I am currently reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which focuses on journalism and news and how the profession is failing in its duty to protect and disseminate the truth. This isn’t, Davies claims, because of a some moral failing on the part of journalists, nor out of commercial pressure, or indeed interference from proprietors. Instead, Davies points the finger at the way in which stories are promulgated across the media as a result of a lack of fact checking and a desire to cover breaking news regardless of whether or not it is actually verifiable.
The first example Davies provides is that of the millennium bug. Before the turn of the century, significant numbers of column inches were dedicated to describing the disasters and calamities that would befall society if nothing were done about it. But in truth, the actual number of systems affected by the bug were minimal:
…the problem would only occur in computers which had internal clocks (most desktop computers do, but most ’embedded’ systems, on which big organisations rely, don’t), but only if those clocks calculated time by using a calendar rather than by simply measuring the gap between two dates, and only if those calendars used only two digits to register the years, rather than four, and only if the computer was being used for programs which had to calculate time across the boundary between 1999 and 2000.
Needless to say, there weren’t many such systems around, and at the dawn of the new millennium, there were no planes falling from the sky, nor riots destroying our streets. The story had spread because the actual likely dangers were exaggerated by the various sources that the journalists were relying on, and those sources were not necessarily acting in a malicious way. Firstly, the IT security experts exaggerated the risk so that people would listen to them and take the issue seriously. From this, parties with an interest in the issue added to the noise: office managers seeking upgrades to their systems used the millennium bug as an excuse; governments overreacted so a not to appear as taking the nation’s security lightly. Then the third wave of opinion started to be voiced: those who had no clue what they were talking about at all.
This cacophony is self perpetuating, until some point where the truth becomes self-evident, and in this case that point was 1 January 2000, when nothing happened. Davies gives other examples too: the rumours around Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and the furore surrounding the prescription of heroin by British doctors. In the latter case, this can be seen to have had some serious consequences for society.
I’m interested in seeing what Davies comes up with in terms of explanations as to why journalists appear to be so compliant with this. Reviews of the book mentioned issues such as the demands of time and resources leading to a over-reliance on wire copy and a reluctance to fact-check. The rolling 24/7 news agenda must have some bearing on this with news TV channels demanding constant big stories and breaking updates and this is also true now of print journalists who provide content for news websites as well as for the print editions.
Does the use of social media tools by citizen journalists help or hinder the journalist profession in it’s pursuit of the truth? In many ways the influence is a negative one – bloggers have no requirement to meet any kind of professional standards and can publish more or less what they like – there is no Blogging Complaints Commission for example. This means that stories can get some air before they reach the traditional news media, giving them a life that they might not otherwise have got.
But that’s just one side of the coin. Citizen journalists can also get the truth out quicker, even when the mainstream media is pushing a different line. And while the authors of blogs might not necessarily always write the truth, it’s far harder for the majority of folk to falsify photographic or video social reporting (ok, so there is always Photoshop, and the equivalents for video editing, but the numbers of people who can produce convincing falsification are few and far between).
I mentioned in a previous post that perhaps a role for the professional journalist in the networked society might be in turning the fragments produced by the social reporters, the citizen journalists, into cohesive wholes, by taking a perspective a bit wider than the folk in the street with their camera phones who are providing the building blocks of the truth that in turn provide the journalists with the authenticity their stories need.
There is a Flat Earth News site with further information, extracts etc. It runs on Drupal!
Update: Just found this Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Davies. Well worth a listen.