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That was the news. Happy now?

Recently, the thing I've been getting most ranty about is bad journalism. It's always annoyed me, and I've always been aware of a certain amount of the spin and hyperbole and selective editing and outright lying that goes on, but either it's getting worse or I'm noticing it more. Sometimes it's the big stuff, sometimes it's the little stuff. For instance, on Tuesday the BBC had an article entitled What do you get if you divide science by God?, which started:

A prize-winning quantum physicist says a spiritual reality is veiled from us, and science offers a glimpse behind that veil.

Now, it's not really trying to mislead - it went on to explain two lines later that the prize that the scientist in question had won was the Templeton Prize, which is an essentially an enormous cash prize for shoehorning religion into science. (It's specifically designed to pay out more than the Nobel, because Templeton thought the Nobel ignored spirituality.) The problem here is that "prize-winning scientist" strongly implies that the prize was for, you know, SCIENCE, and gives more weight to this scientist's opinion than if he'd just been dubbed "a scientist" who believes that there's a spiritual reality that's veiled from us.

You can of course find far, far worse examples of journalism than that every day, even on the BBC site, but that one niggled at me because it was so pointless, and because I still - for some reason - expect better from the Beeb.

Charlie Brooker's new series Newswipe, which started last night, is being promoted as a sort of "catch up with some of the news if you haven't been paying attention" show, but it's mostly a savage indictment of modern journalism. The first show tried to explain what Charlie had learned about the credit crunch from the news channels and shows (not much that's in any way meaningful or comprehensible); touched on media spin and how PR agencies can set the news agenda and point of view, with reference to the "Natwest Three"; and finished up with a scathing look at the coverage of the German school shooting, and how the kind of coverage it got may actually be causing more of these incidents:



The whole thing is well worth watching - as well as being intelligent and incisive, it's very funny, as always. (If you've never encountered Brooker before: there will be sweariness and probably offensiveness.) It's available on iPlayer here, or on YouTube if you're not in the UK.

There is a crisis in journalism, for a variety of reasons (general cost-cutting, sacking of journalists, researchers and editors, the need for 24-hour TV and internet rolling news to be produced, the slow death of print media in general and regional reporting specifically, PR agency blurb being used as stories, proprieters influencing editorial direction, a toothless PCC) which all feed into each other. The internet in general and, I think, blogs in particular are going to be crucial in the next ten years or so, while we're in a transition period of how the "news" works. Someone has to be out there checking facts, calling out inaccuracies, and challenging bias. People like Ben Goldacre and Mailwatch are leading the charge. The internet also lets the people involved in stories have their own say and do things like the BHA's line-by-line rebuttal of an inaccurate newspaper article. It makes it much easier for people who are angry about news stories to band together and do something about it, as was shown in the last week or two by the campaign against the Scottish Sunday Express's obscene article about the Dunblane survivors, which resulted in an unconvincing but high-profile apology and an upcoming investigation by the PCC. And I think we're going to have to use all these tactics and more if we want to have a chance of countering the waves of misleading, alarmist propaganda that the majority of our news outlets seem to produce, to some degree or other, these days.

* Title, of course, from The Day Today, which we used to think was satire.

Comments

pickwick
Mar. 27th, 2009 10:02 am (UTC)
It's all very well to say that broadcast news needs to stick to facts, but you can mostly stick to facts (or at least statements which aren't outright lies) and still print an entirely inaccurate story, just by using selective quoting and very carefully worded sentences. You can see by comparing the completely different ways different broadcasters and newspapers cover a story that just "sticking to the facts" isn't enough to make something actually true, but does mean that you can't or won't be pulled up on it. I do think the increasing cynicism is a problem, but it's the fault of the broadcasters, not the public. There's no point in trusting a news outlet just because you think we SHOULD be able to.

I'm not saying "transfer your blind trust from TV and newspapers to blogs", of course - you're right that blogs and websites are probably more biased and inaccurate than mainstream media. But there's an increase in the number of people who are using the internet to co-ordinate actual primary source fact-checking - reading the scientific studies, doing the calculations on the UN immigration statistics, getting information directly from other countries. There's an enormous problem with the signal-to-noise ratio, yes, but there's also the possibility of reading multiple views on the same story and comparing them, checking the facts, seeing how they've used the same statistics in different ways. I might be being too optimistic about the amount of work people are prepared to put in before forming an opinion on things, though!

