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POLITICS in PUBS Newcastle

Can we trust the news media?
Notes from meeting held on Tuesday 19th September 2023
Introduction by Phil Miles
Chair: Caspar Hewett, Director, The Great Debate

UK and US surveys show that only 1 in 3 adults trust the news media most of the time. PiP Newcastle discussed the reasons for this loss of trust and asked the question: if modern journalism really has gone awry, how do we get it back on track?

In our recent meeting at The Telegraph pub, the introductory talk was given by writer and PiP member Philip Miles, who described the problem in a nutshell: When the facts don't fit their narrative, the media abandons the facts, not the narrative. Phil acknowledged that bias is part of human nature, but argued that we have a right to expect impartiality in news broadcasts – especially those from our national public broadcasting service.

So what can we do? Phil proposed that the best defence is to raise awareness of the ways journalists seek to manipulate audiences into accepting a biased view. With that in mind, he presented his personal top ten 'sneaky tricks'!

10. Using subjective rather than objective language. For instance: "In a bizarre rant, Mr X said ...". Of course, one man's 'bizarre rant' is another man's 'impassioned speech'. An impartial journalist would simply say "Mr X said ...".

9. Burying the lead. Some events are so high profile that news outlets have to cover them even if they don't fit their narrative. In this scenario, they often relegate crucial information to the fourth or fifth paragraph, knowing that most people won't read past the headline.

8. Putting words in people's mouths. Watch out for headlines which purport to be quoting someone directly but only put one or two words in quotation marks. This is a great way to twist the meaning of what was actually said.

7. Over-reliance on quotes at the expense of proper investigative reporting. This can result in contradiction and confusion, such as when the same issue of the Evening Standard contained headlines stating "UK should be 'more or less free' of coronavirus crisis by Christmas, Sage scientist predicts" and "Kent variant will 'sweep the world' as Covid battle 'will last at least ten years'."

6. Accompanying an article with an unflattering photo is a sure sign that the media outlet wants readers to dislike the person in question and to disapprove of what they are saying.

5. Heavily edited video footage. Crucial context may end up - deliberately - on the cutting room floor.

4. A curious lack of curiosity. Journalists are supposed to be curious by nature, but on certain topics they seem to unquestioningly accept what they are told and to repeat it, without challenge or further probing, to their audience.

3. The boy who cried 'far right'. The term 'far right' is increasingly over-used in the news media. Its meaning has been expanded and diluted, for example to include people who protest against traffic restrictions or would like to know what their children are being taught in sex education lessons. This is a cause for concern, because if one day the real far right comes along, the media will shout 'far right!' and no-one will believe them.

2. Reporting that someone has lied. A journalist can report that a claim is false but should not call the person who made that claim a liar - they may believe that what they are saying is true. By calling someone a liar, the journalist makes a moral judgement that may be baseless.

1. "There's no evidence for that." Such a statement implies that the journalist has conducted an exhaustive worldwide search for evidence and come up empty-handed. This is highly unlikely! An impartial journalist should ask an interviewee "what is your evidence for that?".

The discussion around these top ten tactics was lively and often entertaining, as participants recalled their favourite examples of each, such as the "fiery but mostly peaceful protests" in 2020, or the drip-drip effect of every rainy day being reported as climate change and every bit of bad news being blamed on Brexit! Other examples were more sobering, such as the initial media silence over the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Years Eve 2015 or the years of abuse by grooming gangs in the UK's northern towns.

Chair Caspar Hewett challenged the group by asking: is this actually new?

It was agreed that bias and politicisation have long been present in UK news media, with examples including misleadingly edited footage of clashes between police and miners in the 1980s and the famous 'It's the Sun wot won it' headline after the 1992 Conservative election victory. People have always tended to buy newspapers according to their political leaning, such as the left-wing Guardian or right-wing Telegraph.

However, several features of the modern news media environment have exacerbated the problem. Phil suggested that the transition from print to online content and from advertising to subscriber-based business models is a key factor in incentivising bias. Instead of the crude metric of newspaper circulation, readership data is now generated at the level of individual articles. This enables editors to maximise income by pushing out more content that will appeal to readers - which usually means stories about issues that make them angry, told from a perspective they will agree with. The rise of social media adds to the polarising effect.

Another issue is that journalism students may become radicalised at university and bring their activism into the workplace when they graduate. Former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss has described how senior management fail to stand up to this vocal minority and find themselves "being struggle-sessioned in full view of thousands of employees". Phil said that he would like to see recruitment based on raw talent rather than possession of a degree, which could challenge the spread of progressive ideology and lead to greater diversity of opinion within the media class. Sadly, the decline of local media outlets has reduced opportunities for young people from different backgrounds to enter the profession.

The emergence of new channels such as GB News and Talk TV, while not free from their own bias, do at least offer a different perspective to that presented by the BBC. Non-traditional media such as YouTube and Substack also offer much-needed platforms for a wider range of voices and values to be heard.

We concluded on a positive note. Good reporting does still exist and at its best journalism serves the vital function of exposing institutional wrongdoing and holding those in power to account. This was exemplified by the handful of journalists who challenged the Government over the impacts of lockdown and have since been proved right.

While advising a healthy dose of scepticism in our consumption of news media, Phil cautioned that we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater - but he conceded that there is an awful lot of bathwater, and if we don't turn the tap off soon, we'll be drowning in it!

Paula Lightfoot, 2023

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