Biased journalism doesn’t have to mean low standard reporting

Journalism is the recording of stories and facts that people don’t want recorded. At least, that’s what it used to be.

Today, journalism has become either activism or infotainment. Online new media tends to veer towards advocacy, while the big, old fashioned media companies compete for the public’s outrage and compulsive curiosity.

Journalism is not dead, but the idea of telling stories that people want suppressed, is increasingly unsexy. The very people who don’t want certain stories recorded, tend to be the same interest groups that have a command of the media.

In the last few days a debate has sprung up online about the difference between activism and journalism. Of course, this debate presupposes a distinction between recording facts, and having a reason to record them. There is rarely such a clear distinction.

The concept of a purely ‘objective’ journalism has always been a kind of veneer for consensus reporting, whereby large interest groups maintain a limited scope for civic curiosity by commanding the boundaries of public debate. This is the very reason there is such a thing as ‘the mainstream media’.

Lauren Southern is a commentator who formerly worked for Rebel Media, a conservative, and nationalist, online media channel in Canada. She now runs her own independent channel, and is famous for a stunty kind of activism, and unapologetically advancing a nationalist, right wing view of current affairs.

She recently posted a video in which she called into question not just the existence of objectivity in the media, but the possibility of it, and even the desirability of it.

In another video published almost simultaneously, left libertarian skate-boarding reporter Tim Pool spoke about the dangers of activism creeping into journalism, and his own experiences at left-leaning companies where trendy narratives and grievances are stressed in order to drive traffic to their sites.

Pool is a new breed of journalist who appears to reclaim the old-fashioned desire for independent reporting that seeks to record the ‘best version of the truth’ (as Watergate newsman Carl Bernstein once put it), while embracing new technology and online media.

Pool has experience in Vice and similar organisations, and made his name reporting on the Occupy Wallstreet march.

Both sides of the story seem to have a point. Objectivity is a false ideal, and can have its own dangers in that helps to foster consensus, which itself helps to suppress the most pertinent stories.

However, the growing trend for activist journalism and blogging threatens to erode the standards of rigour and fastidious method that characterise the best and most revolutionary stories such as Watergate or the British expenses scandal.

Tim Pool and Lauren Southern actually met recently and recorded a short discussion about these issues, and though both take a different view, there seemed to be an agreement about the importance of this question, and a shared disdain for the Vice-type advocacy journalism that dominates online media.

However, it seems that both commentators might be missing something. There’s a conflation here between truth without a perspective, and truth without a standard.

Journalists need to have a moral conviction to drive their work, or else they become simply machines processing information. Too often the greatest threat to hard-hitting reporting is not corporate bias, but a careerist malaise whereby the rigour of method gives way to an uncritical organisation of mere facts. For this reason, Lauren Southern has more than a small point in her criticism of ‘objectivity’ as a standard.

The test of a good story is now simply what makes a good headline. Whereas the true test of a story should be the nature of the vested interests who don’t want it to break and the lengths to which they will go to suppress it. The more extreme these factors are, the better the story.

A sense of moral conviction is key to this news sense, and such stories will completely pass by jobbing reporters who hide their lazy resignation behind the excuse of remaining objective. It’s a little like refusing to denounce honour killings for fear of being ‘Islamaphobic’. They use virtue to justify moral apathy.

No reportage is without bias or perspective, but that doesn’t mean that reporting is by nature purely subjective and can’t be trusted. True journalists need their critical self-awareness and rigour not as ways to guarantee objectivity, but as tried and tested ways of offsetting their own limitations.

Moral conviction is part and parcel of good news sense. Rigorous standards of reporting are matters of how you deliver the story you are pursuing.

You can have a conviction, as long as you seek to get the best version of the facts that you possibly can. Simply having a perspective doesn’t discredit the journalism. It’s the rigour of your process that determines the credibility, not your bias.

The crime of modern advocacy media is not that they have a bias or a perspective or a moral cause to press. The crime is having sloppy methods of information gathering. In leftwing journalism especially, having the ‘right’ moral view, compensates for having a lack of rigour, and makes writers think that they don’t need it.

We depend upon journalists to spot the stories that major interests go out of their way to keep from the public eye. This requires a balance between moral conviction and critical method. It’s okay to have a bias, as long as that bias does not compromise a commitment to truth.

The mere existence of a bias, does not necessarily mean a lack of standards.

You can follow Tim Pool on @TimCast and Lauren Southern on @Lauren_Southern

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Some thoughts on the #FreePress

 

The idea of the free press emerges out of the belief that government should have no official say on what gets published. The free press cannot exist if certain ideas and writers are prohibited from their independent voice.

