In my days as a journalist, I was often face-to-face with people who were, at least, indignant, and at most, stark raving mad about a particular issue.
Each of them had contacted their local paper because they wanted everyone to know about the huge injustice they had suffered at the hands of a third party, via big headlines in the newspaper.
I listened, made notes, and after excluding the tales from the clearly deluded, would sometimes follow-up on these claims. The first point of contact: The person or organization accused of the alleged wrongdoing de jour. And in most cases, that’s where these stories fell apart – because the complainant had only told me part of the story, and perhaps neglected to say that the offending party had already apologized, provided compensation, etc.
It was all about balance and fairness. We’d have to decide whether or not carrying a story would be in the public interest. More often than not, they’d end up on the spike, which is where they belonged.
In his 2013 book The Circle, Dave Eggers presented a dystopian world where everything – literally everything – becomes transparent … and looked at the huge and largely negative implications of this becoming reality.
The book, a must-read for anyone working in tech, was particularly skillful for the way in which it started off by carefully building a sense of euphoria – then broke it down, in a series of hammer blows. Just when you’d think it couldn’t get any worse, it did.
In the past, we relied on the media for our information. With a healthy pinch of salt, of course. “If it’s in the papers,” the old joke went, “then it must be true.”
But now, even the mainstream media is being sucked into the vortex of being first with the news. Filtering, context and fact-checking are being overlooked in the race to real-time updates.
As a consequence, today, one rogue story – whether or not it is true – can easily cast a huge shadow over a reputation that has, rightfully, taken years to build. We are seeing a desperate race to be first with the “news”, no matter how trivial, and the lack of checking and filtering is exacerbating the problem.
All it takes is a tweet from a source who might, for whatever reason, be well placed to provide disinformation, or to harbor a grudge, and the whole world’s lighting up with this non-news. Yesterday, there were totally unfounded stories about the artist Banksy being arrested. Nice story: However, it wasn’t true.
Just imagine what Mark Twain would make of it!
In our frenetic world, this is having after-effects, such as dragging down a share price by 14%: That is what happened to GoPro after a single opinion from a Formula 1 commentator, presented as a fact, which stated that Michael Schumacher’s helmet-mounted camera caused his head injuries. The presenter he later backed down on this being “fact” to confirm that it was merely his personal opinion. Maybe like everyone else, he also has an opinion on the fate of that missing Malaysian airliner …
Unfiltered “news” is also doing journalism a disservice. Why read a hack’s live stream when they’re simply repeating the official “story”? I want analysis and qualified third-party opinion in addition to the breathless reportage from a single source, and I’m prepared to pay for quality journalism.
There are still a few rocks upon which we can rely for information. For example, the BBC maintains a policy of qualifying information from two independent sources before it will dive in … so it will never be first with breaking news. But even good quality news reporting is under threat as more and more media sources cave in to the pressure of providing instant gratification, since the alternative is to lose readers and of course the precious page impressions and click-thrus that they bring.As I blogged a few months ago, I gave up Facebook for 99 days – and have another week or so to go before returning. To fill the void created by being unable to get my “fix” of updates from friends, I turned to a number of established media sources and read the news, instead. It’s not quite so colorful but much more enlightening and balanced.
I concluded that we are getting what we pay for. This is why it is time to start paying for our news with money not click-thrus – because then we’re paying for that quality control filter that we all crave.
By Simon Jones