Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov caught my attention on Twitter recently with some posts about modern media and the need to report facts.
Here’s the tweet which piqued my interest:
“Your responsibility is to the truth, not to ‘giving both sides’ when one side is lies. And you cannot expose lies without spreading them. So repeat the facts,” Kasparov said.
“Repeating the facts, over and over, is the way to be a lighthouse in the fog of misinformation and lies. Otherwise people doubt, tune out, assume the truth is unknowable, or that known facts are up for debate.”
The decline of media standards has concerned me for many years.
It’s not the nostalgic lamentation of a former journalist and editor, although there might be some of that — it’s more frustration and despair at how the profession I trained for has become a carrier of gossip, rumour, innuendo and falsehood.
I’m not talking about “fake news” and I don’t entirely blame the journalists themselves. There are still many fine, upstanding, honourable and dedicated reporters.
But there aren’t many reporters left.
I was trained to be impartial and balanced. Modern journalists think they’re impartial and balanced if they report both sides of a story, which is what Kasparov is decrying.
At the Kalgoorlie Miner in the 2000s, we had a rule that every story needed at least three voices. That erases any possibility of a “he said, she said” argument.
Today, I regularly see “news” articles in regional media with only one voice and many with just two, the hallmark of lazy (or time stressed) “he said, she said” journalism. The media thrives on this, ignoring facts and often repeating previous reports.
This year I lost count of how many times I stated Bundaberg Regional Council’s position on various issues such as fluoride, the cost of air fares, Moneys Creek Lagoon and water restrictions. The list goes on.
A journalist would contact us to respond to some new commentary. Council’s position hadn’t changed and we’d give the same lines, but they still managed to make a story. In some cases these stories were damaging to Council.
A consistent occurrence was the journalist’s lack of interest in establishing the facts and the truth. If Council engages an out-of-town contractor, maybe it’s just possible they quoted the best price and had the best qualifications. Or if the facts were published, don’t let them get in the way of a provocative Facebook post (click bait).
If the State Government thinks Council should fluoridate the water supply, why don’t the media ask them to legislate for this to occur? Why doesn’t the government offer to pay for it?
It’s much easier for an under-pressure, poorly trained journalist to “interview” two people (by email in the case of print) and get their 350 words to write a lead story.
The climate change debate was the first to expose the failure of modern journalism to test facts.
For many years and even today, denialists are given prominent coverage. We know the climate is changing; that’s a fact. Sure, have respectful discourse about reasons and solutions but don’t pretend there isn’t climate change.
Here’s a real-life scenario I had to deal with:
Member of the public criticises a councillor for her role with a third-party organisation, making strident claims about her capability. Media offered her the right of reply. I said to the outlet: “If someone claims that a person is a paedophile, do you report that and give them the right of reply? Why don’t you establish the facts and the truth in the first instance?”
On that occasion the media outlet agreed with me.
I don’t have any confidence in the future of regional media. I believe it will continue to decline.
In the early 90s I was managing editor of the West Coast Sentinel at Ceduna and later the Port Pirie Recorder.
Some years after I left Ceduna, the editor job there was made redundant. Rural Press/Fairfax sent a graduate cadet to Ceduna and had the editor based hundreds of kilometres away.
News Corp reduced the size of its print pages several months ago and I expect cost cutting to continue.
Fake news example: Here’s a story I made up. It’s NOT REAL. The irony is that I would not be surprised if a story like this appeared in the local media:
NEWS: Bundaberg volcano predicted to erupt
Residents of The Hummock near Bundaberg believe a volcanic eruption is imminent and have started taking safety precautions.
They claim that Bundaberg Regional Council is doing nothing to allay their concerns and a state of emergency should be declared.
Amber Blaze, who has lived on the ancient outcrop for two years, said she had felt rumblings in bed at night and she had noticed steam in the early mornings.
Neighbour Seymour Burns, 83, concurred, adding that tremors were increasing as he moved about his house near the summit.
Scientists say The Hummock last erupted more than 12,000 years ago, spewing black rocks over nearby beaches and leaving rich volcanic soil in its wake.
A Council spokesman said expert advice indicated there was no immediate risk and residents should not be alarmed.
However, Melbourne University geologist Associate Professor Bernie Mayhem said there was no room for complacency.
“It’s much more likely to be a matter of when, rather than if, a significant volcano occurs in Australia,” Professor Mayhem said.
Meanwhile, Ms Blaze and her partner Ben Dover remain disturbed.
“We moved here for the peace and quiet, to get away from the city,” they said.
“Council should compensate us for allowing houses to be built on an active volcano.”
Here’s a link to a real story that appeared in the Courier Mail 10 years ago.
Although the fake news story is satire, I can seriously imagine it becoming real.