‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.’ – George Orwell.
I had this quote printed on a sheet of A4 paper, pinned up on the wall of my office cubicle in a Singaporean mainstream media newsroom I used to work in. I had the idealistic image of the investigative journalist with a camera secretly tucked underneath a trenchcoat, writing reports that brought to light the dark underbelly of society, exposing the wrongdoings of the rich and powerful for the public’s good.
But journalism today is far from that ideal. So many news stories out there are which are banal and pointless. They challenge no preconceptions and are little more than exercises in impression management. They might be interesting, but it is in the same way that Google and Facebook use self-referential algorithmic systems that feed audiences the ‘interesting’ things they want to see. The news editors sometimes commission stories that challenge audience’s sensibilities just enough to maintain the illusion that the news is objective (as they have ‘dealt with both sides of the debate’). This is nothing more than a circle-jerk among reporters, editors, and their readership.
The issue is that readers and audiences love being upset. Liberals want to hear of institutionalised racism and sexism, and conservatives similarly want to hear of the destruction of religious and speech freedoms. But try upsetting a liberal by saying sexism is a thing of the past, or a conservative that Abrahamic monotheism is one of many obsolete mysticisms, and they’ll be upset in a way that they don’t like to be. News stories are the best places to see this dynamic in action – no outlet will publish stories that incite the ‘wrong’ sort of anger, even though it is what the facts might suggest.
The media’s reliance on their readership is problematic because audiences are becoming harder and harder to please. This makes a reporter’s job much more difficult as readers are becoming genuinely offended at sillier and sillier things. A piece I wrote last year on an old Singaporean shopping centre with the words ‘Shopping Mecca’ in the headline and received a hostile email from an angry reader, accusing me of disrespecting Islam by comparing Holy Mecca to a commercial centre. We shrugged it off then, but I can’t imagine what newsrooms would do if they had to take every complaint like this seriously – as some newsrooms have to.
Good journalism is meant to challenge and to inform, especially important when dispelling ‘common sense’ knowledge. But the fears of being called ignorant or hateful have left newsrooms running scared of the angry reader, preventing reporters from doing that. Hard-hitting reports are a thing of the past: merely observe mainstream media outlets pandering to their target audiences to see what I mean. Newspapers are businesses, first and foremost, who worry about profits and revenues. I do not blame the managers and editors for trying to keep their readership happy. It boils down to the simple economic relationship between producer and consumer: a vicious cycle of editors pandering to readers (‘the customer is always right’), who themselves are the lifeblood of newsroom.
Take the series of November 2015 disasters (both natural and otherwise) in France, Beirut, Baghdad, Mexico, Lebanon and Japan. A search online will reveal most news outlets giving relatively fair coverage to most of these events. But despite the coverage, attention spans of readers all largely stopped at Paris; maybe some “Peace and Love” types stopped after Beirut or Japan. The great irony is that the public will then take to social media to accuse the media of not giving enough attention to the disasters outside France, when it is the audience themselves that controls how hyped-up a piece of news gets.
The quality of journalism is declining. In some ways it is due to the nature of the commodity: good journalism is often difficult, controversial, and contentious. It is definitively airing other people’s dirty linen in public – often a very difficult thing to do. Thus, the news stories today are less bold and brave, and increasingly ‘masturbatory’ in nature (as a friend of mine calls it). They are more about virtue signalling and propping up societal consensuses in a manner pleasing to the consumer. Taking back control from the reader requires that journalists (re-)learn the virtue of bravery and courage, and putting fact back into their stories, no matter how inconvenient.