Why fence-sitting journalism gives credence to fake news
A 2016 Eurobarometer report suggests that trust in media is at an all time low. According to the report, most European citizens do not even regard Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) as free or independent.
The report is a major blow to all news media. It challenges the legitimacy of PSB, which UNESCO defines as “free from political interference and pressure from commercial forces.”
People are looking elsewhere for their news and they have a much wider choice of sources than ever before. As recently as 20 years ago, a small number of broadcast channels and newspapers had a virtual monopoly on the news as they alone were capable of reaching a mass audience.
The internet has lowered the entry barriers to the extent that today almost anyone has access to a mass audience. Donald Trump doesn’t need journalists to reach his voters because he can speak to them on Twitter.
The advent of media pluralism means the gatekeepers have gone and there is no way to prevent fake news from spreading. Even if they ever manage to filter fake news out of Facebook — and I’m not a fan of the idea — there is no way of controlling what people share on messaging apps or will find elsewhere on the internet.
A few years ago, the Daily Show poked fun at what Jon Stewart called CNN’s “let’s leave it there” journalism. The premise was that CNN let their guests say whatever they liked without ever challenging them about the facts.
Like all good satire, it’s very close to the bone. Public service journalism is rigorously objective, which is a good thing, but also stubbornly impartial.
The mantra of public service journalism is that every story has two sides, even when it’s an issue like climate science.
It doesn’t matter that more than 90 per cent of the world’s scientists agree that global warming is happening, they still feel obliged, in the interests of balance, to give equal airtime to experts funded by the fossil fuel industry.
By sitting on the fence for so long, public service journalists have encouraged audiences to believe that for every fact there is an alternative fact.
Not only have they have landed us with Donald Trump and Brexit, but also they are creating their own demise. The world has changed. People no longer need to bother with public service journalism when they can cherry-pick the news that matches their own biases.
It is ironic that it has taken a Trump presidency to remind mainstream media about the sacrosanctity of fact checking. The days of the captive audience, thankfully, are never coming back and there is a critical need for journalists to adapt to the times.
Public service journalists must climb down from the fence. Objectivity and impartiality do not have to go hand in hand.