‘At the very moment when the UK government recognised journalists as essential workers, the industry itself looked more fragile than ever.’
Extract taken from News and How to Use It: What to Believe in a Fake News World
By Alan Rusbridger
Published by Canongate
Who on earth can you believe any more?
I am writing this at the peak – or so I hope – of the most vicious pandemic to have gripped the world in a century or more. The question of what information you can trust is, all of a sudden, a matter of life and death.
As an average citizen you have four choices about where to find information on this new plague.
You can believe the politicians. That might work if you live in, say, New Zealand or Germany – less so if you are in Brazil, Russia, China, Hungary or the United States. And maybe not so much in Britain.
What about the scientists? As politicians have struggled for authority – or even understanding – some leaders thrust scientists and doctors into the limelight. We began to absorb many lessons in epidemiology, immunology, exponential curves, antibody tests, vaccines and the modelling of viral infections. And we learned that scientists disagree with each other. They harbour – and value – doubts. They even change their minds. To some this is reassuring; to others, confusing.
Or we can turn to our peers. As always, there is good and bad on social media; expertise and madness; inspiration and malicious nonsense. New words have been coined – infodemic and infotagion are just two – to describe an environment of viral information chaos which nevertheless has proved massively addictive as people the world over stumble in search of light.
And then there is journalism. There has been much to admire here: some brave reporting from inside hospitals and on the streets; some clear and honest analysis; some tough investigations into governmental advice and inaction; some brilliant visualisation of data and some admirably simple explanations of complex concepts. The best news organisations have performed a real, vital public service.
But – as with social media – there is bad to counter the good. Some were slow to grasp the immensity of what was happening. There will be a special place in journalistic hell for Fox News and its initial torrent of Trump-echoing propaganda. That coverage will have helped contribute to numberless deaths. There was lamentable confusion about how to cover the nightly parade of presidential lies, sulks, boasts and vainglorious irrelevance that flagged itself as public information. There was uncertainty about how to communicate risk.
Some news outlets – initially, at least – seemed unable to imagine the scale of what was happening: it was easier to report on what videos Boris Johnson was watching in his hospital bed than on the hundreds dying every day all around. The newsrooms that had jettisoned their health or science correspondents struggled. The idiots who suggested that 5G phone masts could be spreading the disease encouraged arson and trashed their own brand. So, it was a mixed picture.
Covid-19 could not have announced itself at a worse time in terms of the question about whom to believe. Survey after survey has shown unprecedented confusion over where to place trust. Nearly two-thirds of adults polled by Edelman in 2018 said they could no longer tell a responsible source of news from the opposite.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
The official script for journalism was that once people woke up to the ocean of rubbish and lies all around them they’d come back to the safe harbour of professionally-produced news. You couldn’t leave this stuff to amateurs or give it away for free. Sooner or later people would flood back to the haven of proper journalism.
This official narrative was not completely wrong – but nor was it right in the way the optimists hoped it would be. There was a surge of eyeballs to mainstream media sites, but it was too soon to judge if the increased traffic would remotely compensate for the drastic loss of revenues as copy sales plummeted and advertising disappeared. It normally didn’t.
At the very moment when the UK government recognised journalists as essential workers, the industry itself looked more fragile than ever.
Surveys of trust showed the public (especially the older public) relying on journalists, but not trusting them. Another Edelman special report in early March 2020 found journalists at the bottom of the trust pile, with only 43 per cent of those surveyed holding the view that you could believe them ‘to tell the truth about the virus’. That compared with 63 per cent for ‘a person like yourself’.
As the pandemic wore on, so trust in both UK politicians and news organisations slumped. Between April and May 2020, according to Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), trust in the government plunged a full 19 points – partly, it was thought, as a result of newspaper investigations which appeared to show double standards between what the government was saying and what its top advisers were actually doing. But if reporters expected gratitude for their efforts they were disappointed: the same period saw an 11-point fall in trust in news organisations.
I spent most of my working life in journalism: I would like people to believe the best of it. I like the company of journalists and, as an editor, was frequently lost in admiration for colleagues – on the Guardian and beyond – who were clever, brave, resourceful, quick, honest, perceptive, knowledgeable and humane.
But it was impossible to be blind to so much journalism that was none of those things: editorial content that was stupid, corrupt, ignorant, aggressive, bullying, lazy and malign. But it all sailed under the flag of something we called ‘journalism’. Somehow we expected the public to be able to distinguish the good from the bad and to recognise it’s not all the same, even if we give it the same name.
The official story paints journalists as people who tell ‘truth to power’. But ‘truth’ is a big word, and we seldom like to reflect on our own power.
Now, four years on from being full-time in the newsroom, I want to bring an insider’s perspective to the business of journalism, but also look at it from the outside. How can we explain ‘journalism’ to people who are by and large sceptical – which is broadly what most of us would want our fellow citizens to be? This book aims to touch on some of the things about journalism that might help a reader decide whether it deserves their trust, and offer a glimpse to working journalists of how they are viewed by the world outside.
News and How to Use It: What to Believe in a Fake News World by Alan Rusbridger is published by Canongate, priced £18.99.