Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A user guide for journalism

There is an epidemic of aggression aimed at journalists online and this has changed the way that journalists engage with people on social media, especially on Twitter. The flaming, the insults, the mockery, the incredulous sighing, the unwanted advice, and the bad takes, are signs of a public sphere that has ventured, if not completely out of control, then into areas where sensible discussion about issues has become more and more difficult to sustain.

These types of attacks are so common that there should be a name for this kind of dealing with journalists. The epithet “MSM” has become a badge of shame in the feeds of some people who are popular and influential posters of commentary, including retweets of links where they find particularly egregious examples of the kinds of sins they ascribe to the media.

This post is designed to address some of the misconceptions that people have about journalism, and possibly to help pave a way forward. I have my doubts about the chances of success in this latter regard, as people in general do not allow their views to be changed in contests on Twitter with people who have opposing views. They dig in, they hunker down, they resort, often, in the end, to insults and ad hominem attacks when other arguments prove unsuccessful. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of unhappiness in the world and for many people journalists are convenient targets because they are always there.

The other thing that gives people the idea they can routinely attack journalists is the implied right of political speech that the High Court found is guaranteed for all Australians by the Constitution. This right is not uninhibited, however, and other laws and even the personnel policies of the organisation you belong to can curb it in practice. This means that public servants have, in the past, due to political speech they have engaged in in a public space, been found guilty of breaching their contractual obligations. So just because the implied right exists does not guarantee that you have a right, yourself in all circumstances, to say whatever you like about the prime minister. On the other hand, the implied right to political speech underpins public debate in this country and can be used as a defence against certain countervailing claims, such as one for defamation.

There are eight separate headings in what follows. This list is not exhaustive but these categories by-and-large represent the main articles of media practice that people are having problems with. If you have any suggestions about others you would like see included, I will be monitoring the comments to this post and can add updates later if what you suggest seems like a reasonable addition to the discussion.
  1. There are many different viewpoints in the community
  2. Not every story has to contain the last word
  3. If a politician says something, it is news
  4. There is no objective truth
  5. The “MSM” doesn’t exist
  6. Claims of false balance are often unwarranted
  7. Not every hashtag is a story
  8. The link between politics and entertainment is real
There are many different viewpoints in the community

Most of the people I follow are political progressives, so I very often see this. When people complain about the media often it is to claim that, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the national public broadcaster, has been captured by the political right. People also often have problems with News Corp, which is, it is quite uncontroversial to say, determinedly conservative in its outlook.

With the ABC, the corporate charter says that a wide variety of viewpoints must be expressed in broadcasts and on websites. When it comes to News Corp, things are a bit more murky but it must be remembered that the split between the Coalition and the Labor Party in most elections is pretty close to 50-50 for each contest. A landslide is where the result varies by a tiny amount away from that factor. A 54-46 split, for example, represents a massive win for the party that prevails. News Corp cannot survive without paying subscribers, so if you see a story from one of its outlets you can be sure that there is a part of the community that wants to read it, and that agrees with the editorial position of the editors responsible for the content it conveys to readers.

Another aspect of this characteristic of the community is that because a variety of views exists there will be many different views expressed by the experts journalists rely on to provide much of the content that makes up their stories. If an expert is a political conservative the journalist might take the time to point this out in the story but this is not mandatory. As far as the ABC goes, just because a conservative voice is included in a story does not mean that the broadcaster has swung to the right politically. It just means that, on this occasion, a right-wing point of view was featured in a story. There is nothing sinister to be extracted from this occurrence, it is quite normal.

Not every story has to contain the last word

Just because a story on a particular subject does not contain the viewpoints of every possible expert living in the community who is qualified to comment, does not mean that the outlet in the case has been captured by any specific political party or has failed on account of journalistic rigour. Not every journalist will know every available expert for that issue, to start with. If every possible expert was interviewed for the journalist’s story the story would never be published. Journalists have deadlines over which they have little or no control. There are other people involved in the process of producing news apart from the person who does the interviews, transcribes them into text, and writes the story.

The other thing to say on this aspect of the public sphere is that beat journalism is very expensive. To have one person focused all the time on one specific aspect of the government or the economy costs a lot of money. Some freelance journalists, like Michael West, spend a lot of their time focusing on one thing, such as how much tax corporations pay. The result of this kind of beat journalism is a string of informed stories that add tremendously to the wellbeing of the community more generally. We have to have this kind of journalism but if we want more of it someone has to pay journalists to do it. If you want a beat journalist to cover municipal councils, say, or the real estate industry, write to your preferred media outlet and tell them. Then subscribe to them. If you want more depth, your dollars are the only things that can lead to the kind of content you want from journalists.

