Fake news. Alternative facts. Cries of “Lügenpresse” at Trump rallies. The mainstream media – the various large and established news conglomerates that influence a broad number of people – has recently become a source of heated discourse heard throughout all of Western society. As the masses are pulled from their usual slumber, we must ask: why are the people so irate? What contagion has subverted the relationship between the media and politics? After all, the age-old and most heartfelt mandate of journalists has long been to serve the people. In doing so, their duty is to protect the “truth,” whatever that may be, and provide the public with the information that they need. They act as ‘watchdogs’ or ‘guardians,’ monitoring and checking the powers that be in society.
The Society of Professional Journalists claims “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” That is to say that the media’s role is crucial in preserving and bettering the political system that we have in the West. Ideally, voters must have some grasp of a ‘functional’ truth for democracy to perform effectively. Mass media, and particularly the establishment media, is a way to ensure effective channels of communication between the government and its constituents in a representative system. In a sense, the media is the harbinger of political accountability and transparency.
Yes, we want “truth” – but at what cost? In a 2013 TED talk, film producer David Puttnam argued that “honesty, accuracy, and impartiality” on the part of the media was crucial in allowing democracy to push mankind into its great leaps forward. However, Puttnam warned that the media, especially the tabloids, do not appeal to the people’s “political citizenship.” They instead expel intense negativity about politics, and in doing so, further jeopardize the “fragility of our current system of government.” Is the stability of our system the price we will pay for “truth”? Should we let the watchdog tear it all to pieces? At what point does informative become inflammatory?
As such, perhaps one of the most pertinent and necessary questions today is “who will guard the guardians?” In the West, we enjoy relatively absolute freedom of expression. Restricted only by principles of harm limitation and legalities such as libel, the media can say nearly anything it desires. Freedom of expression, supported by the First Amendment, overlaps almost entirely with freedom of the press. While it may not be lawful or ethical for the mainstream media to engage in sophistry, it is not illegal.
It then falls to those bright and humanist values of trust and integrity to keep the media in check. Media ethics is a phenomenally large – and grey – field. Nearly every established news organization has a code or statute of ethics to refer to, yet vested interests and ethics often diverge. In order to maintain the public’s trust (and sales), journalists must adhere to certain tenets of ethics. This is what Puttnam describes as a “duty of care” to the people: independence from personal or public interests and affiliations, impartiality and objectivity, balance in providing proportional coverage to each side of a story, respect of privacy, good taste, and transparency in sources and evidence.
While we expect the mainstream media to have total independence and objectivity, in reality that is unfortunately seldom the case. News corporations have long since had known political affiliations. In the U.S., Fox News has been accused of being a Republican brand, while MSNBC has been prone to more liberal-minded bias. Additionally, it has been widely argued that the UK press is overwhelmingly right wing. Murky distinctions are further challenged when these corporations endorse certain political candidates in their editorial sections and panels.
Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to Trump himself (and former executive chair of the so-called ‘alt-right’ news platform Breitbart) launched an attack on the press earlier this year, denouncing it as the real “opposition.” The press principally reacted with a resounding “*expletive*-off”, retorting that “keeping [their] mouths shut” (as Bannon suggested) would only pull America further away from its pluralist democracy, and closer to a homogeneous autocracy.
Bannon’s line is a very dangerous one to walk. Despite the barks of “fake news!” from the Bannon/Trump corner, we do need our watchdogs. Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker came under fire in January for refusing to label some of Trump’s quite obvious lies as lies. He defended himself by saying that to make a judgement such as that would be running the risk of not being “objective.”
It has been argued that Baker’s conduct is an exemplifying mark of the “establishment media.” This is a term predominantly used to refer to certain media cadres that obscurely promote agency or views held by various members of the elite (from businessmen to government officials). Ironically for Baker, this partisanship means that the media, by definition, is anything but objective. Moreover, objectivity is not only threatened by external affiliations, but also by journalists’ own bias – including, confusingly, bias against certain powerful characters.
This task becomes further problematic when we consider the variety of other media outlets that we have at our disposal today. Large media corporations are finding themselves in competition with the instantaneity of social media and the Internet. The sensationalism and digestibility of articles on social media often proves a tough act for mainstream journalists to follow, but brevity and speed are never an excuse for inaccuracy or clumsiness. Add the recent outcrop of alternative media sources such as Democracy Now! and Breitbart, and we can find ourselves entirely inundated with contrary information.
Amongst all of this, the inconvenient truth is that the mainstream media should therefore be impartial and objective in their news reporting. While some may argue that impartiality and objectivity are not core journalistic prerequisites, editorial expression and flair cannot and should not jeopardize the accuracy of the work. Distinction must be made between opinion and news.
“Reporting is not just about reciting facts.” This is what CBC writer Jennifer McGuire claimed in an article titled ‘Opinion vs Analysis.’ McGuire argued that “context” and “analysis” and “significance” (but not “opinion”) are needed to save journalism from becoming “ultimately dull.” That these provide informed and reasoned debate. Debate and discussion is of course an important offshoot of the media, and central to the betterment of our society.
But with this endless hoard of online information, and the abundance of ‘yellow journalism’ within clickbait and tabloids (based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration), it becomes increasingly hard to find just the facts. Ultimately, in news reporting, journalists should simply state the facts (all the facts) of a story, leaving their own opinions to – you guessed it – the opinion sections, and allowing readers to make their own minds. While many would not hesitate to rue this as overly idealistic and simplistic, this is an important idea to hold onto, now more than ever.
Of course, short of just making inaccurate statements, there are countless ways in which journalists can subtly push their opinions (or the opinions of elite influencers). Cherry-picking facts, angling vocabulary and tone, or selecting ‘news value’ – prioritizing certain stories – are all methods of supplying a subjective ‘truth’ (this is why I have been hesitant to use the term “truth”). It is their Orwellian “newspeak.” Loopholes and escape routes are easy to find.
But we cannot leave it to progressive ‘watchdog’ groups to do all the legwork. While we can hope and trust that the ‘protectors of truth’ will fulfill their “duty of care” to the people, the establishment media will always pander to our confirmation bias. They will always print what their target audience wants to read. This way, as their target audience, we have more power than we may think.
So as we laud and polish our birthright to freedom of expression, that age-old Western kernel, cringing away from the foreign evil that is censorship, we must guard the guardians. We must demand the objective “truth” – all of it.