Journalists on the wrong side of history when it comes to social media

April 26, 2019

In the last week or so some fairly senior journalists and journalism academics have launched a defence of mainstream reporters and reporting by suggesting that most, if not all, criticism of journalists is coming from a Trumpian perspective. This perspective has appeared in several tweets by senior journalists and it has been given a more ‘respectable’ form in a column by ABC talking head Michael Rowland.

In a piece published on the ABC News website Rowland lamented that he – and other reporters – have been on the receiving end of some insulting and even abusive tweets.

Now, journalism isn’t exactly the profession for shrinking violets.

If you cover the brutal game of politics you have to be particularly robust, but the level of muck being hurled around on Twitter at the moment would test the toughest of souls.

Personally speaking, I have noticed a huge increase in abuse and petty name-calling since the election campaign began.

The free character references I’ve received have often been quite inventive.

He wasn’t the only member of the journalistic elite to give voice to such views. Academic and Nine commentator (she’s published in what we used to know as the Fairfax mastheads) Jenna Price went into bat to defend Patricia Karvelas who also copped some flack over an incident on Insiders the previous weekend.

Social media has become an incubator for hatred of journalists, led by President Donald Trump after learning from the best, the troll armies of President Rodrigo Duterte, says senior research fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Julie Posetti.

Chris Uhlmann takes his complaint against the cultural Marxists a step further. He claims we are worse than the far-right. His former ABC colleague Leigh Sales has also publicly attacked what she calls “far left bias” against the ABC in general and her program in particular.

Far Left Fury

This is a misleading claim that attempts to delegitimise progressive critiques of the mainstream news media by lumping all critics of journalism into one ideological pigeon hole.

How would Leigh Sales – or Chris Uhlmann for that matter – identify someone as “far left”. They wouldn’t know from any position of nuanced reading or understanding; all they have to go on are their own prejudiced and stereotyped views from a position of privileged elitism.

However, what really annoyed me was this tweet from Miriam Cosic who has been a journo for a while and who also makes much of her postgraduate qualifications in philosophy.

Miriam got upset with me when I described this thinking as “lazy”, but it is intellectually lazy. There is a world of difference between a progressive left critique of journalism and the news media and Donald Trump’s Fascistic demonization of journalism he doesn’t like.

However, I guess these same ‘very fine’ people might dismiss my views out of hand. After all, I am a fully paid-up card-carrying life-long member of what Chris Uhlmann has derisively labelled the “post-Christian left”.

Chomsky, not Trumpski

I think there are two distinct political positions on media criticism, and it is wrong to conflate them.

One is certainly a neo-Fascist view that has been thoroughly discredited but that is espoused by Trump and his supporters and originated with the Nazi regime’s propaganda trope of the Lügenpresse or “lying media”.

The other is diametrically opposed to this and, as a form of shorthand, I’m going to call this the Chomskyian view.

The Chomskyian view is based on a long history of progressive, left-wing and anti-capitalist critiques of the news media and it is summarised rather well in Chomsky and Herman’s classic phrase about the “manufacture” of consent.

In 1988, Chomsky and Herman described the media in capitalist society as a propaganda machine. They were right then and the same holds true today.

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

The problem for the ruling class and its media allies is that the machine is breaking down and they’re fresh out of spare parts.

I’ve tried before in IA and in many of my other recent writings, including this book and this journal article, to explain the important differences between a Trumpian view of “fake news” and a more sophisticated analysis of journalism, journalists and the news media that situates the whole “fake news” discussion into an historical and theoretical context which is known as the political economy of communication.

I’ve also written about media issues extensively in IA, including here, here, here, here and here. I also wrote a long review of Katharine Murphy’s pamphlet, On Disruption in which she defends the News Establishment’s approach to the disruption caused by social media.

Here’s one takeaway from that piece:

Murphy raises the important question of the relationship between a media ecology that has begun a descent into what she accurately describes as ‘a febrile, superficial, shouty, shallow, pugnacious cacophony of content, where sensation regularly trumps insight’, and the demagoguery of Trump and his European imitators.

