You can’t believe what you read in the papers

Dot writes: you really, really can’t, or at least you should look jolly carefully at who wrote any given news story and who they’re quoting and what the unspoken assumptions are. I’ve just read Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies (published 2008 – how up to the minute we are chez Ken and Dot!) and it is fascinating but depressing stuff. We got onto it through a review by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books, which happens to be available online, so I won’t give an extensive account of the book, but the core argument is as follows.

As a result of newspapers being bought up by corporate owners concerned only to maximise profit, newspapers have got longer while the number of journalists has been cut and cut again. The result is that journalists simply don’t have time, most of the time, to research their own stories or to check that the stories they are given are actually true. There is heavy reliance on wire copy, but the agencies that supply it – notably, in Britain, the Press Association, and for international news Reuters – are also dreadfully understaffed; and in any case they see their job not as uncovering the truth but as reporting accurately what people have said e.g. in press releases or official statements. The papers and other media all obsessively monitor and report each other. The result is that inaccurate stories flourish and reproduce as papers all circulate each others’ reports without adequate checking. A high proportion of news has its origins as PR material: press releases, surveys designed to push particular products or viewpoints, publicity stunts and the like. The media is painfully vulnerable to propaganda. At the same time, there is pressure to report ‘safe’ news – news that people want to read, that confirms their prejudices, conforms to their moral panics and doesn’t depress or puzzle them; news that won’t annoy the government or anyone with the money to sue. This woeful state of affairs applies not just to papers but to TV, radio and the internet. Even the BBC is in the game of producing more reports in more formats as fast as possible, at the expense of taking time and resources to find and check stories. Even our own beloved Guardian is not immune (Nick Davies writes for the Guardian).

The main thing I have to say about this book is: go and read it. It’s not only important, given the central place the media play in political life, it’s hugely readable. It takes an extremely intelligent and moral approach to what journalism ought to do. I was particularly struck by the distinction Davies makes between objectivity and neutrality. The habit these days is to show ‘balance’ by always giving a voice to both sides, however unevenly evidence or justice may be distributed between them; for example, reports on global warming always seem to give space to a climate change denier. For Davies, however, the journalist’s responsibility is to try to tell the truth, and that means adjudicating between such contradictory voices. This is different from being biased, which involves distortion of the evidence. There’s a chapter on the Daily Mail that gives some pretty disgusting examples of such distortion. In a strange way I found it comforting, because I do at least find the kind of flagrant prejudice the DM pedals quite easy to spot. What is so very frightening about this book is the feeling that the papers I trust can’t be trusted.

I was left wondering what the situation is with the Irish press. Davies concentrates on the British press, with a secondary focus on the USA and glances at selected other countries, especially Australia. Who owns the Irish Times and what kind of a network of reporters do they have? I’d be surprised if they weren’t under similar pressures to the British Press, but the Irish Times has a slightly old fashioned feel that is, perhaps spuriously, reassuring.

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4 thoughts on “You can’t believe what you read in the papers

  1. Dot,

    The Irish Times cut back considerably on its journalists a few years ago – I know a guy who was on the foreign desk (he’s a full time priest now!). They take a lot of syndicated material, particularly from the Guardian.

    As you will have heard from the news today, the Irish Independent has become focus of takeover speculation. It’s owned by Tony O’Reilly, who I think bailed out its English namesake, but 22% of the shares have been bought by Denis O’Brien who has extensive media interests.

  2. Dot

    Thanks, Ian. We had noticed the syndicated pieces in the Irish Times. I haven’t heard the news yet today but I’ll listen to The Last Word on Today FM and see if they talk about the Irish Independent takeover. We don’t especially like the Irish Independent, which seems much more conservative in tone than the British equivalent, but we get it occasionally.

    The thing that made me feel a bit more hopeful for the Irish Times was the national reporting and the way they assume the reader has been keeping up with (for instance) the labyrinthine processes of the Mahon Tribunal. Whatever has been happening to the news reporting in the Guardian in recent years, the comment and review sections seem to have got markedly more trivial and fixated on celebrities and fashion.

  3. Jules

    We’ve noticed the Irish weekend papers regurgitating items – often word for word – that appeared previously in the British press. The Sunday Tribune is particularly enamoured of the Saturday Guardian.
    Style, food, travel, editorials – there is intellectual property at stake here, for the few surviving journalists (only just keeping roof over head etc.). I do wonder why this has never Blown Up as a Scandal. Mind you, we have plenty scandals as it is, that show less volatility.
    Film reviews are another, and much worse, kettle of fish – one stage worse: not relying on “communal” or “borrowed” reviews, but on marketing fodder. This has been the case since I worked in reviewing 10 years ago. It was already becoming rare then for reviewers to get free tickets to preview screenings. Which was, after all, the whole reason people like me started reviewing films in the first place.
    Sigh.
    At least if there’s less reading then maybe book reviews will be less tainted?

  4. A lot of what you describe here reminds me of how poor the news media was in the States. US papers and television are so often deeply bad because they confuse objectivity and– well, I would say neutrality– but it’s more like nothing. They don’t do anything and they think that’s being objective. They report what some government tongue has said without interrogating it, without putting it into context.

    Then they have this terrible habit of thinking that they should have been or will be great writers, one-day Ernest Hemmingways no doubt, and that they need to put flavour into their stories, make them pretty. Almost invariably these attempts are failures:

    “It was a bleak autumn day when a tall man wearing a pin striped hat rose from a limousine on Wall Street. The wind swept a few last lazy leaves down the gutter. Good morning, Mr Preston, said the door man with his rouge and gold door man outfit. I sipped my coffee.

    “This was Thomas Preston, a go-getter from the Hannaranie fold, an ex-press-humbutter for Earl Blive, next on the list to top the president’s market main man. He was powerful. And he was here to speak with me.

    “He shook hands like a walrus. We sat in his office while he frowned. How had he got here?

    “It all began in 1972 when boredom was the colour of the month, the economy was depressed and sand seemed to rule the imagination of the masses. This is a long article. Sit back, because it matters, I promise.”

    Etcetera. Another problem… Americans have a slight problem with representing anything serious — it has to be dull. Have you ever listened to Congress debating? Unbelievable. For no reason, any topic has to be infinitely dull and minutely complicated. I think it’s basically a technique for keeping people out of politics. If they can’t sustain interest, they can’t have influence. Bore them out.

    The media has the same problem. They think that, in order to write a smart, serious article, they have to write a technically difficult article that no one can or would want to read. And if you power your way through this wall of over-complicated b.s.? what do you get?

    Nothing — a few lame descriptive passages for flavour and a lack of real information because they in the interest of objectivity they only report what people say and almost never add the context that could make those statements meaningful. I think you get a sense of the American media’s intellectual prowess when you read the opinion pages. Moronic drivel.

    Sorry, I must be in a bad mood today. Anyway, it’s not surprising that we Americans often have half-formed understandings of especially world affairs when our news media is so shamefully poor. I mean, when the best paper you have is the New York Times? Ugh. You might as well read lettuce. I’d rather watch Channel 4 news.

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