role of journalism in the social totality. The “system” is assumed to be running just fine, even when it manifestly isn’t.

As a journalism educator, I have been accused of being too left wing so often that it is now just a minor irritation.

Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt, not my biggest fans.

For a long time, I secretly wished that there were more journalism teachers like me. I reasoned that if there was a Marxist in every journalism tutorial then we could eventually indoctrinate enough impressionable students to change the culture in the newsroom.

I know this is a stupid, stubborn and forlorn hope despite the fevered rantings of Newscorpse columnists calumnists. It is just not going to happen and there are several reasons for this.

The first and most important reason is that journalism graduates leave the classroom and enter a profession that is profoundly anti-intellectual. The basic mantra from editors is no more than a mission to fill the news hole, with the obvious exception of The Australianwhere every editorial decision is carefully orchestrated to meet a political need.

In general, news needs to be uncomplicated, non-threatening to the audience and, where possible, to align with the perceived prejudice of readers, listeners and viewers. In order to fit in to this fast-paced, under-resourced world of click-bait and social media metrics, journalism graduates quickly jettison most of their idealism, just in order to survive.

They become indoctrinated into the cynical mindset that makes the next story the most important thing and where speed is more valued than intellectual rigour. Thoughtful investigations and elegant writing are less valuable in depleted newsrooms than the ability to switch off everything except a commitment to filling the hole.

The second reason, that I will only mention briefly, is that the system of journalism education throughout most of the English-speaking world emphasises technical skill-building rather than critical thinking and literacy skills. Universities are degree factories. The raw material is EFTSUs (Equivalent Full-time Student Units) and the output is ILUs (Indentured Labour Units). Higher education is big business today, it is not the quality of the education that matters, it is the efficient processing of raw materials into debt-laden proletarians with little option except to mortgage their futures to whomever will pay them a salary.

Journalism is no different, despite the supposed cache of a job in the fourth estate. Graduate journalists are low-paid process workers in the news factory; they are paid to produce copy, not to think too much about what they’re doing.

It’s sad, I feel it every day and I wish it were different, but that is the reality of journalism and journalism education under capitalism.

Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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