Journalists are helping to create a dangerous consensus
Brexit vote and US election showed media’s failure to ask the really difficult questions
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump points at the gathered media during his walk through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, US. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters
If the job of investigative journalism is to put new and relevant facts into the public domain, then the American media performed relatively well during the recent presidential campaign, and in some cases, it did brilliantly.
The “hot mic” tapes and Donald Trump’s tax returns were, by anyone’s standards, excellent scoops and most probably, in any election before this one, they might have ended the hopes of a presidential candidate. But not this time. This time, the facts no longer mattered.
We’ve heard a lot recently about the concept of a “post-factual society” and there has been a great deal of debate about what that means. Some say it’s a society where facts no longer exist; in fact it’s a society where they exist, but don’t matter. In that scenario, serious investigative journalism finds itself in the novel position of making less and less impact.
Until relatively recently, a methodical piece of revelatory investigative journalism could expect to produce two results – outrage on behalf of its readership and audience, and shame on behalf of its target.
Fifteen years ago when I first went to work as a reporter for Panorama, the BBC current affairs and investigative programme, we could count on a general set of moral and ethical assumptions shared across society and work out pretty well how our journalism would play in them.
If you did a story about how a tycoon was treating his minimum-wage workers terribly and you told it with compelling testimony, perhaps with secret filming and supported by documentary evidence, you could pretty much guarantee that when it went out on prime-time television, the audience would be outraged.
Then, almost certainly, the “shame” element would follow, like a necessary bedfellow. We could expect a mea culpa from the tycoon, perhaps a public apology and a declared determination to make things better.
All of that is changing fast. One of the greatest changes I have noticed in journalism is that stories we would consider to be important no longer make the impact we expected.
So why is that? A simple and rather superficial answer – although it contains a lot of truth – is social media. Outrage is in short supply because it is a muscle that has been over-used. The human heart can only summon so much outrage. If you are checking your Twitter feed 20 times a day, the chances are that on a fairly regular basis you are seeing sights that most humans were, until recently, rarely exposed to. A dead baby in the ruins of Aleppo; a mother holding her child, killed in a chemical attack; a teenager who has been run over by a lorry in a terrorist attack in France.
Most big broadcasters have “ingest editors” – people whose job it is to look at the raw footage sent in from all over the world, and to cut out the horror that cannot be shown on mainstream television. It’s a tough job and people who do it regularly receive breaks from it as well as counselling to help them deal with it.
These days, we’re all ingest editors, but without the breaks or the counselling.
In that context, the human capacity for outrage becomes exhausted very quickly. You cannot be outraged all of the time and so when you hear news of another political scandal or tax-evading business person, the moral and emotional bank is empty.
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Take the concept of shame. These days if you’re the centre of a big story and you have done wrong, you can be almost guaranteed it will blow over. An entire industry of crisis management PR consultants has grown up around the task of telling clients to sit tight.
And the brutal truth about shame, both the public and private kind, is that too often it is a factor of expectation; those who think the punishment will be fleeting or non-existent feel it a great deal less. In today’s political climate, would US president Richard Nixon have been impeached? Would he have resigned? I don’t believe so.
He might instead simply send out a tweet saying his enemies were out to get him, and God Bless America, and now it’s time to move on – and we all would.
So, how have we got here? It starts with the financial crisis of 2008. When the history books are written, the seismic political events of the past year will be traced to that beginning. Before, during, and after the 2008 crash, serious journalism dropped the ball. Because we knew, didn’t we? We knew.
In Belfast, London and Dublin, we knew on some instinctive common-sense level but we subjugated our instincts to the judgments of experts who did not exist. We knew it didn’t feel right, that it was unsustainable.
But as journalists we missed it. Or more to the point, we didn’t tell it, until it came from the bottom up and could not be ignored – until it had already happened. The central issue is that journalists buy into narratives just like everybody else and just like everybody else we can be wrong on a collective and massive scale. This is no surprise – we are not supernatural sages.
The problem is that we are getting ever worse at going against the dominant consensus. Fewer and fewer of us are anti-authoritarian enough and difficult enough to go with our gut and challenge the narrative. These days journalists are not rewarded for being difficult. A culture does not exist in which a journalist can render an alternative narrative without being dismissed as a loonie leftie or alt-right conspiracy theorist.
Thirty years ago journalists questioned dominant narratives all the time – it was what journalists were for. Today, questioning the consensus is a dangerous game; whether it’s the consensus of neoliberalism or military interventionism or whatever – it gets you called a “conspiracy theorist”. This is how journalism fails.
As humans we have instincts about things we see around us. Intuition. Common sense. And as journalists, we have a duty to follow these observations wherever they take us, even if it is against the prevailing wisdom. Yet now, too many of us have had that instinct trained out of us; we stay with the herd, even when there are no real fences us around to hold us in – just our own expectations and those of our peers.
I should point out, if it isn’t already obvious, I am entirely guilty of the sin of which I speak. I spent a decade travelling around the UK doing Panorama after Panorama. The subjects were diverse – welfare cuts, the National Health Service, undercover investigations into criminals, migrant labour exposés – I put a lot of facts out into the world and as far as I know they were all correct.
But the bigger story was the one all around me. It was what I was seeing in towns such as Stoke and Scunthorpe, Merthyr Tydfil and Bradford. It was the despair. The grim, grinding, daily despair in the lives of so many of the people I met. And yet I had no way to tell it as a story, to sum it all up, to tie it together, even though I felt it instinctively. I never even suggested it. I should have. And then on June 23rd in the vote on EU membership it became a story after all.
So how have we failed? We have failed in America and the UK by narrowing the acceptable boundaries of investigative journalism. We have failed by allowing a climate of intellectual adventure to wither away from journalism, the one part of society that should support voices who seriously and thoughtfully challenge the dominant narratives that shape our world.
We have allowed ourselves to become a herd of sheep, and the more closely the herd bunches together, the smaller the corner of the field it takes up.
Pretty soon we think this corner of the field is the whole field.
But it isn’t – it’s just our corner.
So is there a way forward? I think so. First, mainstream newspapers and broadcasters need to fundamentally change the kind of content they commission.
They need to seek out voices on the extremes of right and left instead of allowing new, single-politics media outlets grow up at the fringes. They should feature these voices and interrogate them, holding them to the standard we all aspire to – of fact-based reason. Bring everyone into the tent. See how they hold up under questioning.
Journalists need to pull off the greatest trick of all – to recognise the limits of their own perceptions and try to exceed them. To see that there might be another narrative and another way of looking at the world.
We need to use journalistic rigour to stress-test the basic assumptions we all live under.
We need to question the consensus because the only thing that is certain is that the consensus nearly always turns out to be wrong. As a journalist, I look forward to it all, now that everything has changed. In a way, I find these strange, dark and ridiculous times to be exciting. They say that soldiers need wars. Journalists too get stale without a fight. We should get out of the corner of the field and go looking for one.
This is an edited version of a contribution to the Cleraun Media Conference on Investigative Journalism on the Digital Frontier held last weekend in Dublin.
Declan Lawn is writer and documentary maker who was a reporter with BBC Current Affairs between 2002 and 2016, working mainly for Panorama and BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme.