Updated: Dec 15, 2019
Ok, I’m going to admit it. I have a tough time watching the news these days. It’s not an easy thing for me to say having fronted news programmes for almost 2 decades. Today, it seems my attention span has withered and my patience has diminished. All I want to know is the facts. What is happening, why it is happening, and what it means to me and to the people it affects. I feel I am saddled with a lot of opinion and the focus is on inane tweets on stories that just don't matter. What is left out of the news are real stories about the welfare of our fellow citizens in our own country and in others that are riddled with corruption, cronyism, and systemic control over how people live.
When I started my career as a journalist in the late 1990s, my colleagues and I believed in the adage that the public had the right to know the truth. We always presented two sides of a story, as long as those two sides had facts to back up their argument. Now, the public, and I am included in that group, has to be investigator too to see what is real and what isn’t. I am not saying all that is being reported on in the news is fake and not all news outlets are falling for sensationlism, although the President of the United States and his Press Secretary will have you think differently. I am saying that there are so many opinions and voices talking about various strands of a story that the facts tend to get lost in the ether. The Americans have a president right now who, in his past, believed, as Laurence Leamer writes in Vanity Fair, “history was an inventive reconstruction to help him get what he wanted in the present.” That was true when he was building his empire and is true today. The Washington Post reports that in the two years since his election Trump has made “8,158 false or misleading claims.” The Post goes on to report, “The president averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. But he hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year, almost triple the pace.”
With the daily tweets from Donald Trump and the on-going soap opera that is BREXIT, I wonder how it is we got to this point of journalism where we are entertaining and reporting seriously, on suppositions, opinions, and this I can't wrap my head around, "alternative facts". The latter a term coined by Kellyanne Conway, Trump's senior adviser and the woman who fronted his Presidential election campaign. She would go on to clarify in The Atlantic that what she meant was "alternative information" saying, "Three plus one equals four, but so does two plus two."
While Conway has a point in that there are other sides to a story, facts are facts. In the UK where I live, we are dealing with BREXIT, the result of a referendum that took place in 2016 which was based on misinformation, fear mongering, and precious few hard truths on what would happen should the UK leave the European Union. Now, more than 2 years after that fateful vote, the British government is no closer to figuring out the best solution for its citizens and we are no clearer on what this exit will actually mean for us. In July last year, the Independent reported on major claims that were falsely made by both sides, those who campaigned to leave and those who campaigned to remain. There was no evidence and there were no facts presented to the British people about the realities of leaving the EU. In fact (pardon the pun) it has become scarily evident that information given to the public in a major event like voting in a national referendum was based on lies, that the actual facts wouldn’t “sell”. Evidence admitted by those doing the lying. Arron Banks, the founder of the Leave campaign and who was the largest donor for Britain’s far right party, UKIP, told the Guardian newspaper in 2016 that he had hired a Washington-based political campaign strategy firm to sell the Leave campaign’s message to the British public saying, “It was taking an American-style media approach. What they said early on was ‘Facts don’t work’, and that’s it. The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”
What Banks is implying is the use of "post-truth". "Post-truth" is a term which was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016 and is defined as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” And where have we regularly found those kind of stories that appeal to emotion and personal belief? The tabloids and Red tops as we call them in Britain. We’ve seen the popularity of tabloid newspapers on both sides of the pond. Just look at the magazine racks at the supermarket checkouts and see half a dozen of these papers and magazines with blatant lies in bold print, headlines screaming out stories that just weren’t true. The publishers have always banked on a celebrity-focused culture and a public’s hunger for more information (false or true) on their favourite stars. It was the pre-digital version of clickbait.
The New York Times when reporting on political and celebrity conspiracies in our news and pop culture today, recently quoted Renée Ann Cramer, professor of law, politics and society at Drake University in Iowa who said that what is behind these stories is “a desire to have the truth fit the heart’s desires." She would go on to say that many in the public “want (the stories) to be true.” But that is not journalism. Conspiracy theories and fantasy, any story that isn’t based on fact isn’t news. Unfortunately, with print sales on the decline, competition on the rise, and social media opening the door to that “clickbait”, the pressure to gain readership, direct flow of digital traffic where a lot of investment in news is directed, the need to gain digital market share on any story is immense. As Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School wrote, “In the last few years, many news organisations have steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of attracting clicks and advertising (or investment) – but like junk food, you hate yourself when you’ve gorged on it. The most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon has been the creation of fake news farms, which attract traffic with false reports that are designed to look like real news, and are therefore widely shared on social networks. But the same principle applies to news that is misleading or sensationally dishonest, even if it wasn’t created to deceive: the new measure of value for too many news organisations is virality rather than truth or quality.”
