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The story is dead

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 11:17 UK time, Friday, 2 May 2008

Another week, another book about journalism.

This one - Can We Trust The Media? by Professor Adrian Monck of London's City University.

Anyone interested in British journalism should read it - not because it gives the right answers to its title: it doesn't. But because it asks the right questions. And at least it's been written by someone who's actually worked in a newsroom.

Prof Monck's purpose is unambiguous: "What I aim to do in this book is burst the trust balloon. I want to question just why it is we want to trust the media and lay out why that will never be possible."

Two things: one, he portrays the BBC's promotion of trust to value number one as an act of choice, not the (welcome) inevitability it is for a publicly funded broadcaster. Two (for different reasons and by a different route) he's joined me in diagnosing 'the story' as the malignancy in journalism's sick body.

Journalists want to be trusted, broadly in inverse proportion to the trust in which surveys say they're actually held. But there's a missing proposition in the question normally asked. Trusted to do what? Portray the world as it really is? Not possible - any account of the world can only ever be a subset of all the facts. Trust resides in the journalist's motivation in selecting the facts he/she does and in the realisation of that motivation.

Prof Monck tells us that "trust is not important. Not being trusted never lost anyone a reader or a viewer". And, he adds, it's journalism's job to aggregate facts and "get the entertainment values right". This may well be a description of the current state of journalism: but it's not much of an aspiration for the institution of journalism that - still - plays the defining role in the public sphere.

And it's simply not tenable for a publicly (and more or less universally) funded broadcaster like the BBC to accept Prof Monck's lowest common denominator description without some aspirational pushback. Nor is it possible for the BBC to be in the same game as the commercial press which can, say, choose its facts to suit its readers.

Even if it wanted it - and it doesn't - the BBC can't choose to make its way in the world by mimicking the exhausting diurnal anger of the Mail ('woe that the 1950s are gone') or the hand-wringing of the Guardian/Independent ('woe that global warming/capitalism is taking us to hell in an organic hand-basket').

But the really big thing in Can We Trust The Media? is this: journalism itself isn't the problem. The problem is journalism's fetish - 'the story'. And so it's no bad thing that 'the story' is dead... or dying.

That's an awkward paradox. 'The story' - in the sense that journalists mean it rather than the broader idea of narrative - is the source of all that's great in journalism and all that's vile in it.

On the credit side, you can go from Russell of the Crimea through Hersh of My Lai, Woodstein of Watergate to Peston of Northern Rock. In all of these, 'the story' has been the only way journalism could happen. The only way of handling the information asymmetry, the inevitability that power has information and journalists (on behalf of citizens) have to spanner it out, chunk by chunk.

On the debit side, all those things that make journalists seem untrustworthy. Why this story and not that? Why these facts and not those? The lure of the unusual, the rogue (and unreliable) data? Sensationalism, half-truths, self-fulfilling prophecies.

'The story' can easily become the journalist's way of evading responsibility. 'It's only a story' equals 'I don't need all the facts or even the best selection of them'. 'The story' can be no more than waypoints in a convincing narrative... convincing, so long as the reader looks no further than 'the story'.

Which is why 'the story' is dead. The people we journalists used to tell our 'stories' to, with a 'trust me' wink, now routinely look beyond 'the story'. And we help them. Websites like the BBC News website are built on the basis that users will look out their own subset of facts, context and background.

More than that, news websites blur the distinction (a distinction that was only ever really relevant to journalists) between 'news' and 'information' while news aggregators make no assumptions about any individual's news agenda in the way that 'the story' has to.

In other words, the process of selection that used to be the province of the journalist - the process we used to call 'storytelling' - is now the province of each member of our audiences. Good.

This is where Prof Monck and I are in total agreement. He doesn't quite put it this way - but the death of 'the story' is part of the answer to the trust conundrum. Now journalists can get on with increasing the access of the people formerly known as the audience to the information they need and in the way they need it.

And that hand journalists once used to polish 'the story' can instead be held out to guide readers, listeners and viewers through their selection of facts, context and background and not ours.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Kevin,

    You guys make it so hard to do something so simple.

    Just tell the truth,

    So when a Washington Madam 'suicides', after she has said repeatedly that this is what will happen to her. report it. It is very relevant to the story and her belief was so strong that she had even written to a judge, I believe, stating her fears.

    When People turn up at your office door with a D-Notice, quit your job and tell us all why.

    i accept i have never worked in a newsroom so will have no understanding of the process and the responsibilities.

    But as i say it seems simple, if you tell the truth, people will trust you.

    Had you talked about the credit crunch before it happened then folks would trust that you informed them well. Instead you pretend that this has come from nowhere, like it was a big surprise.

