Despite all its many flaws, it is hard to overstate the importance of journalism. And the easiest way to demonstrate that is to imagine what society would look like without it – imagine a world without newspapers, without TV news stations, without radio stations, where information had no lines of communication and we were forced to make do. Information would become scattered, fragmented and confused as it was told and re-told by dozens of different sources, all with their own agendas and biases. Finding primary sources and verifying information would become near impossible, because everything you ever heard would be have passed through dozens of hands before it reached you, requiring a full-blown inquisition to even figure out who started the story, let alone what the objective facts involved were.
And these are just the logistical issues – imagine how easy it would be to manipulate others when access to information is so chaotic and its quality is so inconsistent. Without reputable media all information must be treated with great scepticism, leaving the door open for absolutely rampant confirmation bias as we all seek out ideas we agree with rather than information that we don’t like. This is already a powerful problem in our world today, but imagine how much worse it would become when we would all have the quite legitimate excuse that there are no reliable sources out there. For groups seeking to gain power by scaring or lying to the masses, this process is now nearly impossible to even identify, let alone stop – when any source of information is open to suspicion, then why even consider your critics when you can just attack them instead? How do you call out injustices when no one can agree on what qualifies as a fact? How do you hold your government accountable when it’s impossible to distinguish opinions from evidence? And how do you prevent power from concentrating into the hands of the powerful when you can’t even tell that it’s happening?
Imagine a world where you had to call Trump out on his bullshit alone.
This nightmare scenario demonstrates quite clearly how crucial journalism is not just to a democratic society, but also to any person’s efforts to live an ethical life. As I’ve banged on about here again and again for the last 3 years, ethics are not just a matter of logic but also of evidence – robbed of reliable and accountable sources of that evidence, our ability to make informed decisions is hugely reduced. Forced to do the best we can with the best sources we can find individually, we are inevitably going to fall victim to the biases we all carry with us, and make massive mistakes as a result.
So isn’t it a damn wonderful thing that journalism is the well-established, well-respected professional field that it is? In Australia journalists are generally covered by Codes of Ethics from either the Australian Press Council or the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), which demand high standards from their members, including Honesty, Fairness, Independence, and Respect for the rights of others. Furthermore the MEAA has powers to discipline and expel members who do not comply with this code, adding a significant accountability to the code and greatly improving it’s ethical value.
In return, journalism is granted a special place in society as the ‘Fourth Estate’ – a non-government institution that is nonetheless recognised as so extremely important to a successful society that it is granted extraordinary rights and privileges. In essence the media has the legally, even constitutionally recognised right to stick their noses where the powerful would rather they didn’t, ask the uncomfortable questions, and generally destabilise society as much as possible on the basis that doing so provides the accountability that is so absolutely crucial for society and government to function effectively. The United Nations even goes so far as to include freedom of the media in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.
Broadly speaking, anything you can get the entire international community to agree upon is probably pretty damn important.
So hooray for journalism and the media! Though all of this does sort of make one question all the more relevant: How is crap like this possible?
Would have used an Australian example, but no one does trash like the UK tabloids.
If I was to sit here and link to every terrible, lazy, biased or flat-out false example of journalism I could find, this post would literally never end because they write faster than I can link. So instead let’s home in on the maestro of shit journalism, the patron saint of hacks, the big daddy of rhetorical fallacies the likes of which acolytes like Miranda Devine can only hope to ape: Andrew Bolt.
For those outside Australia, Bolt is the resident opinion writer for the low-brow, high-circulating, right-leaning Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun and you couldn’t get a better example of a terrible journalist if you genetically engineered for it. This is not because Bolt is a bad writer, or a raving demagogue like your Fox News personalities (don’t click that unless you’re down for some pretty intense crazy), but rather because he’s neither – Andrew Bolt is an excellent writer with an amazing gift for taking a truth and building a raving great lie around it in such a way that it all makes sense.