I do agree with you about the bandwagon culture we seem to be getting on to, but not challenging things is even worse. Presumably there's some other way or middle ground, but I'm not sure what it is. It does feel like every debate ends up far too polarised, because you have to take a stance on something and then defend it to the death, and anyone in the middle going "Well, both of you have a bit of a point" just gets ignored. It's like nothing is solved unless someone is Proven To Be In The Wrong and sacked or forced to apologise. And yeah, that's a problem across the political (and non-political) spectrum.
zagreb2
Mar. 27th, 2009 10:26 am (UTC)
It's all very well to say that broadcast news needs to stick to facts, but you can mostly stick to facts (or at least statements which aren't outright lies) and still print an entirely inaccurate story, just by using selective quoting and very carefully worded sentences. You can see by comparing the completely different ways different broadcasters and newspapers cover a story that just "sticking to the facts" isn't enough to make something actually true, but does mean that you can't or won't be pulled up on it. I do think the increasing cynicism is a problem, but it's the fault of the broadcasters, not the public. There's no point in trusting a news outlet just because you think we SHOULD be able to.

I think print journalism is guilty as sin of this sort of selective reading (and probably wouldn't deny it - there aren't any papers that don't claim a slant after all) but I'm not so sure in the case of broadcast news which is, in general, very good. Most of the accusations of "bias" I've seen levelled at broadcast news are crankery that is really complaining about an unwanted objectivity. Bias does occur in broadcast news, of course, sometimes by accident and sometimes as a result of "crusading" journalists not being reigned-in but when it does occur its possible to deal with and has been dealt with in the past. Certainly, when it comes to news I'll listen to the BBC/Channel 4 News/Sky News first and the papers second. The blogs, on the other hand, I generally leave until last. Which brings me to...

But there's an increase in the number of people who are using the internet to co-ordinate actual primary source fact-checking - reading the scientific studies, doing the calculations on the UN immigration statistics, getting information directly from other countries.

I agree that this sort of thing is extremely positive and it's encouraging that it exists. But, at the same time, much of it is politically motivated so that blog A will only fisk articles that are right-slanted whilst blog B will only fisk those that are left-slanted. Because people tend to gravitate towards blogs that support their own prejudices this potentially ends up creating the same blinkered worldview that crank blogs can produced - one that says "we" always tell the truth and must fight against "their" outright lies.

I do agree with you about the bandwagon culture we seem to be getting on to, but not challenging things is even worse. Presumably there's some other way or middle ground, but I'm not sure what it is.

I think what is possibly needed is for regulators with proper teeth. The BBC crossing the line of privacy/taste shouldn't be determined by a drummed-up campaign but by an active regulatory body. The Express using a non-story as an excuse to attack teenagers should be dealt with by an independent regulatory body (not the toothless PCC which is simply the press deciding for themselves whether they've done anything wrong). I believe in representative democracy, not direct democracy which is little more than mob rule.
pickwick
Mar. 27th, 2009 10:57 am (UTC)
I agree that print journalism is much worse for selective reading than broadcast journalism, yeah. I don't watch Sky News much, I had the impression it was a bit dodgier, but that might just be from the whole Madeleine thing. Broadcast journalism has more problems with staff cuts and the need to fill up 24 hours with "breaking news", I guess.


I agree that this sort of thing is extremely positive and it's encouraging that it exists. But, at the same time, much of it is politically motivated so that blog A will only fisk articles that are right-slanted whilst blog B will only fisk those that are left-slanted.
Yep - it's something I'm guilty of and am trying to change, to fact-check Guardian articles as much as I do Telegraph ones, and so on! It comes down to the polarisation of debate again, I guess. Not sure what can be done about it apart from more cross-linking of blogs, more people willing to read both sides.

I'm not sure what I think about regulation - in one way you're right, but then if we do have a powerful regulatory body, you start having concerns about THEIR bias, whether government or industry is influencing them, censorship, and so on. But yes, I fully support representative rather than direct democracy too.
zagreb2
Mar. 27th, 2009 11:15 am (UTC)
I'm not sure what I think about regulation - in one way you're right, but then if we do have a powerful regulatory body, you start having concerns about THEIR bias, whether government or industry is influencing them, censorship, and so on. But yes, I fully support representative rather than direct democracy too.

That is a concern to some degree but I think it can be countered first by having the regulatory body made up of a bi-partisan membership, of it having a certain amount of public input or membership (something like jury service, perhaps?) of its membership being regularly changed and of it operating according to a charter - ie it must justify its reasons for taking action rather than just doing so on a "we know best" basis. Any regulatory body would also answer to the government and, by extent, the electorate.

This is the problem with the PCC, it's a system of self-regulation that is partly PR and partly an attempt to control "wayward" publications in the interests of Fleet Street rather than any serious regulatory body that works in the public interest. It needs to be abolished and replaced with a charter outlaying press responsibilites and a regulator that will take action if the press ignore their responsibilities.
pickwick
Mar. 27th, 2009 11:41 am (UTC)
Yeah, there are probably ways round the problems, if we can put them into practise (jury service via telephone or internet might be good for input, actually), and it would certainly be better with the PCC. Which is just bizarre, generally.

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