Sunday, 9 June 2013

Flat Earth News - The Dumbing Down of Journalism

Hopelessly late in reading this, but Nick Davies´ Flat Earth News is probably more true now than it was when published first in 2008, before the great culmination of scandals that brought down the Sun and threatened the Murdoch media empire.

Davies argues that by the establishment of media empires in the 1980 and 1990s there started a trend towards rationalisation of news production. Budgets were lowered, fewer journalists were required to produce more news. This has led to a decline in the quality of journalism as there is not enough time to check facts and dig beyond what is delivered to them.

News is now delivered by press agencies with similarly reduced staff, but increasingly directly by PR organisations from the government, interest organisations, companies and intelligence agencies. Davies notes that the time is fast approaching where PR personnel outnumbers the journalists.

PR people have become much better at offering journalists ready-made news items. Political press officers provide Sound bites, arrange exclusive interviews and plant scoops. Interest groups selectively quote-mine scientific reports to support their arguments. Businesses subsidise related research that draws headlines, so that their message gets across. This is just what allows journalist, short of time, to meet their expected levels of productivity.

How journalism is squashed between rationalisation 
on the one hand and expanding PR on the other

The lack of time available has led to several sub-trends, picking stories which:
  • Are easy to process. So only give the facts, not the context
  • Carry low risk. They come from 'trusted' sources like the government, don't offend those powerful/wealthy enough to sue you or block your access to new stories, present both sides of the story as is they are equal. It also means that news media tend to hunt in packs, because a story published elsewhere is a safe source. Esepecially when there's a moral panic.
  • Are guaranteed to sell. So no news from far off places that nobody cares about, but endless celebrity gossip. And nothing that challenges the preconceptions of your audience.
The most interesting development is the support of astro-turf organisations, that is (fake) grassroots organisations supported by companies or intelligence agencies. Look for instance at the many patients representation groups supported by the pharmaceutical industry and non-representative expatriate organisations like the Iraqi National Council.  Or the dubious think tanks and research establishments used by the oil industry to sow doubt about climate change.

Most worrying is that the intelligence agencies have found their way to the newsrooms as well. It is not entirely new, as Cold War agencies also had their journalistic ´assets´, conduits through which they could convey their message. Or undermine the credibility of someone who lifted the lid on them. But since the 1990s they have used their information monopoly to steer reporters in their desired directions.  Their power is as big as those of the independent press agencies. The War in Iraq being a case in point.

Davies´ chapter on The Observer shows how the CIA led reporters astray by misinforming them (through the Iraqi National Council) while the political editor was bagged by Downing Street. But the chapters on other newspapers are as chilling and depressing, especially the collusion with private investigators and policemen that bug phones, gather private information from protected databases and harrass victims to get their side of the story even when all they want is to be left alone.

Tragically, it seems that this book has not been able to change much, although I can see an undercurrent of journalists trying to wrest away from Big Media. And judging by the results of the Leveson Inquiry and the opposition from the media to its conclusions, I have no confidence that it will prove more than a dint in the trend, let alone a break.

Even though this book isn't directly about gaming and history, I think it holds very important lessons when it comes to current military subjects. We cannot assume that information on opponents of the intelligence agencies is truthful. Information is leaked, planted through 'assets' and distorted. It also hold important lessons about the role of the press and the way in which it can be used to keep the truth from the public. We should be thinking hard about how we integrate these lessons into our game design.

It would be nice to say that this trend is only confined to the UK or the anglo-saxon media, but there's enough signs that it also applies to the Netherlands. Joris Luyendijk, writing about the same time, showed the weakness of foreign correspondents in the Middle East. He argued that in countries with hardly any room for independent public opinion, lacking social scientific research or even opinion polls, if not controlled by security services, how could the foreign correspondent really know what people felt?

And when you cover such a large and diverse region, you end up doing a standup from your hotel roof 30 minutes after you'd flown in based on nothing more than what you got from the newsroom and a quick chat with your taxi driver on the way in from the airport. But his criticism of the work of foreign correspondents was met as much by indignant replies from his colleagues as by others commending him for his bravery to be open about the limitations of his job.

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