Note however the word “string” that is used in the paragraph above. Not every story from your favourite beat journalist is going to say everything that can be said on the subject. When working on a story you have to, at some point, draw the line, stop calling people, and sit down to write. Each story forms part of a matrix of stories and there is even an Australian startup called Write in Stone that displays the connections between individual stories that link up to form a continuum of content on specific issues. It also provides links to source material such as interviews.

If a politician says something, it is news

Journalists are often attacked because they report the words of politicians without additional commentary, as though to do so were to traduce the pact that exists between the writer and the reader. As though to report the words of a politician were not real journalism. But politicians often betray the way they will vote in parliament through their words. What Mark Latham says about immigration or David Leyonhjelm says about section 18c of the Constitution is newsworthy because these men are elected representatives of the people. Their words have more weight, even, than those of an expert on the particular matter under discussion, because they have the power to directly influence the making of laws.

Criticising a journalist for reporting what a politician says is like blaming a novelist for including the dialogue that takes place between two characters at an important juncture in their novel. When you read a novel, you gauge the quality of the characters and you form ideas about their personalities based on their words and actions. It’s the same with politicians. If we don’t hear what politicians have to say how can we know whether we should vote for them or not? In fact, reporting the speech of politicians is one of the most fundamental parts of the journalist’s role. Without this feature of the public sphere, it would be impossible to know anything about the politicians who aspire to represent us in the legislature.

Reporting the speech of a politician does not mean that the media outlet employing the journalist involved supports that politician. in due course other stories will follow, by the same journalist or by a different journalist, in the same organisation or in a different organisation, and these will contain the words of verified experts whose views can be relied on to add to the debate. People are too impatient. You have to wait, sometimes, for a view that consones with your own to appear in print.

There is no objective truth

There are only opinions. Especially with complex matters that are debated in public, often the only way to know what will actually happen in future is to read the opinions of a number of experts. But different experts will be relied on for commentary for any given issue, especially for such issues as climate change, which are in any case hideously complex from a technical standpoint. You simply cannot legislate for truth in reporting. It would be too unwieldy and impractical. Who could say, for any specific issue, that one viewpoint is true and another one is false? How would such people be appointed? By whom?

The state of the art in any discipline is always changing. New research is constantly being conducted into any number of matters of interest to the public and no single person is the font of all wisdom in any case. What the world will look like in 25 years’ time is anyone’s guess, and so far we have not been able to travel in time, so we only know what we know. An expert has an opinion and he or she might be the most respected source of information on their specific field of study, but for many subjects others will be available to challenge their view, it is almost guaranteed.

The need for having a range of viewpoints to reflect the diversity of opinions that exist in the community is more important than knowing what is objectively true about any particular issue. Of course, some outlets are notorious editorialisers on certain issues, for example News Corp on the issue of climate change. But it is wrong to want to silence such views, even if the majority of experts thinks the opposite of what that news outlet says. To silence one newspaper on one issue would just invite the government, at another time, to silence another newspaper on a completely different issue. This kind of interference in the news process cannot, for important reasons, be allowed to happen. That way is the way of darkness. Better to put up with false narratives than to lose the freedom to publish the truth.

The “MSM” doesn’t exist

Every news organisation employs journalists and editors to make the stories that they publish. In some organisations, editors determine the direction the stories take, and in other organisations journalists are allowed in most cases to have their head.

The other thing to keep in mind in this regard is that there is a wider range of news outlets available now then ever before because the internet has lowered the cost of entry for publishers. So you are not obliged to read a news outlet whose opinion you disagree with. You can now subscribe to many small, niche outlets that can give you the kind of objective (or biased; you choose) news you want to read. The range of different structures in the media ecosystem is also very broad and not all media outlets are, for example, owned by a listed company. Some are very small, some are larger, some are very large.

What they all have in common however is the need to produce content that people in the community want to read. If people don’t click on their links, editors will not survive long in their jobs. With the internet, furthermore, editors know exactly what people are reading and so they have more information about reader tastes than they have ever before had in the history of news. In a real sense, readers decide what kind of news they are given. Editors and journalists can come up with good ideas they think will fly, but the proof, always, comes down to how people engage with the story. So in a real sense, the community is now driving the news process. And it’s not just with clicks, it’s also with subscriptions.