Murphy asks us rhetorically:

‘Did we, the disrupted media, somehow create Donald Trump? Did we enable him?’ 

However, she struggles to provide a coherent answer.

I think the collapse of the old certainties in the news media and the failure of the News Establishment to effectively reflect on its mistakes certainly gave strength to the Trumpian view that the news media is the ‘enemy of the people’.

However, let’s be clear this is a talking point of the Alt Right and its enablers. It is not a view shared by progressive critics of the News Establishment.

A direct attack on democracy and active citizenship

I have no problem with journalists defending themselves on Twitter, but the common tactic from the News Establishment has been to shy away from directly responding to serious critics and, instead, to focus on the minority of idiots who make vile threats.

I want to be clear; I do not support threats of violence, racist, sexist or homophobic abuse against reporters, but I don’t mind a bit of hard-hitting sarcasm.

The world has changed over the past 20 years and as we’re constantly told by the very same Establishment figures when they’re trying to gouge subscriptions from us: engagement is the new normal. There is no going back, social media has changed the journalistic landscape forever.

The problem is the News Establishment wants engagement on its terms. Engagement for them means we take out subscriptions and become unpaid sources for them or allow them to scour material from our social media feeds to pad out otherwise thin reporting.

What the News Establishment definitely doesn’t want is an active Fifth Estate undermining its authority or its cosy relationship with the rich and powerful.

I would go so far as to suggest that the pushback against their serious critics on Twitter reveals the truly anti-democratic nature of their thinking and their true ideological position.

At least that’s how I’ve interpreted this tweet from ABC reporter Matt Bevan.

Maybe he was joking, or at least maybe that’s what he’d say if challenged, but I think it’s telling.

Twitter provides a platform for what we might call ‘monitorial citizenship’, that is the ability for ordinary people to talk directly to the powerful.

This is upsetting for the News Establishment because, for the past 200 years or so, they have been the principal gatekeepers. Journalists were in a privileged position of mediating between the rulers and the ruled.

They were treated to a rare glimpse inside the halls of power – the first Press Gallery was established in the Palace of Westminster in 1803 – in return they were expected to massage the more brutal pronouncements of the powerful and provide for the “manufacture of consent”.

The News Establishment has played a supporting role ever since; agreeing to keep some secrets to protect the State and legitimising the consolidation of the two-party system.

It was his observation of the Westminster gallery that prompted this acerbic jab from Oscar Wilde:

“Journalism has carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme. As a natural consequence it has begun to create a spirit of revolt. People are amused by it, or disgusted by it…But it is no longer the real force it was. It is not seriously treated.”

Until recently, Establishment accounts of political machinations were not open to direct challenge. The public had to pretty much accept as gospel whatever the journalists wrote.

Now that has changed and now amount of whining from the News Establishment is going to put that genie back in its box.

The monitorial citizen is here to stay.

The monitorial citizen in a democracy is described by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson as a person outside of the dominant political structure who feels a responsibility to monitor what powerful institutions do, and to get involved when they feel power is being abused.

Schudson is no “post-Christian” leftist. He is a respected, bespectacled professor and himself aligned with the most News Establishment New York establishment, Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet he is able to see what many of our own – vastly anti-intellectual in outlook – news media refuse to see or are willfully blind to.

The power of the News Establishment is waning; monitorial citizens are taking to social media to clapback at the mistakes, misjudgements and misleading inferences that mainstream reporters make routinely.

The inestimable Mr Denmore summed it up nicely on his blog, The Failed Estate, in a piece called ‘All media is social’:

The public isn’t stupid. Much of the criticism they are expressing on social media about journalists reflects a sense of frustration that the issues they are their families care deeply about (like climate change or stagnant incomes or our treatment of refugees) are not advancing.

Quite.

 


I don’t want governments or corporations curating my news feed. Here’s why.

April 3, 2019

This week, Facebook and the government of Singapore announced new plans to combat the spread of fake news and disinformation. However, why would we give up our freedom to allow corporations or governments to control the news media.

Are we in the middle of a fake news pandemic? The issue has certainly got the attention of people who care about, or who claim to care about, such issues.

