Two Sides of Journalism

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 industry 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.

News of the World

“Go and get some close ups. Don’t forget the faces, always get the faces.”

The cameraman nodded and ran off through the wreckage. He was the perfect tool for her, he did whatever he was told and didn’t hesitate. She had no idea why, most of those she’d found herself stuck with on assignment fitted a familiar mould of moral squalor and self-doubting crusading, the hallmarks of those who seemed most drawn to and repulsed by the work she did as a war correspondent. Everything had to mean something to them, gnarled and numb as they got, there always had to be something for them to prey on in their own internal monologues. Not this new guy though, Ed, a browned and leathery Australian foisted on her on arrival in the war zone, apparently hand picked to work alongside her. From all she’d seen Ed had nothing to him beyond the actions of the job, every trip just a repetition of a well rehearsed routine.

Alone now she could survey the scene of, theoretically, unintentional carnage around her. There were corpses, lots of them. Rubble, dismemberments and still roaring fires made numbers hard to guess at though. A stray arm, a fragmented mosaic of bones, they could mean one death or half a dozen. A drone strike. Perhaps a well planned one but this was a civilian target, a market, even if they’d hit the victim they’d intended a lot more had perished at the same time. Regrettable, collateral damage, a tragedy and no doubt fleetingly mourned by those who’d pulled the trigger even if those giving the orders denied all knowledge of the potential for loss of life. That’d be the way it was sold at least, when a dour faced General delivered his monotone judgement on it.

It had happened less than an hour ago, she was first to arrive. First of the journalists at least. Improvised emergency services, survivors, crying strangers and traumatised looking passers by were all around but they hardly counted. No, from what she could see she was alone in the midst of it all and knowing that a smile crept across her face.

This was the purpose, this was the time, this was what drove her onward. There was something in the air as she walked through the destruction in the supreme isolation of other people’s distraction. Something vibrating through the air and resonating itself into her pores, tensing and easing muscles into a half-nervous peak of… something.

Her last cameraman had called her ghoulish, but then he was a prick. Self-involved and desperately trying to cultivate a drink problem to make up for his glib emoting in the face of anything and everything they confronted on the job. He’d been sad, constantly, nothing deeper than that but that wasn’t enough for him, it had all had to be elevated into something bigger and more special. Natasha had hated him and he’d hated her in return right up until he’d been shipped off to take picturesque long shots of tracer fire from hotel balconies. No loss, not to her anyway.

There was a body besides her. She hadn’t noticed it initially as she’d drifted forward amidst the rubble. Half buried and coated in white dust only the torso and face were showing, the rest covered by concrete blocks and steel fronds from the fallen trunk of a support beam. A man, in his twenties perhaps although death made it hard to tell. Natasha felt another shudder of that something as she looked down at him. How long since he’d died? An hour at most, she’d gotten the call seconds after the explosion and she moved fast. His life had ended and he’d never have realised it. That’d make people sad, if she told them about it, and she might – far be it from her to deny the dead their moment but there were other bodies too, other stories here and only a handful would reach the transmission. The saddest ones, the ones with the most grieving survivors left in their wake, not through Natasha’s choices, that was just the way it was. Networks and editors and audience ratings ordered the meaningful away from the sorry but forgotten detritus. She just stood in the stories, watching them swirl around her, she didn’t decide what they were.

There were sirens now, the last few ambulances that were still working probably. Or the police, or the military, rushing to stand where she was, to make their own contribution to the passing tragedy. That’d mean an end to her solitude as the distracted victims were replaced by a surplus of uniforms, each one eager to feel they could contribute even if it was far too late for the little they had to offer. She had to enjoy the moment while it lasted, enjoy her place in the heart of the already ebbing punctuation mark of minor human history.

Ed appeared in front of her, face as blank as ever, camera levelled and ready.


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NCfSS cover

 

Revolution in Sound, Revelation in Script

Words are democratic
language is free
the joyful expression
of linguistic debris
a boon to the silenced
a curse to decree
when all that we say
can be more than we see

A revolution in sound,
revelation in script,
ideals in thoughts
and dreams turned to myths

But even in chaos,
in what we can’t see
in the mind’s quiet speeches
the heart’s turning key
those moments we speak
our words all our own
still open the channel
to those that would own
to poisonous treason
and driven intent
to myopic focus
on deciding what’s meant
to turn all that we have
into all that they want
turning thought to assertion
to serve at greed’s wont

With silent delusion
and subtle attack
our words turn around us
as our meaning grows slack

Truth becomes falsehood
our own voice a lie
these things that once freed us
left slowly to die

And through this subversion,
there’s no ill intent
just blind, deaf appraisal
of what should be meant
as words democratic
and language once free
become tools of the certain
and weapons unseen

My latest work, No Cure for Shell Shock, is a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s available as an eBook and a paperback here.

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