In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, the US media has embarked on a flurry of self recrimination. Much of what they discuss applies equally to the UK media and the problems with news coverage of the EU referendum.
There is no doubt the two big political campaigns of 2016 have thrown into stark relief some failings of both traditional and digital media. But campaigning which disregards facts in favour of hyperbole and emotion has proved so successful we can expect more of it – so the media must adjust. The problems are more complex than the easy accusations of liberal bias and elitism, although those come into it, too.
First, big media has too easily become part of the political/celebrity bubble and tends to forget that journalism is meant to be an “outsider” activity – outside the halls of power, but not outside the communities it serves. The lure of celebrity status has taken too many journalists into the arms of those they should be challenging. True independence – political, corporate, cultural – is rare and hard to achieve. It is to be prized for that reason.
Too much of the media spends too much time talking to itself and not to the communities it serves. It’s true of columnists competing with each other for contrariness and impact and true of broadcasting where presenters interview correspondents about politicians’ tactical views of an event far away. Surely it would be better to interview those directly affected? It is done to help interpret events for viewers and demonstrate the specialist expertise of the journalists – but now too often it just reinforces distance: both geographical and social.
The news media, as we know, is going through a torrid economic change. Advertising rates are tumbling and digital revenues are not growing fast enough to make up the shortfall. As a consequence we have seen deep newsroom cuts and the collapse of local news both in the US and, to a large extent, in the UK.
Most reporting is done from the desktop and less and less on the ground. This has meant the antennae picking up and understanding social change are no longer there. Easy talk has been too often prioritised over newsgathering because it’s cheaper – but not necessarily well informed. And in elections, it has exacerbated an over-reliance on telephone and online polls – now proven unreliable.
Newsrooms have failed to fully address diversity – economic (or class) as much as race. Media has become a largely white, middle-class profession with fewer ways into the business for those without connections. This reinforces insularity of views, attitudes and approaches – not simply along political lines.
At the same time as traditional media has struggled, social networks have grown. But through the lens of these two campaigns, their shortcomings are more obvious than ever. Facebook has been described as a “sewer of misinformation”, Twitter as a magnet for abuse and division. And the algorithms both use to provide users with posts they might share have created sealed echo chambers where readers are seldom challenged by views they disagree with – which is further driving polarisation.
The internet has allowed anyone to take part in public debate. There is much to be celebrated about a more democratic media environment – but is has also led to deliberate misinformation (sometimes for commercial reasons, often for political reasons) – which has become toxic.
More fundamentally, traditional journalism has been based on enlightenment ideals of facts, evidence and open debate. Much of it (although not all) attempts to occupy the middle ground. But the middle has given way in an increasingly polarised set of political arguments – “either you’re with us or against us”. And journalism, attempting to be objective, can find itself on the wrong side of every argument as a result.
Many commentators have lambasted media attempts at fairness as false equivalence in an asymmetrical political argument – for example giving the Hillary Clinton emails story as much airtime as the many scandals associated with Donald Trump. There are only two responses to that: either to pick sides, or to double down on tough independent journalism. The latter will win few friends but may be better regarded by history.
What is to be done?
If we believe serious journalism is a public good which supports a strong democracy (and today there are many who will dispute that) what should media organisations do?
Fact checking is dismissed by some as pedantry – but facts do matter. It should be a front-and-centre activity, not marginalised in a corner of a website. Collaboration in fact checking may help to raise the price of political lying – which is currently too cheap.
We should research and understand the online echo chambers and find ways to penetrate them. Exposure to other views supports reflection and builds tolerance and understanding.
We need to work harder at finding business models for diverse, serious journalism that work – or ways of funding public interest information – to strengthen the public spaces for debate.
At a time when the media is being heavily criticised by all parties involved in these campaigns it must reinforce rigour, independence and challenge. To do otherwise leads swiftly back to the yellow journalism of the past.