The President of the United States certainly thinks fake news is a huge problem. He tweets about it constantly and has even called the American news media the “real enemy of the people”.

For Americans who believe passionately in the First Amendment, this is horrifying and scary rhetoric; particularly when it butts up so closely the Second Amendment. (That’s the one about carrying a locked and loaded machine gun slung casually over one camo-covered shoulder while strolling around the shopping mall on the lookout for a bad guy with a gun.)

Journalism and media academics are also taking the fake news threat seriously judging by my recent trawl through the journal articles on the subject. According to the EBSCO Complete database, of 268 academic pieces written on fake news since 2002, 210 were written in the two-and-a-half years.

I am left wondering though if the news-consuming public is really all that concerned about fake news and sorting out news-truth from news-fiction. We are consuming mountains of fake news on a daily basis. Perhaps overall we are intellectually poorer as a result, but it is actually hard to tell. Maybe, our BS filters are now highly attuned to fakery and we weed it out without thinking. Or, in a darker vein, have we just given up even trying?

It would be a shame if we just cynically give up on truth and lean into fake news with a defeated shrug of the shoulders. Sometimes this must seem like a tempting option to some people. How can we stem the tidal flow of junk and fake news? How can we prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed? Read the rest of this entry »


What’s wrong with journalism today: Part 1 – Fake News

December 21, 2016

The sudden global interest in “fake news” sparked by the US elections and allegations of Russian interference to support Trump’s campaign has led several IA readers to contact me asking why both the mainstream media and the alternative social journalism sphere both seem to lie with impunity, or at least are prepared to promote unverified rumour as actual news.

I’ve attempted to provide some answers in recent weeks in terms of the so-called “post-truth” media landscape, the widespread dissemination of propaganda in the guise of independent reporting and the deliberate misinformation spread by both the Clinton and the Trump camps during the election season.

But it seems that these are only partial explanations that deal with the surface issues and practicalities, without delving deeper into the psychological, philosophical and intellectual roots of the problem. This week I thought I might attempt to answer some of these more puzzling questions.

It must be true, it’s on Facebook

A good example of the confusing feedback loop between journalism and social media is this illustration, which was sent to me by a friend on Facebook. How do we account for this deliberate attempt to tailor perspectives and expectations when it is done by a so-called “respectable” publication, the Wall Street Journal?

The ‘Trump softens his tone’ headline was for the New York market, which is more soft-l liberal and therefore inclined not to like the idea of Trump’s wall. The ‘Trump talks tough on wall’ headline was for the Texas edition of the WSJ. In Texas there is likely to be more support for the idea of a wall on the border with Mexico. This manipulation might be simply about pandering to a particular demographic and, given the headline is always bait to hook the casual reader, in this case it’s straightforward: a “gung-ho” headline for the rednecks and a softer tone for the liberals of New York.

However, it’s not true. The meme circulating on social media with the photograph shown here was itself faked. The WSJ copies in question are from 31 August this year and, according to the myth-busting website Snopes, they represent and early (on the left) and late edition (on the right).

So, who is fooling whom? It is difficult to tell. We trust our friends and when they circulate material into our newsfeed on Facebook, we want to believe them, we assume the information they present to us is true.

But what if they don’t check? The original tweet alleging the WSJ scam was retweeted more than 2000 times.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/ScottAdamsSays”>@ScottAdamsSays</a&gt; Same paper, same day, same article. Different areas = different title <a href=”https://t.co/5lD9o4KN3S”>pic.twitter.com/5lD9o4KN3S</a></p>&mdash; John Ryder (@KHyperborea) <a href=”https://twitter.com/KHyperborea/status/771715650033029120″>September 2, 2016</a></blockquote>

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As you can see from the comment thread this tweet generated, plenty of people – and especially Trump supporters – were inclined to believe it. The belief comes because the prejudice of conservatives (Of course, the WSJ is lying, it supports Hillary) are confirmed and they are more than happy to accept it as gospel, without checking. But Hillary supporters also want to believe that the WSJ was secretly aiding the Trump campaign. Both lies can’t be true.

wsj-changes-headline-in-different-markets-screenshot-www-facebook-com-2016-12-14-11-11-01

Figure 1: We believe what we want to, but is it true?

