A couple of weeks ago I wrote here about the problem of contemporary broadcasters and bias. Specifically, the problem presented when ‘impartial’ news journalists start to betray their personal political stances through social media platforms like Twitter.
But it is not fair to single out journalists for criticism or opprobrium without mentioning that there is another guilty party in this breakdown of trust between the media and the public. And that party is, of course, the public.
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Recent weeks have provided a number of examples of how badly the public are starting to misunderstand the media, but perhaps the most high-profile example is the storm that erupted this week over a headline in the New York Times.
The grey lady found itself in trouble over a single front-page headline relating to the aftermath of the latest terrible mass shooting in the United States, this one in Texas. The gunman in the El Paso attack appears to have been some variety of white supremacist and much of the public, naturally opposed to Donald Trump, would like to link the atrocity to the incumbent in the Oval Office. But unless there is an explicit connection then such a claim is a matter of interpretation or opinion. And the job of the media has traditionally been to report the facts, not the guesses or wishes of a proportion (however large) of its readers.
In the aftermath of the shooting President Trump did what any President should do in such a situation: he issued a statement to the nation in which he urged them to unite, not least to unite against racism.
In any reasonable age, people from all political sides would be relieved, consoled and encouraged by such a message of unity. They would agree that what Trump said was essentially impossible to oppose. They would recognise that even if they did not much like the President, there was nothing to object to – indeed much to support – in the sentiments he expressed after the Texas shooting.
Just as importantly, they would expect the media to report the news. They would expect the Times – and other papers – to report what the President had said. Perhaps in the body of the articles about the horror they would read some scepticism around the edges. Perhaps in there they would find questions raised about whether some of the President’s own rhetoric over the years might not have fed into some pool of hate out of which the gunman may have sprung. All of this – and much more – may be possible. But the news – what has actually happened – does still need to be reported as a priority in any organ dedicated to reporting the news.
Well, this age would appear not to be a reasonable one.
In its Tuesday print edition, the New York Times covered President Trump’s statement under the headline “Trump urges unity vs racism”. Which is true and accurate. The President did not call for the nation to unite around racism and against unity. The situation was exactly as the Times had reported.
But the reaction to the NYT headline was loud and immediate. Nate Silver, among others, attacked the Times for framing the story in the ‘wrong’ way. Silver wrote sarcastically that he was not sure that “Trump urges unity vs racism” would be how he would have “framed the story”.
Tomorrow's NYT print edition.
Not sure "TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM" is how I would have framed the story. pic.twitter.com/quOibXsp32
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) August 6, 2019
Other Twitter users agreed. The public piled on, and NYT readers promised to boycott the publication or otherwise express their displeasure. And so, swiftly – indeed before the paper’s second edition, and in the online version of the story – the headline was changed. Soon the Times was running its story on the President’s response to El Paso under the header: “Assailing hate but not guns”.
The turnaround was covered across other media around the world, and any of the NYT’s rivals seemed to enjoy the apparent slip-up by the paper (“Ha – they got caught reporting on Trump fairly”). But they should not, firstly because if the internet can decide what headline a publication ought to run then everyone in the media is going to be in trouble.
Perhaps more importantly, at stake is one of the only remaining ideals in an age where ideals are in short supply: that there remain some media outlets willing to report what is actually happening rather than what the most highly-partisan observers expect to happen. In an age in which events are consistently sieved through every imaginable ideological prism, it remains at the very least an aspiration that there are some people and places that do not represent ‘comment’ but instead constitute ‘reporting’.
At the same time that the Times was going through its firestorm, Sky’s political correspondent Kate McCann was enduring one of her own. On Twitter, McCann reported a statement made by cabinet minister Michael Gove, in which he said that the European Union appeared not to want to negotiate with Britain and that this was, in his view, a shame.
Michael Gove: "At the moment it’s the EU that seems to be saying they’re not interested [in negotiating] – they’re simply saying ‘no we don’t want to talk’. I think that’s wrong and sad.
It’s not in Europe’s interests."
— Kate McCann (@KateEMcCann) August 6, 2019
Now of course this story – like that to do with the aftermath of the El Paso shooting – treads on one of the two most divisive issues of our time, Brexit and Trump. But it should still be the case that people who use the media are aware that there is a difference between opinion and news reporting.
Though plenty of reporters have (as I wrote here before) begun to blur that line, it should be possible to understand that when Sky’s political correspondent relates what Michael Gove has just said, she is not saying “Here is the latest thing Michael Gove has said: I’m Kate McCann and I approve this message”. She is doing her job. A minister has said something. She is reporting it. It is then up to viewers or readers to decide what they make of the statement.
But McCann, too, was immediately assailed on social media by furious readers. Did she not realise – they asked – that her job was to ‘interrogate’ Michael Gove’s claims, not simply to regurgitate them? A clearly – and rightly – irritated McCann explained on Twitter that actually that wasn’t her job, or at least not her only job. As a political correspondent her job is to report on things that are happening rather than to simply filter them through the lens of what any particular band of obsessives want to see or hear. As she said, “I am getting SO fed up of people telling me what my job is. I’m a reporter. Watch the live/read the article and stop being so incredibly patronising.”
I don't retweet this stuff (because why would you) but I am getting SO fed up of people telling me what my job is. I'm a reporter. Watch the live/read the article and stop being so incredibly patronising. https://t.co/hXF2OlsbSf
— Kate McCann (@KateEMcCann) August 6, 2019
It is certainly the case that the media, in Britain as in the US and other countries, has let itself down and assailed the stated aim of impartiality. But in certain places, and among certain reporters in particular, it certainly does still remain an aspiration – or at least the orbit around which they seek to move. Yet even if the media does improve and reverse its current rush away from impartiality it cannot do so unless the public make a reversal of their own. It is no good having a virtuous media without a virtuous public; or at least an aspiration towards such a goal.
If the public berates the media when they are actually doing the job of reporting then the public should not be surprised if the media continue to drift further and further away from reportage and more and more into the realms not just of comment, but of whatever comment they think their readers might want to hear. The momentary thrill of a headline or Tweet that once again panders to your political world view comes with an enormously high price for the public as a whole to pay.