Brussels, 4th July 2008. Journalists and communications specialists packed the Residence Palace meeting room on 3 July 2008 for a lively and provocative debate led by UK journalist and author Nick Davies on the theme ‘Trust Me, I’m a journalist’. Davies’ book ‘Flat Earth News’ exposes the shifts in sources of real news and the resource drought which have led to the modern phenomenon of ‘churnalism’.
Davies explained that in publishing this study of modern media, he had broken an unwritten rule of the trade: a journalist does not rat on his own kind. Many were outraged by his exposé of the unpalatable fact that much of our modern-day ‘news’ is at best unreliable and at worst, simply untrue.
A press driven by accountants
This fallibility is not because media owners push their own line, nor is it because of corporate advertising, it is the effect of a massive commercialisation of newspaper ownership. Old family-run papers are now operated by multinationals where the profit motive drives all. Huge cuts in staff, a decline in independent freelance input and an over-reliance on newswires have drastically cut traditional channels of hard news.
Journalists are required to churn out more and more news, in a shorter time, with no chance to check the information spoon-fed to them by newswires, PR firms and lobby groups. Davies cited astonishing figures from his own survey which showed that only 12% of articles in a sample of 2,000 showed evidence of fact-checking. And everyone nowadays has a PR firm – even Al Quaeda, pointed out Davies, has a press office.
Lack of considered analysis
Davies was joined in the debate, which was chaired by NUJ Brussels member Leigh Phillips, by Professor Francois Heinderyckx of the department of Philosophy from the ULB. Heinderyckx gave insights from his own research on the role played by the ever-growing reliance on information technology.
For Heinderyckx, the over-reliance on technology of modern media has led to fragmentation and haste. News comes immediately but in little pieces – gone is a media which gathered facts, views and evidence to present its readers with a complete, considered analysis. The appearance of blogs by journalists and non-journalists has blurred the line between verified fact and speculation, between considered opinion and tittle-tattle.
Both speakers denounced the practice of so-called ‘balanced reporting’ – where one unverified statement of fact is weighed against another putting the opposite opinion, with no attempt to establish the true situation. Such journalism, said Davies, ‘is cheap and safe. It means never having to say you’re sorry because you have said nothing at all.’
Worse, such ‘balancing’ can serve to drown the truth. While official sources are seen as safe and reliable, those who disagree have their views weighed against a countering official opinion. As a result, voices such as that of Scott Ritter, who tried to point out that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, have gone unheard, or at least unheeded.
Many from the floor shared the speakers’ concerns, and the debate over how to address the issue continued during a subsequent drinks reception and book-signing in the Residence Palace bar.
See videos of the event:
Photos – © Conor Cahill, 2008.
Cartoon – © Jeremy Woolfe, 2008.
The event took place thanks to the support of our sponsors:
Background – see also these articles:
- ‘Structural problems in the media’ – The Guardian, 17 June 2008.
- Andrew Marr fears for the future of journalism.