Two Sides of Journalism

Journalism at the moment seems to be, in some quarters, at the height of its nihilistic pessimism.

Social Media, routinely derided as a den of fake news, propaganda and echo chamber self-confirmation, is still undermining the traditional institutions of the news media.

Local news, in print and other forms, continues to be eroded down to a hub of ad-dominated efforts holding on to ever shrinking readerships while competing against free alternatives.

In the US Sinclair Broadcasting is buying up local networks to run their own one-size-fits-all narratives in between whatever remains of already diminished local reporting capacities. In the UK traditional newspapers alter between Guardian style begging messages and Daily Mail style racism and celebrity gossip for the online market.

The BBC struggles to comprehend any of its own internal deficiencies while a lot of its higher profile employees seem to be fixed on smugly marvelling at their own auras of importance. Major, traditional US networks spend their time either being attacked by the President or gleefully indulging in the sort of shallow, rolling news talking head pieces which undermined them enough to make those attacks plausible. And all the while, all around, trust ratings fall and the supply of money which isn’t from corporate parents diminishes.

It’s an ongoing tragedy which brings into sharp relief the contradictions that I think lay in the ‘institution’ of journalism itself.

Journalists seem to exist in an odd sort of hinterland all of their own. On one hand there seems to be a traditional spirit of authorship bred into the profession. Almost in the same way as artists they cite their own integrity, their own individualistic qualities and attempts to speak truth to power. A historical legacy that’s still heavily romanticised across the board in the industry. On the other hand there’s the working truth that journalism and news media in general is an industry, not an academic, philosophical or artistic field. The commercial drive is a dominant one and there’s limited scope, or at least limited effort, to reject that in favour of inherited notions about purity of purpose.

That’s a big factor in the way the industry has been diminished perhaps. On both sides of their split personality the working majority of journalists have been afraid to go too far. Ignoring the outliers, the small array of genuinely committed and well respected individuals, the mass in the middle seems to prefer playing both sides without committing to either.

As the process of buyouts, editorial bias, budget cuts and sinking quality took place, fuelled onwards by the corporatisation of the media the resistance was pretty minimal. Thought pieces appeared, outraged opinions were offered, hair tugged out and self-flagellation indulged in but not too many stands were taken. As an industryĀ none of the mechanisms which other workers have used to protect their own conditions and working standards were really introduced on a major scale that I can see. Unionisation, strike actions, collective rejection of imposed demands, efforts at creating industry wide alternatives – journalism made no major attempts at any of them. A lot of the time that was, perhaps, because of the other side of their identity. Individuals found it easier and more appealing to write out their grievances in thought pieces. Thought pieces which they ran on the same platforms as were doing the damage in the first place, featuring their public displays of concern opposite lifestyle pieces and motivated editorials. Compare that to other professions which have similar claims to social importance and you come up with a slightly sorry imitation of unified resistance to negative change. In the UK Nurses, Junior Doctors, Firefighters, Train Drivers, Train Guards, Teachers, Cleaners and even Police and Prison Guards have been more vocal and active in their outrage about conditions imposed on them, both by private and state forces.

The same behaviour is found inverted in the more artistic or ‘moral’ conceptions of journalism. Artists may fail to live up to their own standards too, often as not, but in a lot of cases it’s still expected that they’ll take an individual stand against what occurs in their field and industry. Boycotts, overt rejections of ideas or organisations, personal moral responsibility – they’re seen as an aspect at least of being individually accountable for your work. Certainly hard standards to hold individual, working journalists too, after all the local journo or researcher isn’t exactly going to make a huge splash by boycotting their bosses. At the top of the profession though there have been plenty of figures who had both the profile and the platform to speak out aggressively against the last few decades of change. Not just as fleeting complaints safely ensconced within their own realm but as wider calls for outrage and resistance. That’s shied away from too though because, after all, they’re in a commercial industry and for all the claims of personal integrity they’re still beholden to a commercial world which too many perceive themselves to have no power beyond. Or, perhaps, too many class and cultural loyalties towards to argue with, depending on your point of view.

The situation recent decades of passivity has left behind is an odd one. The Guardian’s perpetual begging letters which call on their readers to cough up to defend ‘real journalism’ is a good example of it. The paper/website itself is now, at best, a mix of decent reporting and lifestyle pieces, heavily biased talking heads and near click bait commentary. Definitely an imperfect format and one which is bound to garner cynicism from the public when it reaches out in terms of integrity and moral obligation.

As a sample of the industry itself it’s a victim of its own mismanagement in the pursuit of purely commercial ends. A shift which has been largely ignored by those within it as a necessity of the profession. As a sample of some higher notion of journalistic value and cultural necessity there are too many concessions to op-eds and attention seeking to be taken too seriously. On both sides it’s worked itself to the point of near failure. A fair reaction to the calls for support for ‘real journalism’ is, I think, ‘you first’.

Unfortunately it’s hard to see where between the ‘Paragons of Truth’ and ‘victimised workers in an amoral industry’ identities the will to that sort of action will come from. And without it it’s hard to see wider public leaping to the defence of traditional media models. Both the high ideals and industrial organisation has been absent for too long for the sympathy and support to be there any more.

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