Line between journalists' opinions and reporting increasingly blurred


The media has been under scrutiny recently both in Britain and in Ireland.

Excellent though the Leveson inquiry report is in many ways, it is quite tame in its recommendations, and even those are unlikely to be implemented in full.

There were some flaws in the Leveson report. The impact of social media was virtually ignored. Also, given his remit, and the egregious nature of the offences, it is perhaps unsurprising that he pays little or no attention to issues such as groupthink and systemic bias.

Coincidentally, the Frontline working document on that infamous presidential debate was also published recently. While critical of many aspects of the programme, it exonerates the Frontline team from any allegations of bias.

Fascinating, is it not, that the candidate preferred by the media got the least challenging line of questions, but there was no bias?

I wonder how easy it is for any organisation to be aware of its biases. Total objectivity is impossible for any human being. Some people are even paid to express their biases, God help us. That’s fine, so long as it is clearly labelled as opinion.

Increasingly, the line between opinion and reporting is being blurred.

Every form of media regulation from voluntary codes to legislation assumes that a reasonable level of objectivity and balance is both possible and desirable. For example, the NUJ code of conduct states: “A journalist differentiates between fact and opinion.”

RTÉ Journalism Guidelines (interim edition) states: “Trust is the cornerstone of RTÉ: we seek to be honest, reliable, authoritative, impartial and independent of vested interests.”

The guidelines stress the importance of what used to be a journalistic creed, that of having two independent sources.

It also states: “Programme makers must ensure that in their use of social media they avoid damaging perceptions of their own or RTÉ’s impartiality.”

Given that the Frontline review was prompted by “Tweetgate”, one would think that RTÉ personnel, whether freelance or staff, would be wary of Twitter and other social media.

There used to be considerable restraint among reporters and producers regarding the revelation of their own political affiliations, and stances on controversial issues. The advent of social media has put paid to that, it seems, particularly among younger journalists.

A freelance producer who works for RTÉ recently apologised for describing David Quinn, founder and director of the Iona Institute (of which I am a patron), as a “poisonous c**t”. I found it fascinating that this individual, who presumably would call himself a feminist, chose that term to describe someone whose opinions he disliked. A Freudian would have a field day.

Although he admitted that the tweet was “childish”, he did not delete the tweet until contacted by a newspaper, and his major, if belated, worry seemed to be that it would reflect badly on RTÉ.

John McGuirk, PR consultant and former Libertas communications director (and prolific tweeter himself), recently compiled a list of journalists and producers who tweeted that they were taking part in a pro-choice march, or calling for support for it. He gave up at 37. There were some names associated with RTÉ, and nine from this newspaper (although The Irish Times is not a public service organisation).

Of course journalists and producers are entitled to their personal opinions, but if you work for a public service broadcaster, how does calling for support for a pro-choice march “ensure that in their use of social media they avoid damaging perceptions of their own or RTÉ’s impartiality”?

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in economics, wrote a fascinating book called Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Basically, he believes that we have a dual-process brain, which he dubs System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is lightning fast, intuitive, and non-linear. Without it, we could not survive, because System 2 is slow, linear and energy-intensive.

We believe that we operate from System 2, in other words, that we are rational and objective, but we are operating most of the time from System 1.

Kahneman speaks of “self-sustaining chains of events”, that activate System 1 and virtually neutralise System 2. They often start from media reports, but lead to public panic and government action.

“The emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media.” Anyone urging caution is accused of a “heinous cover-up”.

It is simply a fact that the majority of people working in the media share a particular worldview on social issues. For example, think about how often panels in RTÉ consist of people who share pro-choice views, with perhaps a token pro-life voice.

Now think of any time you heard a panel consisting of a majority of anti-abortion advocates.

Does the latter seem preposterous, and the first normal? Kahneman would smile. System 1 to the fore, once again. But the role of reporters, presenters and producers is not to start “self-sustaining chains of events”.

Or at least so their codes of ethics would seem to suggest.

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