Journalists would be so much more trusted if they followed Socrates’ dictum – that ‘the only thing I know is that I know nothing’
And in my experience, that’s exactly right. When I speak with reporters I know to be on the Left, the questions I get are almost always honest and fair, but reflect their presuppositions. They essentially are asking me to confirm or deny what they already believe and are genuinely perplexed if I give them an answer that doesn’t quite fit their paradigm.
The thing is, it’s the same on the Right. Conservative journalists ask me the same sort of questions only from their own, pre-determined view of the world. They express the same reactions when what I say doesn’t conform to type.
This is a real problem in journalism, especially when one side of the political battle dominates a profession as much as the Left does in journalism (in all its variant forms, from hard identity left too soft centre-left). It doesn’t only mean that one side’s worldview is regularly promoted to the broader public, which is the general critique of media bias. It means that journalists themselves get completely blindsided when something happens that their worldview considers impossible, like Brexit or Trump’s election.
The fame, influence, and perhaps even wealth that flow from being television commentators (yes, many of those talking head experts you see are paid by the network they appear on) means that there’s a whole class of “experts” who know they are hired not for genuine expertise but for their ability to quickly and articulately place the question of the day into the recognised template. Right, Left, or center, the key to media success for sources and experts is not to educate but to propagandise and comfort.
More ideologically diverse newsrooms, especially among major broadcasters, is one way of addressing the first issue. The second, however, is much more difficult to uproot. What’s needed is a genuine sense of curiosity, a humility that comes from internalising the non-ironic reading of Socrates’ dictum that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. If something or someone doesn’t make sense to you as a journalist, maybe it’s not because they’re crazy but it’s that you’re too certain about things you oughtn’t to be certain about.
Approaching reporting from that perspective is frightening and challenging, but it will ultimately be incredibly rewarding for both you and your public.
> Watch UnHerd’s bite-sized video interviews with BBC broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby on the state of the media industry or listen to our audio documentary on the dangers of a culture where news is too powerful.