What really happened is that Trump was presenting two different messages on the same day, which was a hallmark of his campaign. The original headline referred to a meeting Trump had with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto in which he took ‘a remarkably subdued and cooperative tone’, according to reports. The WSJ story was updated following a speech by Trump, later the same day, in which he made the yet-to-be-tested promise/threat that he would make Mexico pay for the infamous “wall” he pledged to build on the USA’s southern border. The speech was after, but close on the heels of his visit to Mexico.

In this example, the problem was not the Wall Street Journal, it was (and is) Donald J Trump. In this case the WSJ was legitimately updating its coverage of Trump’s campaign and quite rightly highlighted the shift in his rhetoric – a softer tone for the Mexican president and a belligerent outburst for his domestic supporters. Both Trump and Clinton supporters were prepared to believe that the WSJ had doctored its coverage, and social media helped both sides to spread misinformation to their own supporters and followers. However, there are clear cases where, for whatever reason, journalists get it wrong.

Read the rest of this story at Independent Australia.


#Pizzagate and post-truth journalism

December 16, 2016

I have started writing my next book, a ‘how to’ manual people outside the mainstream keen to work in the news media. I’m hopeful that Navigating Social Journalism will be a ‘best-seller’ and that it will help mobilise a new army of motivated and politically-savvy citizen journalists to fill the information void left by the declining mainstream media.

In my humble opinion, the timing for this tome couldn’t be better, because this year we have seen the news media caught with its collective pants around its ankles as a tide of fake news washes over the planet. As 2016 winds down, it’s a good time to take stock of what has been, to say the least, an interesting year in the field of journalism.

Is it time to say “bye-bye” to the traditional newsroom?

Newsrooms right around the world are shrinking, and this is an opportunity for the social journalists out there to start making (or making up) their own versions of the news. Australia is not immune and this week we heard about the loss of 42 journalists’ positions at News Corp Australia as the company tries to retrieve $40 million in ‘savings’, which is a euphemism for putting more money in Rupert’s pocket at the expense of employees and customers.

Things are no better over at Fairfax Media where jobs are being shed faster than CEO Greg Hywood’s few remaining hairs. In the broadcast media, it’s the same sad story. The ABC is bleeding to death and the commercials are down-sizing in proportion to their shrinking ad revenues.

By my quick count, which I admit is unscientific, there has been in excess of 500 jobs in the Australian news industry disappear in 2016, including 120 at Fairfax, 300 at Australian Regional Media, 20 or more at the ABC and now another 50 or so at News. It’s only going to get worse, with Fairfax reportedly looking at shedding another 1900 jobs over the next three years, and job losses at The Australian will be catastrophic once Rupert dies and his children shut down the rabid vanity publication.

Things are not great on the other side of the ideological media fence. The beacon of progressive journalism (in so far as it goes), The Guardian is losing a reported $AU 89.4 million per year globally and is looking to cut more than 20 per cent of its budget annually to rein in costs. This cut translates to 250 jobs across the paper’s global operations. The Guardian is now asking people to become ‘supporters’ because the Scott Trust, which funds it, is expected to burn its £758m investment in less than a decade. When a once-proud journal puts out the begging bowl to support itself, the end is nigh.

The problem, for all of these media giants is that the rate of profit attached to news is declining as advertisers abandon legacy platforms in favour of digital media – the Internet and mobile Apps. IN a capitalist economy, if there is no return on investment, there is no investment. Unprofitable commodities are no longer produced, and journalism is becoming an unsellable commodity. So where does this leave us, the intelligent citizens desperate for solid, accurate news to inform our world view and animate us to change the world before it’s too late?

If we’re not careful, it could leave us drowning in a giant puddle of media poo. This is such a dire consequence that the Pope has felt compelled to warn us about it.

Does the Pope shit in the woods? Probably, and wipes his arse with copies of Il Globo

Does the Pope shit in the woods? Probably, and wipes his arse with copies of Il Globo

Are we in danger of eating our own shit?

