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The Fake News About Journalism

By Simon Kuper

One oddity of being a journalist these days is that non-journalists are always critiquing the profession. It isn’t only Donald Trump. Many see broadsheet newspapers and public-sector broadcasters as a liberal cartel that cooks up “ fake news”. But few of our accusers understand our everyday working practices. That’s normal: hardly anyone knows much about life in other professions. I’ve only the vaguest idea of how people in construction or advertising do their jobs, or how they think of themselves. Below I have responded to common charges against contemporary upmarket journalism by explaining how it actually works day by day.

“You made that up.” In the era of Google and social media, making stuff up is now a route to rapid humiliation and dismissal. Readers will catch you. It was much easier to distort before the internet. Think of Walter Duranty, The New York Times correspondent in Stalin’s USSR, who in 1933 denied there was a Soviet famine. Few Ukraine-based readers wrote in to correct him.

Anyway, Google — along with millennials working for media organisations as low-paid fact-checkers — has vastly improved journalistic accuracy. When I recently researched a historical biography, I was aghast at all the howlers in 1960s newspapers.

“Just give us the facts, not your opinions.” Before the internet, most media devoted most of their energy to reporting events: “Wildfires killed 20 people”, or “Interest rates rose 1 per cent”. But nowadays news is instantly free online. Journalism therefore needs to add analysis.

“Facts” aren’t neutral in any case. Do you lead with the presumed terrorist attack on Westminster or the scientific report saying that air pollution kills thousands of Londoners a year?

Even accurate reporting distorts reality. As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker notes, “news” often focuses on events (today’s bridge collapse or a politician’s lie) at the expense of cheerier trends (such as the long-term rise in life expectancy). Pinker says: “The papers could have run the headline, ‘137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday’ each day for the last 25 years.”

“You were told to write that.” Many people think journalists are flunkeys of powerful liberal interests. Readers often tell me that Nikkei, the FT’s proprietor, instructs us to oppose Brexit.

In fact, almost all journalists I’ve encountered in liberal media genuinely believe the liberal stuff they write. Most journalists are liberals, not because of outside pressure but because upmarket journalism has become a highly educated profession — and highly educated urbanites tend to be liberals, who oppose Trump and Brexit and populism generally. A greater proportion of New York Times journalists than Fortune 500 chief executives attended elite universities, write Jonathan Wai of the University of Arkansas and Kaja Perina of Psychology Today; New Republic journalists have fancier educations than American billionaires. Liberalism in journalism is a cohort effect.

“You are out of touch with ordinary people.” That’s becoming less true. Brexit and Trump’s election shocked media into trying to reconnect with ordinary folk — especially white folk. Hence the new American journalistic genre of “Trump safaris” (visits to white working-class towns), while just before the Brexit referendum the BBC decided to fund 150 new local reporters to cover local democracy around Britain.

“You are foisting your liberal agenda on us.” Each individual journalist today has negligible influence on other people’s views — and we know it.

Back when there were fewer voices in media, certain journalists could shift mass opinion. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Walter Winchell’s gossip column and radio broadcast jointly reached tens of millions of Americans a day. In 1968, a single broadcast by TV anchor Walter Cronkite arguably helped turn American opinion against the Vietnam war. But the internet splintered the media. Today each of us has a minute audience. Trump’s obsession with CNN TV news is bizarre, given how few people watch it. And viewers and readers already have entrenched world views, shaped by their life paths and years of consuming information. Each individual article barely has an impact on their outlook.

Even when journalists influence opinion, it’s often inadvertently in an illiberal direction. Whenever liberal media push an agenda (for instance, that climate change is a problem), many rightwingers instinctively believe the opposite. If The New York Times decided tomorrow that climate change was a hoax, many Trumpites would probably become tree-huggers.

And as Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk argues, journalistic exposés of establishment corruption often feed populist rage. For instance, in the years after British media majored on the MPs’ expenses scandal, Britons voted for Brexit.

Media owners (who tend to skew right) have some influence on opinion, although less now that young people get what little news they follow from social media. Individual journalists have almost no influence. Nor do many crave it. Most journalists I know entered the profession for other reasons: frustrated literary ambitions, the adrenalin rush of newsgathering, or a desire to describe their era. Day by day, we are driven less by do-goodery than the quest for scoops, attention and fun.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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