Dec 15, 2009

Posted by in Political comment, Social comment | 0 Comments

The demise of journalism

There are many tragedies that symbolise current times but the demise of journalism is one of the saddest. Sure, our media are full of what is supposedly journalism but, frankly, it’s not. Most of what passes for journalism these days is not even reporting, it’s actually commentary. So, what’s the point?

The issue at stake is the extent to which we, as a society, are entitled to unbiased coverage of what is happening in our world. Over the past few decades, we have been seduced by the cult of personality. If a ‘talking head’ is interesting or even just attractive (whether male or female) we accord them the greatest respect of all: we listen to them and – of far greater consequence – we bestow on them credibility. That is, we tend to accept what they say as ‘the truth’ without having any means to check that it really is or, worse, without even stopping to question whether their views are fact or opinion.

If this seems semantic, it’s not. In fact, it cuts at the very fabric of our democratic system. Our political system is jeopardised by our inability to know the truth. Someone’s opinion is fine. Everyone is entitled to a view on any issue. That’s the foundation stone of democracy. But one of the greatest protections democracy has is a ‘free press’. That is, the government of the day or any other powerful institution or coalition of groups should not be permitted to slant the news. The extent to which governments massage the news through their armies of spin doctors is a very relevant but separate issue.

If we focus on the print media, analysis shows that ever more frequently news staff write stories that contain their opinions. It was originally argued that this gave stories greater intrinsic value because it provided supposedly expert analysis, thus enhancing our understanding of a given issue. Yet that element of commentary has grown like a viral epidemic. Today, fewer news staff (many no longer deserve the title of journalist) even attempt to write stories that contain no opinion at all. Their stories are – to a greater or lesser extent – simply opinion pieces. This is indicative of the cult of ego and it is a pernicious influence on democratic values.

When a writer crafts a story that purports to be journalism or reportage but inserts persona opinion into it (without specifically identifying the parts that are commentary) he or she debases their ethical obligation to the public. They are no longer presenting unbiased facts, they are offering interpretation. It’s not that the interpretation is not valuable. Indeed, it can sometimes be the most pertinent part of coverage of a particular story. The vital issue is that opinion or commentary is identified as such so that readers, listeners or viewers can know that assertions are just that and not necessarily facts.

Radio is a medium which makes it enormously difficult to identify opinion masquerading as fact. We mostly listen with half an ear and the brevity of news bulletins is taken to not permit the intrusive and time-consuming identification of fact versus opinion. Television is, frankly, a bastardised medium wherein the cult of ego has become paramount. This particular news source – as a general characteristic – makes very little attempt anymore to differentiate between fact and opinion. Again, brevity of bulletins and programs is used as an excuse to offer the public a hybrid version of reporting: fact, opinion, bias and commentary al rolled into one without any attempt to separate the strands. Indeed, TV and radio have thrived on identities who have risen to fame by being utterly opiniated and rarely using more than a few cursory facts to underpin their rants and raves. Some elements of the ‘quality press’ do make an attempt to differentiate reportage from commentary but even random analysis demonstrates how little and how ineffective this practice actually is.

So, we consumers suffer in silence with the majority thinking they are being supplied an unsullied product when they no longer have the understanding to appreciate the second-rate goods they are being sold. It’s sad. And dangerous.

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