Likely the best and most well-known example of Bolt was when he finally bit off more than he could chew when he claimed some of our most prominent Indigenous people were seeking professional advantage based on the colour of their skin, even though many of them don’t look indigenous, and therefore by Bolt’s logic, weren’t. It’s a clever approach because it is built on a couple of demonstrable truths – namely that some indigenous people do not look indigenous, that corruption is a serious and poorly managed issue in many institutions, and that despite significant work towards the problem, the quality of life in many indigenous communities has not improved significantly. But whereas a rational person might start asking why this was the case, Bolt uses these facts as a basis to push his own ideological agenda of ‘it’s their fault and we should stop trying to help them’, which in terms of ethics, essentially boils down to the sort of magical ‘if it happens to you then you deserve it’ sort of thinking The Secret made so popular.
The people he was accusing ended up suing him based on clause 18C of the Australian Anti-Discrimination Act and winning, and needless to say, Bolt responded to all this by running the standard ‘free speech!’ line and implying that he was somehow the victim for being called out on his blatantly incorrect statements and extremely misleading analysis of the situation. But while this was one small victory against gutter journalism, the bigger problem persists:
How the hell was it possible to publish tripe like this in the first place?
The controversy around the case actually made Bolt popular enough to get his own TV show. So not much of a victory after all.
Pretty much everything about the article that got Bolt sued (this one for reference), and the vast majority of his writing in general blatantly contradicts the Codes of Ethics from both the Australian Press Council and the MEAA, and in fact breaks point 1.1 of the Herald Sun’s own Code of Conduct – and yet despite all this Bolt continues to get his blatant falsehoods published regularly.
How? Well there’s three reasons:
- It makes money
The Herald Sun is a business. It both needs to and wants to make money. Bolt is controversial. This sells papers. Ergo, Bolt being an arsehole is profitable so the Herald Sun has an interest in protecting him.
- It fits with the Herald Sun’s political agenda
The Herald Sun is a business and that business is owned by Rupert Murdoch. To say Mr Murdoch has some strong political opinions is like saying “some people like dogs”.
I don’t care if it’s ironic, you still put way too much effort into this photo. Also, your dog is sick of your crap.
Big surprise then that Murdoch uses the many, MANY media outlets that he owns to push those political views, and if the facts get in the way of those views, the facts can fuck right off as far as ol’ Rupert is concerned.
- Journalist Codes of Ethics are self-regulated, and therefore completely worthless
Look in all honesty the MEAA’s code of ethics is pretty good as such codes go. And unlike the completely pointless Australian Press Council code, the MEAA includes provision to enforce its rules and expel members who breach them. Too bad then that they never bloody well do this. And when the set of rules everyone is meant to play by are never, ever enforced then guess what? No one is going to take them seriously, are they?
Once again we have an attempt to solve an extremely important ethical problem with a simplistic Deontological set of rules, and once again this approach fails miserably because it completely failed to take into account the first two blindingly obvious points on this list. Force a business to choose between high-minded ideals (that they disagree with and which are never enforced) and MONEY and the results are pretty obvious, right? But apparently not.
So if journalism is so incredibly important to a successful and ethical society, but the standards in place to ensure its integrity are so hopelessly compromised, then what do we do? The temptation is to get the government to regulate and put some legal standards in place, but this just shifts the problem; we don’t trust the media to self-regulate, but we trust the government – the group with the most to lose from the media having that integrity – to do it instead? Yeah, no.
But if the integrity of journalism can’t be regulated internally or externally, then what else can be done? Well unfortunately that puts the burden back on to us. As usual the only way any individual can be sure of anything is to take it into their own hands and demand that integrity from the media we consume. This obviously runs afoul of the problem that much of the public supports and actively consumes garbage journalism, but this is not a short game we are playing here – it’s the bigger picture we’re interested in and it’s our own capacity to improve things that we’re concerned with.
Can any one of us take the media to task and ensure they don’t publish terrible journalism? Obviously no.
But can we demand quality in the journalism we personally consume? Yep.
Can we demand a decent standard of evidence from others when they voice an opinion? Yep.
Can we do our best to help others to improve their understanding of the world and demand quality media? Yep.
And can we do the hardest thing of all and check whether the media we consume is biased or not, and make the switch if it is? Damn right we can.