    You will now do the same with the food crisis, Its been building for months and months, The Un have been talking about it, the CFR, the Trilateral commission. Yet again it is all a big surprise when it happens.

    At least your admitting that journalists are personally responsible, I suppose its a start, now if you can all have a 'speak the truth or not at all' approach we might go some way to mending the damage of the last few years.

  • Comment number 2.

    Monck is wrong when he says that no one's ever lost a reader/viewer by not being trusted. In the late 60s, the US weekly TIME magazine did a story about the Albany State University in New York's capital, at which my mother was studying at the time. Apparently, TIME ran a graphic with the layout of the university in which some buildings were mislabelled. Ever since then, my mother has refused to read the magazine. When I asked her why, her response was simple. "If they screw up the things I know, how can I trust them when they tell me things I don't know?" This shows how sloppiness even on minor details can affect people's trust... and their willingness to be a reader/viewer.

  • Comment number 3.

    Is it just me, or is there something incredibly, well, anal about BBC journoes rambling on about journalism and the Beeb?

  • Comment number 4.

    Unbelievable. After the disgraceful performance we have seen from the BBC in recent days, spinning like crazy for Livingstone and spewing the most disgusting bile against Johnson, you have the nerve to talk about trust?

    Get with the story: the majority of Brits have no trust whatsoever left in BBC news truthfulness, after the ongoing distortions and thew cozying up to Labour over years. Let alone the BBC's huge bias against Israel.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's all well and good to say that people have access to more information, can do deeper research - but that ignores the fact 90% of sheeple can't be bothered to look beyond the leader and the first few paragraphs of any story.

    They really can't.

    The world has become instant gratification. Research involves thinking, and that's become too much of a chore for most.

    I'd go so far as to say that media organizations know this is the case, and that's why stories are more about soundbites than substance.

    They (you?) are catering to an increasingly lazy and jaundiced audience, for whom anything beyond the superficial is anathema - better to keep them entertained than informed, because they *want* entertainment, not information.

    Monck is wrong when he says trust is not important - trust is inextricably bound to integrity.

    If the BBC didn't have a reputation for integrity, people wouldn't have trusted it about Dr Kelly (and that was the reason why the BBC had to be editorially and organizationally lobotomized to finally remove a thorn in the side of secrecy)

    The BBC being publicly funded actually should promote integrity and responsible reporting - everyone is "paying" for it, so you have to find the right balance to try to assuage the needs of the widest possible audience.

    In theory.

    If the trust of a their audience is not important to a journalist, then neither is their integrity - they might as well go work for News Corp.

  • Comment number 6.

    Moonwolf,

    I find it no suprise that you mention the death of Dr. Kelly, for me this was the turning point for the BBC.

    For me, that was the point when the state said no more and any notion of impartiality was finally removed from editorial decisions.

    They came for the journalists and nobody noticed

  • Comment number 7.

    You just have to look around you and see how biased the BBC is, and that is where one would expect the best to come form. I have little trust in journalists and get information from a variety of sources so that I feel I have some idea what is going on. The BBC lost their reputation long ago for being able to produce trustworthy data. They are simply the Brown Broadcasting Corporation. I do not really mind an organisation having a view, but in this instance I do, as it is my money they are using.

  • Comment number 8.

    The reason why it is called a "media" is that the audience obtains their information indirectly through a third-party layer. The accuracy of this information received by the audience depends totally on transparency of this layer. Like a pair of prescribed spectacles, the media is often the only way people perceive the world they would otherwise have no access to, not realising that it does not necessarily represent the whole truth.

    These days we are seeing this layer becoming more and more opague through sensationalised reporting and the liberal use of emotive words such as "crackdown", "insurgency", "catastrophe", "crisis", etc. How about leaving colorful labels alone and going back to the basic by reporting an issue as is? The audience is supposed to sift through neutral objective information then make up their own minds on the issue.

    I remember not long ago the warriors in Afghanistan were referred to by the press as "freedom fighters". Now they are nothing more than "terrorists". This causes people's opinion toward these people to change from one extreme to another, even though the individual nature of these warriors have not changed.

    If the audience's minds are already being made up by emotive, coercive reporting then this would be called "propaganda" or "brainwashing".

  • Comment number 9.

    Kevin

    If the quality of the BBC's output is so great why do your reporters continue to use the phrase 'Greater London Assembly'?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7382831.stm
    As I've explained to BBC news editors many times London's Government is the Greater London Authority which includes the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

    There is no entity called 'Greater London Assembly' outside of poorly researched news items.

  • Comment number 10.

    The comments left on this blog entry sum up the problems faced by journalists.

