Hardly a new topic I know... but a couple
of things really hit home for me on this recently.
I met a journalist who writes for The
Guardian - one of the UK's major national newspapers - a week or so back. She was saying how her hours have been cut and the
desk she works on, creating two biggish chunks of the Saturday Guardian and
Observer has been cut by about 50%. She said:
"Basically all we have time to do now is knock together stories from
We all know why the newspapers are cutting
staffing levels - they are all losing vast amounts of money and the future
looks bleak. Fewer people are buying newspapers, preferring to get their
news from other media channels - in particular the internet. Advertisers are deserting in droves as a result.
I then read a piece about the decline in serious investigative journalism.
Investigate journalist Nick Fielding was saying how only 5% of content in UK newspapers
these days is proper hardcore researched investigative writing. The rest is
made up of stuff from the newswires and PR rewrites.
The quality of our media is suffering because people won't pay to consume it anymore... there's a lowest common denominator effect taking place. I'm sure I'm joining a very long line of hacks saying similar things.
But - what's the REAL impact of this? Here are a few things we need to be really concerned about.
Fewer real stories, more noise
With less money spent on quality, original
journalism, everyone is using the same few sources of news. So the 'news' in
one paper is much the same as that in another. We're seeing real
homogenisation as everyone plugs into the same basic news feeds. The same stuff on the BBC, ITN in the Independent, Times and Guardian. Just a different spin... but the actual news agenda is the same.
Pseudo research masquerades as real fact
In the absence of time or resources to do
proper research, people resort to quick and dirty techniques instead. I see
this in the daily avalanche of press releases I get in my in-tray. PR agency
has committed to churn out a certain number of releases for its client -
regardless of whether they have anything newsworthy to say. So they 'create news'
by doing a survey. Ask a sample of say 100 people (almost always a tiny number
that is statistically completely insignificant)… and presto! You have a
percentage. 70% of tourists said they'd holiday outside the Eurozone this year (sample size: 200 from the website www.wesellholidaysinTurkey.com or some other interested party with a line to spin.) Some PRs reading this won't like this suggestion... I accept that not everyone does it... but I do get a LOT of pseudo survey guff in my in-tray.
The cult of the expert
The alternative to pseudo research is to
wheel in an 'expert'. In the absence of hard facts, media organisations are turning
to opinion instead. You don't need to do hardcore costly research to back up
your story if you can wheel out an expert - doesn't really matter who he is or
where from - to verify your claims. Doesn't matter whether global warming will
really kill us all by 2050 as long as a Professor from some university claims
it will. And if he's no longer around to stand by and back up his claim in 2050, better still. You see this so much in 24 hour news these days. Pseudo fact... backed up with waffle from expert... job done.
'Truthification' - repetition creates truth
The web has made it much easier to publish
- in all sorts of formats - so whilst we have less real news, we have many more
publishers. This means that some stories get disproportionate coverage for
their real value. And mistruths with their pseudo research and their so called expert opinion get spun on and on - picked up on an endless cycle
of websites, twitter feeds and more - until no one remembers where the original
story came from and these unsubstantiated claims become fact. 'Truth' is
literally created before our eyes from rumour and spin.
Being first is all that matters
Now that you can publish in an instant, being first is what matters. You
publish first and worry about the facts later. This is being driven by the
immediacy of the Net and of rolling TV news. One minute half of Mexico has swine flu and we're all going to die, the
next it's only 100 or so people worldwide. But that's OK… just update people with 'the latest
news' and correct your gross exaggeration later. No one will hold you to account
as - for the 10 minutes you published your mis-truth - it was as close to the
truth as anyone could get. Unfortunately that first rather inaccurate statement has
now been propagated all over the world by the 'Truthification' effect described above.
Can bloggers be some kind of antidote to the dilution? Perhaps they can.
Or am I just an 'expert' creating the same half truths myself?