Modern Journalism in the Post-factual World

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The June 2016 referendum on our membership of the EU cemented in many people’s minds the idea that we are living in a post-factual age. Swathes of voters decided to ignore the ‘expert opinion’ of authorities on the matter, trusting instead, their own experiences and views and voted Leave. Journalist Owen Jones, has seized upon this and angled his recent talk at the Durham Book Festival (on the 11 Oct) discussing how in politics, there seems to be a lack of appetite for facts. And he isn’t wrong. During the height of the migrant crisis, it would be fair to say that many who had not already been moved and compelled to help were very much affected by the tragic image of the two-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi who drowned on the 2 September 2015. It was only after seeing the picture did they feel compelled to help. But why had they not before? Was it that they distrusted reports by journalists? Or that they read a political bias into these reports? It seems that people simply didn’t buy into the facts and figures sprayed at them by the barrage of media outlets, and could only be jolted by seeing something with their own eyes.

One thing which we can be sure about is a general trend in the rise of an abandonment of the ‘facts’, one that extends far beyond political spheres and into our cultural and social world. My understanding of a post-factual world is not one where we entirely abandon our faith in evidence. Instead, it is one where a majority of the general public are more sceptical to believe evidence put forth by those in positions of authorities, academics and think tanks, than our friend on twitter who had a similar experience to us. Or, as put it to Durham Union Society on 22 Oct, we are living in a world where an everyday radio listener can voice their opinion to a weekly audience of 7.3 million listeners (according to The Guardian, 2013) and completely discredit the view of an ‘expert’ because of his or her own lived experience that he or she shared. A lived experience can be more powerful than statistics and findings when it comes to the propagation and proliferation of information.

For instance, for years many women have spoken anecdotally of their experiences on the contraceptive pill and how they became more prone to depressive episodes. Many women have stopped taking the pill because of such reasons, and it is only until October of this year, that a study has officially linked the two. Holly Grigg-Spall’s Guardian article on this study had the headline: ‘The pill is linked to depression – and doctors can no longer ignore it’. While there are many benefits to the contraceptive pill and I am not disputing those, it is clear that there is now a mandate for doctors to properly disclose these risks when talking to women about contraceptives. Evidence is still key, I am not suggesting we follow our instinct on everything, especially when our health is concerned – with the University of Copenhagen having tracked one million Danish women for a period of thirteen years – however here is an example of when the non-expert, the general public, were able to catch on to something before the authorities. The above example should be taken with caution, as it is not arguing that every one of the 3.5 million women who use oral contraceptives in the UK should stop taking them when there isn’t a less intrusive and consistently reliable alternative readily available. Instead, as in the past, we may see many cases where the ‘authority’ is proven wrong, affecting our everyday decisions.

Where this becomes an issue is when people dramatically and wrongly change their behaviour because of scare-mongering, or do not follow proper advice in terms of nutrition. The rise of food bloggers and Youtubers subjectively promoting their ‘plant-based’ or gluten-free diets as the key to a healthy lifestyle, in absolute terms, is particularly worrying. Food blogger Madeleine Shaw is famous for calling wheat ‘sandpaper for the gut’. With an audience of impressionable young women who are attracted to her lifestyle, amongst other things, imitating her through her various cookbooks is the next step. In some instances, then, we are seeing in a post-factual world that people are becoming self-fashioned experts.

They do not have the PhDs we may expect experts to have, but they claim to be experts of experience. Even if, as Shaw does, these bloggers make their audience aware that “if you have any worries about your personal health I would always recommend going to see a health care professional before trying any of these tips”, in the comments section of her blog, she is perfectly happy to dispense advice along the lines of “it could be that you’re stressed when we’re stressed we hold a lot of tension in our bellies and this can contribute to belly fat!” The ambiguity of the word ‘tension’ in this context, and the lack of medical jargon present that I would expect, tells me that her advice might not be as helpful as I would like it to be. The notion of a post-factual world clearly extend beyond a political sphere and more and more, are affecting our cultural and social life. We must treat self-fashioned experts with trepidation, while acknowledging the small victories of anecdotal experience, if backed up with evidence.

In this light, it is no wonder the traditional bastions of received wisdom (referring to newspapers and radio, and not the Church) has been forced to adapt and change. In our post-factual world, what is significant is that we also have the power to influence what we want to see, and therefore what we actually see. It is this, crucially, which is to the detriment of modern journalism.

I have recently become increasingly frustrated at the poor editorial decisions of major publications and outlets: the BBC and the Independent being two prime examples. While it needs to be said that they are not on the level of The Sun or the Daily Mail, being right-wing tabloids designed to appeal to people’s lowest common denominators, much more is to be expected from the BBC and The Independent – an outlet I remember Owen Jones starting his journalistic career in. The Independent has inarguably fallen victim to the demise of the print newspaper, prompted by the development of technology and social media, and a subsequent change in the way in which we consume news, moving to solely publishing online. It has also fallen victim to appeasing our changing attitudes to news. Looking purely at the Facebook pages of The Independent and The Guardian, a major way in which the two outlets broaden their audiences, one can immediately see an attempt to appeal to the mainstream by The Independent, through what I would call non-issues.

Within the span of a few days of each other (22 and 28 October) both outlets posted videos they had each produced. The Guardian’s film: ‘Meet the real Daniel Blake’ set about highlighting the reality of life for people on benefits under the Conservative government, and the extreme lengths they must go to, in order to not be sanctioned, in response to Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. The Independent’s video focused on a ‘Penguin given a specially made wetsuit to help with feather loss’, as the title stated – a subject, whilst appealing to the masses, without real substance or thought-provoking elements. It was essentially a ‘feel good’ story that did not require extensive thought, to allow us to empathise with the subject.

It is plausible that the two outlets may have very different focuses, compensating for the difference in content, but I believe that is too simplistic. At time of writing (Friday, 28 Oct ,5pm), the top stories on The Independent’s website – not their Facebook page – demonstrate that they are aware of current issues other than the state of featherless penguins. They are ostensibly aware of the discussion surrounding ‘I, Daniel Blake’, with an article and accompanying video by Harriet Agerholm titled ‘Ken Loach accuses Tories of “conscious cruelty” and putting corporations before poor in Question Time tirade’. I think that The Independent themselves are consciously dumbing themselves down in many ways, presenting a skewed image of their own reporting on social media. While they do post their better pieces of journalism too, it seems overshadowed by viral videos of animals and other smaller non-issue stories, to say nothing of the prominence of their i100 page. It isn’t even far-fetched to say that they are descending into producing ‘clickbait’ content.

In an age when the reader can switch off or ‘unlike’ The Independent’s Facebook page and consume their elsewhere, newspapers have to be ever more conscious that they appeal to their audience. Is it possible to solve this conundrum we are in – where clickbait dominates and uncomfortable, hard-hitting truths wither away? The lack of appetite for serious is something that may be difficult to change in the post-factual world, where everyone has agency over what they consume. The future of newspapers is highly uncertain indeed. Only time will tell.

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