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Our reckless media fans the flames of social disharmony

The reckless and inflammatory reporting on Coronavirus makes me wonder whether we'd be better off without a media outlet that can sink so low. Disingenuous reporting, sensationalist claims, and scaremongering headlines have littered the media for months and it is clear why; to sell papers and attract clicks. For all the havoc that it wreaks on society, Coronavirus is an absolute goldmine for the media. Fear sells.

Have we reached a tipping point where, with its mix of anxious desperation and crazy-brave self-confidence, our mainstream corporate media does us more harm than good? Everywhere it's under pressure from declining markets and battling business models, a situation that is as pressing for newspapers as it is becoming true for TV. The response of news producers has been trapped somewhere between the sentimental and the self-serving. How will journalism survive, ask the journalists. Maybe we ought to wonder both whether it matters and whether something better might evolve to replace it.

It might be that journalism is just a writing style. Lets be honest - there isn't much factual reference in today's journalism, so what is it that makes the official journalist's writing any more relevant than the ad-hoc blogger... if somebody is prepared to respond on social media, then surely what is being said is relevant ? The biggest issue is, that without regulatory fact checking of the journalistic word... opinion and subjecture is all we have - and that makes for a dangerous firepit of anger and resentment.


I should declare here that I adore newspapers, and the news. Facts for life, the reporting of real facts and real stories. But now, reading the newspapers and watching the news, I can't help but wonder if this is a craft that is not only losing its centre of gravity and support, but also some fundamental sense of its mission and responsibilities. What sentient members of the Fourth Estate could ever set foot, for example, inside the offices of the Birmingham Mail? This is, let's not forget, Birmingham's chief news outlet - on paper and online. A behemoth, and, by dint of journalistic volume, one of the most significant newsrooms in the Midlands. Yet some of the headlines it has peddled over the past few horrific months of the COVID19 pandemic, have been nothing short of sensational. Many would agree, many would not - Some would say it is garbage, some would say it is gibberish, some would say bullshit and some would be harsher than that... whatever your choice of descriptor, that choice is yours. To make my point however, here are some of the headlines seen in the Tamworth Herald or Birmingham Mail recently...

 

(could ? I could win the lottery, but I am not ordering my Aston Martin just yet. Read the article - even when added up, the 'could' doesn't reach 100k)

(refuses ? or can't say yet ? 'Refuses' denotes a tone of arrogance and stubborness... which is not really an accurate reflection of the truth )

(well actually, no, she hasn't spotted a problem at all... Susanna Reid, in support of Piers Morgan's ranting style wants the Govt. to apologise. Hindsight is wonderful. Lets be honest when this pair get any kind of kudos for being serious journalists, we are in trouble)

 

And then, in recent years, we have seen the advent of media channels online, where clicks are king, because clicks make income. We have seen the onset of fear and threat headlines - a cynical ploy from media outlets to engage the 'fight or flight' part of our brains, and subconciously encourage us to click that story link.... kerching!


Examples of fear and threat marketing... these are made up to prove a point, but you will have seen these type of headlines in some form or other:

 

How Safe Is Your Something Valuable from Threat ?: You instinctively (and quite vividly) can imagine a threat by just reading the headline, right? This headline generates a double shot of fear in your psyche. Watch out!: You feel the threat to something you value and show from whom or what the threat is coming.


The Shocking Truth about Something Valuable: You’ve uncovered a “shocking” secret. Now you are exposing that secret to your readers. You become the trusted source of the truth. We see this on the news and in the tabloids constantly. They use it because it’s a headline readers can’t ignore. They want the truth! The real shocking truth of this though, is that the journalists “shocking truths” may be a bit of an exaggeration. It is an over-used bait that has replaced the need to keep reader’s trust.


The Great Goal/Thing Hoax: Calling all conspiracy theorists! No indirect implications here. This headline 9template directly states that the reader is being duped. A “hoax” is pretty strong statement. This is a particular favourite of the minor leaguers... the media outlets searching for a break at any cost. Really, it turns out that the 'hoax' is more about opinion than investigative heroics.


Can We Really Trust Something / Someone to do something: There are many people, organisations, brands, or natural occurrences that are perceived to be bigger than us. Social norms say that we have to “trust” or “rely” or “count on” these things to be good to us. We want to be in control. We want to protect ourselves from the big guys. What makes this headline so effective is, it confirms our fears are likely real and it offers a way to help keep us safe.

 

Think you know your real from your fake ? Try this HEADLINES QUIZ

 

and then Talking of Trust...


An opinion poll showing low levels of ‘trust’ in British journalists was carried out last year. The poll via yougov was part of a much broader survey of trust in UK public figures and on policy issues related to the coronavirus crisis and the ‘lockdown’ measures, and so for the purposes of this blog, is highly relevant.


What we know from the background questioning is that the country has thrown itself into housework, cooking and DIY this time round, like gardening back in May 2020. Yet with all this extra time, fewer than one in three are doing more exercise than usual and fewer than one in 15 are having more sex, owing to the draconian restrictions on lifestyle.

fewer than one in 15 are having more sex

So, its bad news all round - a great number of us are off work, doing nothing much, and not even getting laid.... no wonder we have time to take notice of the gutter press, question our trust of news outlets and become frustrated with each other.


