“…Every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned…” – George Monbiot, The Guardian, 06 Dec 2006.
Sensationalism: noun (in the media) the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.
From that quote and definition I would argue that we should rename much of what now passes for journalism “sensationalism”. Well reported news is rare, usually conducted by the few good journalists we do have. It is all too common to have the truth twisted, or simply have half of the story neglected completely. We have casually accepted the inadequacy of our media practically without a struggle. Some journalists even admit and take pride in their shortcomings:
“(journalism) is full of lying, cheating, drunken, cocaine-sniffing, unethical people. It’s a wonderful profession.” – Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror until he was sacked for publishing fakepictures implying that British soldiers torture prisoners.
That would be fine if the profession in question was say alligator taxidermy, or peacock hunting but unfortunately these fellow are meant to be informing us of local, national and worldwide news. In this capacity, whether we trust them or not, journalists have an awful lot of power. And with great power comes great responsibility. Doesn’t it? Apparently not. The problem lies in the fact that the job of a journalist is not to inform the public, but to sell stories.
The tools of the savvy, ambitious journalist are good writing, a silver tongue, lying, deception and terror. It all makes perfect financial sense. If you see a headline reading “BLACK HOLE MACHINE WILL KILL YOU!” you are going to want to read it, just in case its true and you really are at risk. Reading the column you will find that ‘scientists say…’ a lot of things that suggest that there is nothing to worry about, but then there will be a ‘however, professor X claims that…’ we are doomed. So we have seeds of fear planted in us, the newspaper is bought and the columnist’s goal is accomplished.
The fact that professor X is in fact almost certainly wrong and there is nothing to worry about is not made evident. Writing about how great things are, or how the world and weather and climate are pretty OK, how politicians are doing the right thing and what a lovely country we live in doesn’t sell, so we don’t hear about it.
Journalists’ egos also obstruct decent reporting. I feel like I practically know Jon Snow. Why? He should be telling me the news, interviewing some interesting people with interesting things to say and then buggering off. The Jon Snow show is becoming increasingly like the Jeremy Kyle show, only it’s politicians and not chavs who get unfairly humiliated. Presenters and columnists should be human windows through which we can view world events, which we, the public, are unable to see first hand.
This is important because only rational, fact-based analysis conducted with a cool head can solve such problems as terrorism, or corrupt, dangerous governments. Sensationalist journalism basically precludes that. If I met Jon Snow in a pub I would very much like to hear his opinion on the Labour party or the situation in Gaza, but I don’t in the slightest want to be exposed to it on the news. Not even a sneer, disbelieving tone of voice or a rude interruption.
So is this the public’s fault? Have we by process of natural selection driven away good journalism because we didn’t buy the right papers or watch the right channels? Maybe to a certain extent, but I think people are not as stupid as the media thinks. There are lots of valuable opinions around and its important to allow these to feel validated by showing us facts and interviewing people properly. So what’s the answer other than constant scepticism?
I think journalists should either openly admit that their job is to sell, or they should actually accept some of the responsibility which comes with power. Perhaps they should learn to apprehend criminals by shooting webs out of their wrists- that too would be both useful, and unfortunately, just as likely.