That pressure and competition has been around for decades. I came across this article, published in The Atlantic in 1952, before social media, before the internet, before 24 hour cable news. Written by Harvard Law School professor Arthur E. Sutherland who writes, “competition means an overemphasis on speed…and sometimes it leads to an exaggerated build-up.” He quotes Professor David Manning White from Boston University who says, "a cult of incredibility has permeated the American press; the newspapers have become unwitting or unwilling accomplices in creating an atmosphere in which prejudice, half truths, and misinformation bloom with a noisome stench." And perhaps, something quite relevant in today’s news cycles, where Sutherland says, “objectivity often leans over backward so far that it makes the news business merely a transmission belt for pretentious phonies…The good newspaper, the good news broadcaster, must walk a tightrope between two great gulfs—on one side the false objectivity that takes everything at face value and lets the public be imposed on by the charlatan with the most brazen front; on the other, the "interpretive" reporting which fails to draw the line between objective and subjective, between a reasonably well established fact and what the reporter or editor wishes were the fact.”
In this age of 24 hour cable news and social media where videos “go viral” the truth or the facts are left to the wayside in favour of anyone with an opinion or a view. Even if that opinion is offensive and factually incorrect, there is pressure to have that viewpoint given airtime. And once airtime is given, the message is out there only to be tweeted and retweeted ad nauseum giving that viewpoint attention it doesn’t deserve and leaving it at the forefront of people’s minds. I’m convinced that’s how Trump was elected, how dictators get power, how propaganda gains traction, and how the truth, how the facts, are left in the shadows. Because when one network or paper or person is talking about some vitriol or lie, and that grabs the public’s attention, the rest of the networks and digital outlets will feel the need to get in on the conversation by airing, writing, and sharing it. All of which is a distraction to what is really important, such as issues surrounding our health, safety, our children's education, the environment, our ability to thrive personally and financially and pull those up who need help.
I do believe that hatred, racism, homophobia, needs to be called out. If a leader (political or otherwise) is saying something that is based on hatred and lies, that needs to be called out. Otherwise people will get away with what is not accepted in a civilised society. It has to come down to facts, it has to be true and real. And that is up to all of us to really be our own editors. We have to always consider the source.
The beauty of the digital era is that we have information at our fingertips so we can do our own research into finding out what is true and what isn’t. Take a breath before reacting and sharing a story that seems “factual” and incredulous. If it evokes something in your baser emotions, then take a minute, do a search to see if it is actually true. It’s like that video that surfaced last year of a mob of people attacking cars. It was purported to be a “mob of Muslims” in Birmingham yet it was actually a group of football hooligans from Switzerland fighting over a match between Basel and Zurich. Yet the “Muslim mob” story spread around the world because it somehow fitted with a narrative that is already in the news, a narrative that keeps being spread regardless of the statistics and facts. Trust credible journalistic sources, people who work hard to do the research and present facts not the fluff.
There are many ways to tell a story. Different angles to focus on as long as each one is true. A good journalist tells a story in an interesting, attention-grabbing way and still sticks to the facts. We owe it to our own collective psyche, our mental health to demand more from our news outlets and more from ourselves. Don’t just repost or retweet something because it causes you outrage. Do your own due diligence. Take it from me, someone who has been on the other side. I know I and the teams I worked with were diligent when it came to checking facts and double checking them. Every script or story I wrote would go through a vigorous system of accountability. After all, having a voice is a huge responsibility. On a large scale, democracy depends on it. It depends on everyone having the facts, the truth to hold those in elected positions accountable. We can use the current climate to our advantage. The controversial blogger Neetzan Zimmerman who gained notoriety by sharing questionable stories to create viral content, said “If a person is not sharing a news story, it is, at its core, not news.” Then lets only share those stories that deserve our attention, stories about the welfare of people around the world and what their governments are doing about it. Let's make the clickbait the stories that help us out of tyranny, out of poverty, out of war, false ideologies, and out of a planet that is withering under the weight of our callousness. Let's share the stories that lift people up instead of dragging them down into the gutter. But most importantly, only share and believe what you know for a fact is true. It's as Linda Solomon Wood, editor in chief of Canada’s National Observer writes, “the truth about lies is that they can feel very real. The truth about facts is that they are real.”