When the Pontiff starts comparing the consumption of ‘fake news’ to coprophagy you know we’re in deep shit (pardon to Papal punning).

Pope Francis told the Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio that spreading disinformation was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do” and using communications for this rather than to educate the public amounted to a sin.

Using precise psychological terms, he said scandal-mongering media risked falling prey to coprophilia, or arousal from excrement, and consumers of these media risked coprophagia, or eating excrement.

The imagery is rather revolting, my lips are pursed just writing about it, let alone having the taste in my mouth. What we really need to do, and the Pope is incapable of thinking beyond the toilet bowl as plate metaphor, is ask ourselves ‘Why has it come to this?’

To find the answer to this question, read the rest of this article at Independent Australia.


The media and the #libspill — covering themselves in glory?

February 9, 2015

There’s nothing that the political media pack likes more than a bit of blood-letting.

The entire Canberra Press Gallery is on a sugar high at the moment and there’s no sign that they’re coming down soon.

A leadership crisis makes for good copy and it allows the all-news TV channels to flood the airwaves with blue-tie talking heads from dusk till dawn and then from dawn till dusk – (rinse and repeat).

They really only have one thing to say, but it has to be said again and again by as many people as possible with spin (rinse and repeat) and with varying inflections.

Then the tea leaves, the coffee grounds, the chicken entrails, the pigeon droppings and the contents of the ministerial chamberpots are pored over, poked at, sniffed, taste-tested, licked, chewed, sucked and spat out like so much cheap plonk at a Dan Murphy’s wine-tasting.

But the audience (AKA, the punters, the voting public, the great unwashed) ends up being none the wiser.

Read the rest of this entry »


One tweet does not a revolution make: Technological determinism, media and social change

May 11, 2013

This is my recently published piece on technological determinism and revolution – case study of the Arab Spring.

Reprinted from Global Media Journal

Abstract

This paper discusses the problematic influence of technological determinism in popular news media coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring events of 2010-11.

The purpose is to develop insights into how and why elements of a ‘soft’ technological determinism inflect both journalistic practice and news discourse in relation to the Arab Spring. In particular it discusses how the ‘bias of convenience’ and a journalistic obsession with the ‘continuous present’ connect with this determinist inflection to create a potential distortion in the journalists’ ‘first rough draft’ of history in relation to significant and complex events such as social revolution.

Debates about the significance of social media and communications technologies more broadly in generating mass outbursts of protest and even violence have raged in the popular news media for the past decade at least. A wave of interest in ‘theories’ about how and why new services like Facebook and Twitter may create or enable mass protest was generated by the revolutionary events in Iran following the June 2009 elections (Hirst, 2011). Many of the arguments then and now, in coverage of the Arab Spring, are suggestive of a form of technological determinism that is coupled with other underlying and little-investigated assumptions inherent in most forms of news practice and discourse.

The question of the influence of technological determinism within journalism studies is a far from settled debate and this paper follows Mosco’s argument and suggests that the idea of a social media revolution is a myth of the ‘digital sublime’ (Mosco, 2004). At best social media is a new battleground in the struggle for information control. At worst it can blind activists and commentators to reality (Morozov, 2011).

Read the rest of this entry »


Scooped: The politics and power of journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

February 7, 2012

Hot off the press

Scooped is finally available. You can order online from Exisle Books

This book is the first new text on New Zealand journalism in ten years. Scooped is an edited collection of essays canvassing the politics and power of journalism and the news media in New Zealand today.

Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand critically examines some of the most pressing economic, political, social and cultural issues facing journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Approaching journalism as a field of cultural production, the book brings together contributions from a diverse list of academics and journalists, and interrogates the commonsense assumptions that typically structure public discussion of journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rather than simply treating power as something others have, and politics as something that the media simply covers, the book situates journalism itself as a site of power and cultural politics. Lamenting the often antagonistic relationship between journalism and academia, the book offers a vision of a critically engaged journalism studies that should be of interest to academics, students, journalists and general readers.

 

Read the rest of this entry »