A journalist’s job is to report
5 Mar 2018|

Sofia Patel absolutely nails the nexus between media reportage and terror. Terrorism is a strategy of desperation—that’s why it’s embraced by the marginalised. We in the media offer such actors a microphone, allowing them to disseminate their message. Journalism implicitly legitimises such groups by treating them as genuine actors. It amplifies their activities.

This is bad, but what’s the alternative?

My difficulty comes not with Patel’s diagnosis of the problem but rather with her implied solution. ‘Media outlets,’ she opines, ‘have a responsibility to dispel such myths and rumours, to minimise harm—both physical and rhetorical—when reporting on terror.’

That’s actually not true. Most importantly, it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the media.

As a journalist I was always told my job was to report the truth. Only by doing this could I enable the audience to trust what was being reported.

It’s obvious that no individual reporter could ever have a handle on the whole truth, nor perhaps even be confident that the particular event being reported occurred exactly the way described. Nevertheless, we do attempt to ensure any reporting is as perfect a representation of what’s occurred as possible.

The premise on which this style of reporting is based is both simple and obvious. That’s why it persists.

But Patel wants us to censor our reporting. That’s wrong.

When I began working for the ABC, I was taught that each individual story, every small report (no matter how seemingly inconsequential), added a sliver of reality to the audience’s total picture of how and why the world works. The aim of the reporter was simply to ensure that their reports were as accurate as possible. By the time they reached the end of the bulletin, the aim was to ensure that the listener, viewer or reader was in possession of the most complete picture that could be presented of what’s occurring in the world, offered in a manner that’s of direct relevance and interest to them.

Our trade remains to report, as accurately and rapidly as possible, on events of interest to our audience. Any attempt to interfere with this process risks sounding suspiciously like censorship.

What’s changed, as a result of the internet, is the velocity with which news travels and with which it can be wrapped up with opinion.

People are still demanding to know (in detail) not simply who did what to whom, and when and how things happened. The big difference is the speed with which news travels and the demand to know why things have happened.

This ‘why’ is critical to our understanding of events. Without understanding the cause of events, we can’t really know what’s occurring in our society. Perhaps most significantly, it also enables us to attempt to draw conclusions about what might happen next, and about what occurrences that might affect us. This is the appeal of news. As you get closer to events, however, you become aware that determining exactly why they’re happening is actually very difficult.

This is rarely an issue, however, for someone poised in front of their keyboard. That’s why what’s occurring on the internet is very different from journalism.

Journalism is a product. Our stories are designed around the requirements of individuals, just like clothes. A shopper will pick something up, try it on, and discard anything they think doesn’t suit them. It’s no use insisting, for example, that ties really are sartorially elegant—too many young men have already decided that they don’t need to wear them. News has a similar problem. People don’t want the old-fashioned product any more: it’s far more boring and uninteresting than opinion.

I wish the very best of luck to anyone advocating that ‘online platforms [should] work with news media outlets to develop appropriate ethical, editorial and practical guidelines’ as a means of curbing ‘the spread of misinformation or “fake news”’. It’s a lovely idea. It’s also similar to suggesting that Little Red Riding Hood should work proactively with the Big Bad Wolf to combat world hunger. It’s a great concept, but somewhat harder to understand how it might actually work in practice.

The problem is that there are three, or perhaps really four, players in the media environment. The motivations and interests of each of these participants are utterly divergent. We need to call these out for what they are, because that will make quite clear why there’s no chance of them co-operating with one another.

Firstly, we have the public. It demands to know what’s happening as soon as it happens. Quite naturally, audiences come to events with preconceptions based on their own prejudices and experience. Some are also prone to conspiracy theories and racism.

Secondly, there are the journalists or ‘old media’. With a disintegrating financial model, we’re reduced to pandering to smaller and smaller audiences. Is it any wonder there’s such insistent pressure from editors to grab eyeballs in any way possible?

Thirdly, there’s the new media. That’s Facebook and Twitter, or whatever platform is coming next to distribute news, gossip or voices. These sites emphasise that they have absolutely no interest, none whatsoever, in editorial control or standards. They pretend they don’t influence or editorialise, whereas the reality is that they do. After all, this is the entire point of an algorithm. They exist simply to prioritise particular types of content, which is the definition of editorial. They won’t admit this, of course, because it would mean destroying their business model.

And finally, although we often forget them, there are those with political barrows to push. These are the very groups and individuals who aim to profit from sowing division and capitalising on the real and significant problems identified in Patel’s post.

Perhaps this time, instead of blaming the media, we could instead call for politicians to come together and resolve society’s problems by working ethically and harmoniously together.

Unfortunately, I just don’t see that happening.

Sofia Patel responds:

I thank Nic Stuart for responding to my piece on Media and terror in the age of social media but I feel compelled to reply to some clear misinterpretations. I never suggested that the media should be censored. I said the media should not speculate in the aftermath of an attack and called for proportionate reporting based on facts. That’s responsible journalism, not censorship.

Nic claims that calling for the media to ‘dispel myths and rumours, to minimise harm—both physical and rhetorical—when reporting on terror’ demonstrates a ‘fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the media’. If the job of a journalist is to report the truth (which it is), then dispelling myths and rumours consolidates this ethos rather than undermining it.

I focussed on the complexities of being a journalist in a social media age. The nuance required to wade through the range of fake news and misinformation is challenging especially when attempting to maintain journalistic integrity.

There’s no ready made way to counter fake news and misinformation. International research suggests that we must develop appropriate policy and legislative frameworks that are flexible and adaptable; there are roles to play for government, tech companies and media corporations here—it’s not the role of any one party.