It’s a perfectly reputable poll in its own terms but the questions on journalism are just one small part of a wider survey and the pollsters didn’t ask people why they don’t ‘trust’ news media and or what people mean by ‘trust’ or lack of it. At times of national division and heated debate on top of four years of divisive Brexit debate with two very opposed main political parties, it’s not surprising that people are sceptical about everything. After ten years of austerity followed by an unprecedented pandemic there’s a lot to be angry and upset about.The mainstream media love that though - they write headlines to grab attention and clicks. They cry wolf, they cry terror, they fan the flames of disquiet and mistrust.

Because fear sells.


On the performance of 2020, the media must be 'trusted' only slightly more than say Saddam Hussain or Vladimir Putin are credited with upholding human rights laws.


In these moments of high anxiety, the main players in our commercial media have seen opportunity in a population made fearful and anxious for information. They have seen an opportunity to become more relevant through divide and conquer journalism, hiding behind the already bitter left and right wing political arguments left behind by Jeremy Corbyn. It has become better to gain clicks from the hardcore supporter, than to tell the broad stroke, factual news. Journalists bring both the bad news of reality and also a lot of views that you will disagree with. So in that sense, it’s not so much that people don’t trust the system or profession of journalism, they are reacting to the presence of a lot of journalism that makes them sad, or cross or that they disagree with. They are reacting to the sensationalist writing. They are reacting to the seemingly irrational and pointless questioning of the gutter journalists parading their wares on TV... Piers Morgan, Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston and Beth Rigby take a bow, I am yet to hear a relevant question asked by any of you at the Government daily Coronavirus briefings.


The British people are pretty well educated, relatively politically engaged and have been encouraged by our education system, to think for themselves and be sceptical for decades. Disasters like the financial crisis or phone-hacking give them some cause to be sceptical. It is not surprising that they are reluctant to tell a pollster that they happily ‘trust’ anyone, let alone a journalist. It’s a healthy sign in our democracy that we are not afraid to have our say on authority such as the news media (or politicians). If you want high trust ratings in media and politicians you have to go to China. Considering what happened in China regarding coronavirus since January 2020, I’m not sure that’s the most trustworthy role model.


This isn't just verbal SH1, there is an issue here, in the form of a serious social issue and one highly sensitive to the sort of reckless, and inflammatory reporting that has become typical - almost universal - in the British media mainstream. There is a lack of restraint, a grasping of commercial opportunity at whatever the cost and a lack of regard even for the fundamental truth, and that is the most worrying thing. Coronavirus has exposed the limits of even the BBC’s brand of objective, balanced journalism as a downright lie. The BBC has always had a vital role to play, because we need a thriving, diverse independent news media outlet, at all levels, from local to specialist, popular as well as ‘elite’. The BBC always used to fulfil that role, before it started getting squeezed by commercial radio and TV online for clicks. As a result, the relatively healthy journalistic ecosystem is genuinely under threat at the moment. The question of ‘trust’ might appear an almost philosophical issue at such a time of existential crisis, but if we stop reacting to the headlines about Government 'error' and think more seriously about what the public really need as well as want from journalism, perhaps there are paths forward that will provide a more satisfactory reading experience, and start to restore our faith in a free and impartial media.


Morality, honesty, sincerity and truthfulness are casually thrown aside. No other profession seems to have such an abhorrent and callous approach to success (read money). This downfall in virtue, seems to have hurt people the most. For the simple reason that the media used the to be the most trusted pillar of democracy. People believed what the media told them. It was their eyes and ears. It was their weapon to rein in the executive, legislature and sometimes even the all powerful judiciary. The media reported and also asked uncomfortable questions demanding swift answers from the powers to be. It enforced accountability from our rulers, law makers and law enforcers.


What we are seeing in 2021, is the abandonment of such probity and righteousness in favor of money and power.


Media is no longer the voice of people. Instead being owned by politicians, corporates with their own political interests they no longer bring news but their own personal opinions and interpretations. Sadly it doesn't stop with that. Outright lies and deception have become the norm. Sensationalism, jingoism, brazen partisanship have lead to the downfall of media in the eyes of people.


The downfall of media is no joke. I believe it will only get worse from now. And I won't be exaggerating if i say that the very foundation of democracy and law & order will be at stake when the downfall is complete and irreversible.


In summary, If someone had fallen asleep in 2010 and only just woken up today, they could hardly avoid the conclusion that the world had gone mad. Why, they may ask, are conspiracy theorists and social hooligans taking to the streets to protest against public health guidelines designed to protect them from a deadly pandemic? Why are some politicians going out of their way to trash expert opinion and, in the process, lending credence to wild conspiracy theories? Why at a time of National Crisis, do we have so much division and disharmony? How on earth have we reached a point where we are willing to take onboard a lie rather than the truth, as long as it fits our own rhetoric.


For me, the answer lay firmly at the feet of our media circus ringmasters

In these end times for corporate journalism, in these desperate days when it seems any click is worth the compromise of basic standards of integrity and social tact; it becomes clear why we wonder whether we'd be better off, without a media machine that can sink so low.

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Matt
Matt
Feb 09, 2021

Whilst I agree with most of your sentiment, could it be naive to consider this has only started since 2020 ? There has always been an agenda, always an angle.


You succinctly explain the problem, but is there a solution ? I believe that the majority of society is happy to be ignorant. It's much easier to be told what to think and follow the rules than question the narrative and face potential ostracism.


The willful embracing of this intellectual neutering is the true issue, and I can't see a way around that.

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