Monday, April 30, 2018

Journalist Ethics and Alt-Right Wannabes: Trying to Create What Just Ain't There

It turns out that one newspaper set out to intentionally try to create division in the run up to an election and to portray Ontario (and by extension Canada) as in the midst of a US-style "culture war." Here is the information: here. This raises a number of questions and highlights the importance that media plays in representing politics. Why would anyone want to create divisions in society? What would they gain from it? How can, or should, this news source be trusted after its plot has been exposed? What does this tell us about the state of Canadian journalism?

I can't answer all these questions and, frankly, I am a bit ... well ... like others, I am a bit shocked. The fact of media bias is not news to most people, but an overt plan to manipulate people to promote extremist alt-right politics is something a bit over line of what we are used to. When we study media bias, most of us think about things like stories that are ignored, the need to pacify advertisers, connections between reporters and certain sectors of society, etc., that frame common worldviews. We don't think in terms of someone -- or, a group of people -- setting out to inflame public opinion, target minority groups to more vehement hatred, intentionally disrupt national unity, and the like. I want to argue that there are both good and bad implications to this plot. 

The bad are likely more self-evident. Some might argue that it challenges the idea of journalistic "objectivity" and if I were a journalist I would be deeply disturbed by this. In scholarship, however, most of us are aware that journalistic "objectivity" is a bit of a rhetorical buzzword that does not touch down in reality. Journalists are biased and that bias affects how they report on certain issues. But, what this shows is a potentially deepening division between different styles of journalism that is, frankly and without prejudice, far more advanced in the US.  It is the journalism of alternative facts where all reporting becomes politicized and the political lessons are determined well in advance of the story actually being written. In the US we can see this clearly in the increasing division between how different news outlets report stories. I won't get into this, and some do a better job of fact-checking than others, but if you've watched, say, Fox News lately, you can tell that they promote certain political positions come what may. The don't really worry too much about the facts of the matter and have been caught, say by Jon Stewart, actually swapping in archival footage for supposed footage of ongoing events when what actually happened did not suit their bill. They don't really report so much as they offer political slogans under the guise of reporting. 

The problem is not objectivity. The problem is that there is an increasing divisions between those journalists who -- however biased they might be -- still subscribe to an idea of some sort of professional ethics and those who see their job as promoting a particular political perspective. Those professional ethics -- to say this again -- do not amount to objectivity but they do amount to something that may have some merits: the idea that there are facts and those facts can be checked, that journalists should have a commitment to accuracy, that centralized control of journalists' storylines is intensely problematic and subverts accuracy and and fact checking, that overt partisanship is a deep challenge to journalistic accuracy, a certain amount of humility is not a bad thing because it allows for the idea that there are other sides to any particular story, and that one should strive for fairness and balance in public statements. The views of reporters can have a place in journalism, but that is in the editorial. If journalists want to state their views, they can, but they should do so in a way that is distinct and recognizable, that separates reportage from opinion. 

Overtly politicized journalism, by contrast, ditches these principles in favour of something else. It determines on the basis of its reading of often current history that there is a right perspective and a wrong perspective. Events are, then, read through this prism. The weight of historical perspectives and a correct ideological perspective outweighs the need to investigate issues in a thorough way or check facts deeply because the weight of perspective is on one's side (said differently, the precise facts are irrelevant as long as the general framework of discussion is OK.) Centralized direction is OK because it is an owner's or editor's right to determine what his or her media outset does. After all, it is their property and because it is their property they can do with it what they will. This right to property trumps journalists' commitment to some sort of impartiality or balance and those journalists that do not like this view can look elsewhere for work. Everything is politics and so must be treated as such, even if it seems, say, heartless to not sympathize with those who have suffered a tragedy. The other political side distorts journalism as well and so for anyone to be critical of politicized reporting ... well, that is just hypocrisy. 

Once upon a time -- back in the day, as it were -- all journalism involved some degree of political bias. In Canada, for instance, it was not unusual for different towns to have more than one newspaper, each reporting the news from a particular perspective. Is today's politicized journalism a return to this older approach? 

Not really. The politicized journalism of, say, the nineteenth century, went to great lengths to engage in dialogue. It was honest about its politics, which it went to great lengths to defend. Long essays laid out the philosophical and empirical basis for conclusions. Thus, the goal of reporting was to link current events to broader perspectives, on say, trade or foreign policy, by explaining the philosophical basis for that. Its goal was not to start a "culture war" but to provide an ethical and philosophic basis upon which citizens could support particular policy choices. 

What this means is that the overt, politicized journalism of the Canadian proponents of culture wars, is something new, facilitated, I suspect by social media, and a range of other factors.  But, what is most interesting about it is an oddity, and potentially contradictory, relationship to accuracy. On the one hand, it needs the very idea of journalistic objectivity for it to lay a claim to truth. Otherwise, it would simply be a perspective that lacked any connection to reality. What do I mean? 

This: politicized journalism may not view accuracy as particularly important to its reporting but it needs to at least claim to be accurate ... otherwise, no one would believe. Consider, for instance, one of those FB comments that made the rounds a while ago. It said something like "don't change the national anthem" in response to the federal government's minor alteration of the national anthem to introduce gender-neutral language into it. That story had to make a claim to accuracy or it would have been viewed as comedy, a stunt, silliness, etc., something not to be taken seriously. So, it had to claim that there was (a) something unusual about changing the words of the national anthem, and (b) that there was something wrong -- a-traditional -- about introducing gender-neutral language. Without these claims, there was no story. Thus, this overtly politicized journalism relies on standards of accuracy and a claim to be accurate even if it violated its own standards (the national anthem has been changed many times in Canadian history and its original language was gender neutral). Otherwise, without this claim, the post simply said "we're sexist and want to keep on being sexist and we think key Canadian icons should reflect our sexism and screw anyone who believes differently." Obviously, this is something that would not be treated seriously. It is the claim to accuracy that attracts attention.

The other odd characteristic is that, in my experience, the supporters of this overtly politicized journalism don't seem to really want to engage in facts or argument. For instance, on a very minor level, I know people who dismiss what I am saying right now as so much "liberal" twaddle. The fact that it is not "liberal" does not seem to bother them. In other words, there is an element of certainty among the supporters of overtly politicized journalism that transcends the need to investigate issues or logic them out. They believe fundamentally in what they say and, in my experience, little amount of evidence or logic will alter their views. 

The good news is that I don't actually think this group is particularly large. They are larger than I might have imagined and potentially growing but I don't think they are anywhere close to a majority of the population. They might represent, say, 20% of the population, which gives them tremendous political import if they vote. But, I suspect that the ideal (even if it is not the reality) of journalistic neutrality I described represents an aspiration for most journalists and general public.  Ultimately, then, The Sun failed because someone leaked their plans. That will not stop them again and I doubt their readers really care if they contrived a culture war. They will still argue that there is one. 
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