    If someone reads a story that isn't exactly parallel with their view of the world, the journalist/newspaper/website etc is instantly branded as biased, lazy or just corrupt.

    The real problem faced by journalism is the number of readers who are too quick to condemn without actually considering why something has been written in such a manner.

    Perhaps, just perhaps, it is not the journalist who is wildly biased (or worse) but you.

  • Comment number 11.

    Prior to the Kelly affair I thought the beeb did a fair job with its news - you can't please all the people all the time but at least have a stab at it .
    The change in attitude since then is quite remarkable - the government seems to be skirted round now - no incisive journalism there. Even HYS censors heavily in favour of Blair.
    Following on from this - slowly but surely - the news slots seem to have been dumbed down - yes really . Before there used to be an attempt to inform the viewer but what we have now is tabloids on the tele. No in depth items just sound bites - shallow items shallowly presented.
    Society gets the journalists it deserves.

  • Comment number 12.

    I am afraid that the BBC appears to be behaving little better than Orwell's "Ministry of Truth".

    There is detailed controversy over minutiae with politicians and precious little over matters of life and death.

    Example of Ministry of Truth behaviours: changing the news: the bbc reported changing wikipedia pages (as reported in the Independent)

    - Avoiding issues - why no detailed analysis of 9/11 - are we happy with what the politicians said on the day, on the hour, of attacks?

    - Reporting "officially- source" news sources only - why accept the view the DC Madam committed suicide when clearly this seems like political assassination? And Michael Todd's death - what really happened there? Death by self-inflicted text messaging?!

    - Involvement in PysOps - accepting news stories from the secret services (or Police forces) without chcking whether they are right or wrong (eg Ian Blair's terrorist threat analysis story which was corrected (on the backpages) shortly after it was headline news)

    So, you tell me: can we trust the media?



  • Comment number 13.

    I don't see any particular agenda or bias in the BBC News reporting, I broadly trust it's news agenda.

    However the thesis that you outline that the "story is dead" is clearly absurd. Of course the story is alive and well, of course good journalists try to place facts into a framework which explains causality and analyses the meaning and import of the events.

    Sure, people may disagree with the journalists story, may amend it or write their own, based on independent investigation of the facts, but extrapolating that to suggest this means there is no story, is just very very silly.

  • Comment number 14.

    "Which is why 'the story' is dead. The people we journalists used to tell our 'stories' to, with a 'trust me' wink, now routinely look beyond 'the story'. And we help them. Websites like the BBC News website are built on the basis that users will look out their own subset of facts, context and background."

    Is your second sentence actually true? Do not most people choose to limit their absorption of news and current affairs to headlines and 10-second summaries? Ought not therefore the principal requirement of news bulletins to be that they are put together in a way that is unquestionably neutral, balanced and free from presupposition? How can it be correct to use the completeness of the small print to sanitise undisclosed editorial slant in the summary?

  • Comment number 15.

    Assuming Mr Marsh is reading these comments, I wonder if he'd like to risk breaking the taboo against criticizing peers and comment about this timely piece of really bad fact checking.

    The Independent reported on the argument by the inhabitants of the ancient greek isle of Lesbos against a greek lesbian group.

    At the end, they include the statement:

    Now, an on-line lesbian magazine called The Register


    The Register, as most know, is an IT news source - it only ran an article about the argument over the name.

    The Independent has since corrected this, presumably after The Register posted about the mistake and regular readers posted comments in our ... umm ... special way :)

    But I'm curious - how do glaring mistakes like the one The Independent made fit in with your article about the story being "dead", and Monck's assertion that trust is not important?

  • Comment number 16.

    To be "trustworthy" I would deem it more important that the mediator had authority in the field they reported.

    Admittedly, I'm in danger of sounding like an intellectual elitist here, but I get the distinct impression that Media and Journalism as an academic field of study doesn't really warrant a great deal of analytical prowess.

    Academics of Economics, Politics and the Arts who write in the media are clearly more qualified to comment on their field than the mundane who graduated in Media and Journalism. And sometimes (or "most of the time" when I read reports about issues in Science, Medicine and Engineering) I wish the journalist had a true grasp of the topic rather than just consulting with experts and dumbing it down to their level.

    So, from my own personal position: in order to have any degree of "trust" in the media's reporting and commentary of events, I have to believe that there is some authority in the position of the speakers and writers who draw up the agenda and pass commentary.

    Even if they run contrary up my own world view, I believe this "trust" is paramount to the mediation being a constructive and informative exercise - rather than an attempt to pander to the masses in a cynical ploy to feed the advertisers with an audience rife with dupes.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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