The dominant publishing industry, the mainstream press and now the corporate nexus of social media giants, are all in contravention of the fundamental ideal of a free press.

Free speech matters only in conjunction with a free press. One of the most common arguments against complete, unlicensed free speech, is that some speech does more harm than others. Debate is fine, but only if it doesn’t give a platform to ‘hate’, and the definition of this special form of speech varies from discussion to discussion.

This is a weak argument, but it continues to be the central strategy of those who think they know best when it comes to speech. The reason for this is because the notion of the free press has been discredited for decades.

This process of discrediting is in no small way the fault of individual journalists, who have betrayed their readers by breaking the law and taking no interest in the quality of public life in the west.

However, these individuals are given license by a culture that emerges out of the monopolised press, whereby a kind of mafia control of news raises them and their employees above the law.

We saw this during the Leveson Inquiry depositions in the UK. Private Eye editor Ian Hislop said in his own deposition that the phone hacking scandal at The News Of World occurred not because of a lack of legal control, but because huge press companies were so close to government that they were able to act above the law.

We already have laws that protect citizens from invasions of privacy and harassment. Good laws, in fact, that allow for the context of the crime to determine the nature of the charge.

Press companies like Associated News and News International, are able to get away with degrading our public space and turning the news business into a showbiz, lowest-common-denominator freakshow, not because the laws and protection don’t exist to challenge them, but because those in power jealously seek the favour of these press barons.

Free speech must be total, because the free press must be total. A brief course in the history of printing and publishing will drive that home sufficiently.

The idea of the free press emerges from the confluence of rights around speech and religion, ensuring that no one idea dominates the market of thought, and that the state is limited from imposing one idea on the country at large.

Monopolies are a violation of this, and they allow press barons to behave as if they are above the law, just as kings and Popes did prior to the Reformation.

Hateful or destructive ideas can indeed damage people. Words have the power to ignite wars, to rob individuals of their dignity. A passing knowledge of psychology and history tells us this is true.

However, whether we are talking about the rise of Hitler or emotional abuse of small children, the answer is not to sanction the use of words. The answer is always to widen the market of ideas and words available to the victims.

Totalitarian propaganda requires the control of the media to work. Emotional abuse uses gaslighting tactics to disarm the critical abilities of the victim.

Controlling words in order to protect people from these assaults only serves to centralise the very powers that can do the most damage.

The value of the free press is that it is essentially the anti-centralisation of power. It ensures that citizens determine what enters their minds on the basis of their own critical, independent thought only, as opposed to the careful sanctions of higher-ups, however benevolent these higher-ups claim to be.

In the late nineties, the great promise of the internet was that it was going to fully realise the democratic idea of the free press. And there is an argument to say that it has. Each of us can run a media company, each of us is a reporter. None of us is forced to fall back on mainstream sources of knowledge.

However, in the last ten years, the centralisation of power in the hands of Google, Apple and Facebook, presents the same challenge as that of the hegemony of UK press barons.

A centralised press is never free, and the current state of the internet means that all the gains of independent publishing add up to a negative for independent thought. If anything, we are more hungry than ever for a mainstream, for a central authority to help us navigate the uncritical online space.

The great irony of our age is that total democratisation silences real dissent better than any totalitarian regime. A challenging voice is robbed of its danger if it is just one voice in a cacophony of 80 million other voices. The mainstream consolidates itself as the gaggle of commentary grows on the internet.

A voice can only truly be dissenting if it actually impacts the mainstream.

This may leave us feeling depressed. But the real challenge to the free press is not cultural overload. The facts of life in a social media world only make dissent impossible if we cave in to apathy and frustration.

What we often forget is that the free press is part of individual rights. It guarantees us a right to not only say what we want, but to have our voices heard – if we are prepared to do the work.

A free press requires us to take the risk of failure. It means a long-term battle, a war of attrition with the centralised status quo. In that sense, the state of the free press is as it was in Milton’s time, a dangerous, arduous fight with no guarantee of victory.

All that is different in our age is that we apply social media values of instantaneity and popular trend to measure our impact. None of these have anything to do with the free press.

If the free press is under threat, we only have ourselves to blame. We must be aggressive, disruptive, unapologetic, dissenting and above all things LOUD. We must not let the internet fool us into the current, yuppy version of dissent and cultural disparateness that results from the overpraised democratisation of the media.

Yes, write your blog. Yes, start a YouTube company. But the mere existence of your independent voice doth not a free press make. Like all rights, the free press must be active, we must insist on being heard.