Claims of false balance are often unwarranted

This is a particularly pernicious type of criticism and I have written about it before in a post on “whataboutism”, an accusation often used by people on the left when they want to dismiss an argument that has been directed at them. You see this with even some reputable journalists who are on the left, and in recent times the case of One Nation versus the Greens has exercised the minds of many people in this regard. In response to that particular debate I wrote a post about the rise of One Nation that showed that it had, in fact, emerged precisely at the time when the Greens were starting to become a force in the public sphere in Australia. In truth the two parties are but two sides of the same coin. But when some people see this sort of view being expressed they react with such violence and outrage that their manners and even their reason escape their control.

Accusations of “whataboutism” are widespread and they are used in a range of different contexts by people whose arguments are not cutting through. Like an ad hominem attack, this kind of response from progressives is a flag that signals a point has been reached in the discussion that they have not thought beyond. In most cases the accusation is false and the person making it is just giving up and resorting to a kind of attack that has the merit of having no logical, effective response. But the fear and loathing that animates people who use it betrays something about themselves that they cannot express in any other way. Their very identity has been called into question. Perhaps they are not being completely objective in their view? Perhaps they, too, are exposing a bias in favour of one ideological position or another? Perhaps they are human after all, and not a god?

Not every hashtag is a story

A lot of the attacks on what is called the “MSM” arise because people get exercised about a subject as it becomes repeated in some way, often with a hashtag, on Twitter alone but not in the media. If this happens, the popular view is that the “MSM” is failing because it is not equally exercised about the issue. Usually this kind of accusation emerges from a position of ignorance. Journalists are always watching trends online and are aware of things that people post. If a journalist goes away and looks into an issue that has been raised in this way, they might then research a story or they might not. If they don’t write something about it, that doesn’t mean they are ignorant. It just means that they haven’t seen a legitimate story in the matter and have laid it aside.

On the rare occasion that an issue raised first on social media makes it onto the website of a reputable news outlet, it can change the position of the government on the issue. The “watergate” thing that appeared recently is a case in point in this regard (but even here there has still been no confirmed wrongdoing by any public figure). However, for every one of these issues, where the media picks up on a story first broached on social media, there are a dozen others that do not make the grade. People often point to these topics and then point to the “MSM” as proof of a failure to do its job properly, but what it actually means is that the media is in fact doing its job correctly, and other people are mistaking a mere suspicion of wrongdoing for evidence of wrongdoing by someone prominent in politics or business.

The link between politics and entertainment is real

Recently people have been wailing about stories that seem ephemeral and that focus on what a particular politician says in the context of the upcoming federal election. This kind of story, which might contain the politician making an amusing or witty statement, is thought to be a kind of betrayal of the purpose of the media. But the links between politics and entertainment are of long standing. In the 1960s there was even a philosopher named Guy Debord who wrote at great length about this nexus. You can go and buy one of his books and, if you can manage to make any sense of it, you can learn something new about this aspect of the public sphere.

The lure of politics for people who work in the entertainment industry is as old as Ronald Reagan. In more recent times we had Peter Garrett, the front man of 1980s rock band ‘Midnight Oil’, joining the Labor Party. And don’t even start me on Donald Trump. Another fact to contemplate is that the journalist’s union is the same organisation that represents actors and other people who work in the entertainment industry. It’s called the MEAA (the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) and it has a long pedigree in this country. The role of entertainment in the news business is also underscored when you go to class to learn how to write stories, at university. The media, you are told, has to inform and entertain, and the link between the two things is hammered home when you find out how to put together a news story. Good writing is as important for the story as good research.

So it’s useless to bewail the insertion of entertainment values into the political process, although we would be badly served if all news stories relied on a facile hook to get people to click on them and were all about mere celebrity. The secret is to ignore stories that rely on this kind of lure. Don’t react if you see a headline about Pauline Hanson and her most recent crying jag. Look the other way. Your clicks drive the news business, to a large degree, so you can’t complain when editors push out these sorts of stories in large numbers, especially near elections.

In any case the evidence is that people do like politics to be entertaining. This tweet arrived in my feed on Saturday from a Labor supporter: "I honestly believe Bill Shorten has massively quick wit, and extremely capable of some brutal one liners and reply’s, but he holds back as he doesn’t want to come across as an arrogant smart arse. Wait till he’s PM at the despatch box. He will rip the LNP apart. Keating style." It turns out that politics is often about entertaining the masses. Give us a good orator and we'll follow you to the grave ...

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