Populists tear down journalism, but we need more news, not less

Populists tear down journalism, but we need more news, not less

Catherine Neilan

19:30 19th January 2021

Much is made of the way social media stirs up tribalism and provokes polarisation. But traditional media also has to bear some responsibility - not least for having set the foundations for some of what we are experiencing today.

In America, Fox News arguably created Donald Trump. In the UK, we had the infamous 'Enemies of the People' headline, and 'The Brexit mutineers', which stoked the flames from the referendum during the years afterwards.

Societies suffer if people of different opinions can't at least agree on a basic set of facts, and yet unlike televised news, British newspapers are allowed to take a partial view of the world. That can lead to great campaigns - and readership loyalty - but it can also lead to a very one-sided view of the world.

This is perhaps why so many people complain about the BBC, which never seems to get it right. As one former director once told me, as long as the complaints were roughly even across right and left, they felt they were doing something right.

With print media, things have always been different. You can tell the tribe someone belongs to by which newspaper they read. Someone with the Guardian tucked under their arm is as easily pigeonholed as someone leafing through The Sun. The same is true of the Mirror, the Mail, the FT, the Times: the entire rainbow of British newspapers automatically denotes a label.

Before you even know what you are doing, you have identified them as quinoa-eating leftie-liberals or white van-driving Tories. It is curious that in a country where we grow up with the implicit understanding that we do not say who we vote for - the secrecy of the ballot spilling over into our debate - that the paper we read does it so succinctly for us.

But does the media we consume shape us, or do we select what we already agree with? This is the chicken and egg question that dogs a lot of the debates about echo chambers, regardless of the medium. Certainly the media we read reinforces what we already believe - when we read something that we disagree with it jars and may even prompt us to act (or, let's face it, write an angry tweet). But probably, more likely than not, we nod and agree because what we are reading is a more eloquent iteration of what we have thought about something, or would have thought if we had the time.

Social media has almost certainly exacerbated things though. Instead of reading a newspaper from cover to cover, we react to deliberately provocative headlines that repeat the tropes about the feckless opposition or heartless leaders we responded to last week. And often we follow people who share the same things we like - or hate-like - to the exclusion of anyone who might challenge those ideas.

Journalists, just like anyone else, will use Twitter for a variety of reasons, including to get information and give their speedy hot takes. They will be followed by people who expect them to express broadly the same views their respective employer does, bestowed with likes for acting accordingly and unfollowed for uttering any heresy. We already know how little space there is for nuance on these platforms. Reporters naturally endeavour to put out 'neutral' facts, but just like anyone else, there is a certain craving for positive reaction to what they post.

The post-truth world that saw Michael Gove so adroitly (albeit with inflammatory consequences) identify as being a result of people having had "enough of experts" has not gone away.

In my own day job I see a definite trend among the regular readers who leave comments, in which any news they don't like is automatically discounted as being 'Project Fear' or written by a 'woke journalist'.

But regardless of which paper they read, or how they consume it, people have got into the habit of believing facts selectively - and it isn't helped by our leaders muddying the waters. Brexit will necessarily turn out to be a disaster or a triumph for people regardless of the facts but because of their feelings. Objective reporting in this environment is a challenge, particularly given that news is often treated as another form of entertainment, competing for eyeballs. If readers vote with their feet, it is hard to resist the temptation to not react.

This is exactly what we saw with clickbait journalism, and it is what drives divisive columnists and shock jocks. Traffic talks.

And yet good journalism can make all the difference, and it's here that tribalism is often dropped. Regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum, there is one thing all journalists can agree on and that is the value of good scoop. And though people might be sceptical, both right and left-wing media does its job in holding people to account.

In fact, by nature of the job, political journalists probably talk more broadly and read more widely than the vast majority of people, and are constantly thinking of all the angles to a story.

Journalists are flawed, as any person is, and they are a product of the media they consume too. Sometimes we chase stories that are of more interest to us than the wider public. Sometimes we are not sufficiently good at explaining to people why a story matters, as we think the implications are clear to all when they are not. That is when the criticism of 'gotcha' journalism often comes. The social contract between journalists and the public has been buffeted in recent years and has been weakened in places.

Politicians know this, and use it to their advantage. Throughout Jeremy Corbyn's time as Labour leader he made no secret of his dislike of the media and this filtered through to his followers who booed and even spat on those of us who covered his rallies and speeches.

Boris Johnson is no different, despite being a former journalist himself. Last summer, when the Guardian and the Mirror revealed their joint exclusive about Dominic Cummings' lockdown-busting trip to Durham and Barnard Castle, it was played down as a politically motivated attack by the two papers - despite the wall-to-wall coverage and universal condemnation it provoked.

After that, a Downing Street source claimed that "public confidence in the media has collapsed during this emergency" - a statement which No 10 was unable later to provide any evidence to support, despite repeated requests.

With Cummings now having left and Allegra Stratton taking the lead role in the Prime Minister's media relations, a new tone has been struck. In a recent call with journalists, she insisted Boris Johnson "believes the media has had a very good and powerful role during the pandemic so far."

But while there may be increased scepticism about the so-called "mainstream media" from some parts of society, we could all benefit from more news, not less. Instead of reading the headline and scrolling past, take the time to read the whole thing before deciding whether to like or share it.

And break out of the bubble. By taking a leaf out of the book of practitioners and reading across the political divide, including stories that might make us question our assumptions - even articles that might make us uncomfortable - we have a better chance of arriving at something resembling objectivity.

This is one component of the study our focus groups will soon be engaged on. Our residual tribalism will probably never truly desert us. You might shrug and shake your head through an entire article - but equally, you might learn something you wouldn't have done by relying on your usual choice of paper.

And at the very worst, you might have a better understanding of why your neighbours, your friends or family vote so differently to you - and vice versa - and then we can start to build common ground.

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Tags: Journalism Social Media Media Boris Johnson Donald Trump