Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Should we trust the newspaper?

By Musab Younis


In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005, Rupert Murdoch suggested that we are witnessing “a revolution in the way young people are accessing the news.” Today, young people “want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it … They want news that speaks to them personally, that affects their lives.”

“Unless we awaken to these changes”, warned Murdoch, “we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans.”

His words were picked up by influential press critic Jay Rosen, who published a piece on his blog – ‘The People Formerly Known as the Audience” – that became popular as a manifesto for a revolutionary approach to journalism. “Once they were your printing presses,” proclaimed the statement, “now that humble device, the blog, has given the press to us … Once it was your radio station, broadcasting on your frequency. Now that brilliant invention, podcasting, gives radio to us.” And so on.

Much commentary has since reinforced the sense that we have entered an age of unparalleled democracy in news production and management – from traditional media to new media – cranking open space in the media world for the popular voice.

The problem with this general consensus is not that it is wholly incorrect, but that it can be seriously misleading. To a substantial extent, the traditional media do continue to crucially shape the type of issues that are permitted to appear on the public agenda. And where progress has been made its significance has often been overstated: in the rush to herald a new age, it is often easy to forget just how much power remains with its traditional guardians.

These guardians are, of course mostly major profit-making corporations, and they continue to decide precisely which issues appear on the agenda, how these issues are framed, for how long they are discussed, in what way, and so on. While it is true that the dissemination of ‘citizen journalism’ has been easier through the internet, it remains the case that only professional journalists working for large and wealthy organisations can actually afford to do this sustainably; and it is perhaps unsurprising, when the key issue of access to resources is taken into account, that they therefore continue to dominate the news agenda.

This is problematic not because they are professional journalists, but because there is a clear tendency – even, you might say, an institutional requirement – for systematic inaccuracies to emerge from the picture of the world that they draw.

Demonstrating media bias and distortion is a lengthy and painstaking task, usually involving careful content analysis of hundreds of articles. An understanding of whether this distortion is systematic – that is, appearing to be an intrinsic feature of the current system of news production – can only emerge when multiple examples and case studies have been collected. Critics and analysts have in the past adopted a range of approaches, from overarching surveys to paired case studies, to forensic examinations of the use of words, and much else in between. Yet although there seems to be little argument with the basic premise held by these critics – less than a fifth of British people say they trust newspapers, for example – there is, at the same time, a surprising lack of awareness (or even interest) about how deeply these problems could be ingrained within the structure of the press.

And though it is generally accepted that inaccuracies exist within the press, and are perhaps even prevalent, there are less questions asked about whether we can trust news providers, as they currently exist, to provide even a basic outline of the truth.

Take, say, the London protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza in December 2009. Earlier this year, an article was published in the Sunday Times titled: ‘Met allows Islamic protesters to throw shoes’ [sic]. The article claimed that “Scotland Yard” had “bowed to Islamic sensitivities” by accepting that “Muslims are entitled to throw shoes in ritual protest” – because “shoes, and particularly the soles of shoes, are regarded as ritually unclean in the Islamic world” – providing a “concession [which] has already been taken up enthusiastically by Muslim demonstrators” who have already “pelted Downing Street with shoes.”

The Islamophobia is not unusual, but the sheer flagrancy of lying involved here is rather striking. There was a series demonstrations in London to protest Israel’s attack on Gaza, but they were not “Muslim” demonstrations and had nothing to do with “Muslim” “ritual protest” (despite the delightful racist connotations that this image must provoke); while there was a shoe-throwing stunt in a specific area, there was no general “concession”, let alone one which had anything to do with “Islamic sensitivities”: the image of “Muslim demonstrators” “pelting Downing street with shoes” is, of course, pure fabrication.

It is indeed possible to state without much exaggeration that a reader would have gleaned a more accurate version of events by simply reversing the major claims made by the article: thus, rather than being granted a “concession”, evidence suggested that Muslims who had attended this demonstration had actually been specifically targeted by the police, receiving sentences of up to two years in jail for acts (like throwing bottles toward the embassy) that harmed nobody.

While the conventional approach is to see the mainstream press as offering at the very least an austere outline of events, with commentary from diverse sources filling in the gaps, in this case, as in countless others, articles have been produced by broadsheet, resource-intensive newspapers that do little but deliberately misinform the reader. Any commentary that followed from the Times piece could not have hoped to be anything but misguided – and only a personal involvement in the case would have corrected for this. The same, incidentally, goes for every single mainstream press article that I have been able to find on the G20 protests, until the video of the attack on Ian Tomlinson by the police emerged.

The careful deconstruction of single articles is important, but of course the problem we are discussing extends much further. The needless and provocative invention of a religious and racial element to the Times story, for example, is hardly an isolated case – this type of distortion is a much-loved pastime of the British press. A 2008 report from Cardiff University, for example, which analysed almost 1,000 articles from 2000-2008 as well as images and visuals, found prevalent and systematic distortions in stories that involve Muslims. The most common adjectives used to describe Muslims were: “radical” “fanatical” “fundamentalist” “extremist” and “militant”; the idea that Muslims might actually “support dominant moral values” was found in precisely 2 percent of articles. And throughout the coverage, people from a Muslim background were dehumanised: they were “much less likely than non-Muslims to be identified in terms of their job or profession, and much more likely to be unnamed or unidentified.” Meanwhile, a detailed recent report from the University of Exeter, which presented similar findings, also noted that it provided “prima facie and empirical evidence to demonstrate that assailants of Muslims” – that is, those responsible for hate crime attacks on Muslim targets – “are invariably motivated by a negative view of Muslims they have acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports or commentaries in the media.”

The scale and blatancy of Islamophobia in the British press has meant that it has received some attention recently, but it is really only one obvious example of a whole range of sweeping and repeated misrepresentations in the British press – many of them, especially on crucial political and economic issues, so insidious that it is much more difficult to focus attention on them.

We are left in a situation, then, where the resources for news production are still overwhelmingly concentrated within a few organisations, mostly run for profit, which are found over and over again to systematically decontextualise, exaggerate, misinform, and distort. And it seems that especially where there is little possibility of repercussion – when dealing with groups, for example, that are unpopular and therefore largely defenceless – the tendecy is to further distort until articles (like Leppard’s in the Sunday Times) appear which bear practically no relation at all to reality.

The uncomfortable truth is that setting up blogs, websites, small magazines, and even organisations that aim to disseminate whistleblown information, is nowhere near sufficient. The ownership and control of crucial information is, despite what we are told, probably more concentrated in 2010 than it ever was, and continues to have very real consequences for the majority of people who are not permitted to speak for themselves.

If we are serious about challenging such a broken system, we should be looking at ways of building prominent, large and sustainable organisations that can provide news to millions of people. These organisations need to be fundamentally structured in ways which makes them both supported by, and accountable to, the very audiences they reach, as with the trade union press which thrived in Britain a hundred years ago. Democracy Now! from the US is perhaps the only existing project that even approaches this, but on its own it cannot hope to compete for audiences against the giants.

The ownership and management of news is often overlooked within progressive movements but, in my view, it is really one of the central questions of our time. Without a change, we face what is essentially the tyranny of distortive power – that utter control over information so encapsulated in Orwell’s image of the memory hole. A less than appealing prospect.

Musab Younis is Ceasefire’s Deputy Editor. Counterspin, his column on the media, appears every other Sunday.

Less than a fifth of British people say they trust newspapers

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