Is journalism inherently pessimistic? Why is there so much ‘bad news’? | University of Oxford
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SURUC, TURKEY-SEPTEMBER 20, 2014: Turkey opened its border to Syrians fleeing the town of Kobane in fear of an Islamic State attack. Tens of thousands have fled to Turkey on september 20, 2014.
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Is journalism inherently pessimistic? Why is there so much ‘bad news’?

I’ve come to Norham Gardens, down a side street off Banbury Road, to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The institute is based in a Victorian villa and still bears many of the hallmarks of a stately home: dimmed lights, large carpeted spiral staircases, bronze busts on the mantlepieces and sizeable bookshelves on the stairs.

I’m meeting Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the new Director of Research at the institute. I want to pick up with him where I left off in the last article – if things are in fact getting better for us as time goes on, why is the message in the news so different? I want to know more about the mechanics of bad news, and I’m hoping Dr Nielsen can provide me with some answers.

'I think we have to start with journalism to understand news. News is what journalists make. And the tension that we see there is between two different ideals for the profession that are overlapping but not identical. One is that the mission of journalism is to find truth and report it and another one is that the mission of journalism is to hold power to account.'

"Shit happens; that doesn’t make it news."

This is the point Rasmus starts on and it sets up the basis of our discussion. That overlap, of what is true and what holds power to account, is the nub of what we recognise as a good news story: 'So the reaction businessmen, politicians, leaders often get from journalists, if they have good news, is "Well, that’s all well and good, but it’s not news. Our business is not to publicise your business, it’s to challenge you and hold you to account. We will make our own decisions about what we think is newsworthy (even if the positive is true)." To put it bluntly, "Shit happens; that doesn’t make it news."

'Instead, the pieces that seem more inherently newsworthy to many journalists are often things that can be used to tell a story about how people in positions of power are not all that they make themselves out to be – so an attempt to expose or de-mask powerful institutions, powerful individuals, powerful organisations of various sorts.'

Rasmus then makes an interesting distinction: journalists are drawn to events over trends. 'This often frustrates economists, because you see a disjoint between what they perceive to be the truth of the situation as a whole – as opposed to the event-focused reporting favoured by many journalists which may accentuate more negative events, and in particular things that have consequences for named individuals; the human interest story.'

I feel like we’re getting to the heart of the difference between Max’s message: 'the empirical view of our world shows how the Enlightenment continues to make our world a better place' and the headlines we read. 'We all know that we’re living longer than we were a century ago, it’s true, but it doesn’t have the same utility, the same "newsworthiness" of a piece that also seeks to hold a powerful body to account.  There is something inherently useful, inherently stabilising about power that must answer to press.

'That said, if you look at everything a journalist produces – for example sports journalism – it’s not all ‘bad news’: it’s euphoric, very partisan, patriotic; even when you look at the tribal allegiances of a club within a country, it focuses on the celebration of the athlete and the camaraderie of the fans. It’s a celebration of the culture of the sport, it’s a celebration of the solidarity among fans and the team, the heroic exploits of individuals or the strength and unity of a group of players. So sports journalism isn't negative at all, but it’s journalism.'

One cannot overemphasise the importance of the Watergate moment

Why is there such a disparity between the two? After all, sports and media personalities can be as powerful as prominent politicians. We enjoy the 'triumph of the individual' story, but it would be surprised to see it in a political context. Dr Nielsen supplies a possible explanation: “One cannot overemphasise the importance of the Watergate moment; the implicit acceptance of the basic truthfulness of senior politicians as a bedrock of society was fundamentally compromised – and by the most symbolically significant office in world (that of the US president).

Europeans today don’t hold the US government in very high regard, but we have to remember this was at a time when the US was in many ways seen as a better functioning democracy than any in Europe, with the Second World War a living memory, the legacy of fascism, the Cold War, and the complexities and problems associated with parliamentary government were very visible.'

So is journalism today left with the hangover of a Nixon-era sense of betrayed trust? Are we now and forever married to ‘bad news’ in the reporting of politics? Rasmus doesn’t think so: 'There is an awareness among journalists that audiences are frustrated with the negative tone of news. The world may be a bad place, but it’s not only a bad place. There are reform movements underway in journalism – editors are stressing that if journalism in part helps people understand the world in which they live, journalism has to be focused not only on problems but also on solutions – not always on things that go wrong, but also things that work well. And that, in a way, the same principle that we apply in sports journalism, the "surprising triumph of the underdog", is actually a story that might play well elsewhere too – in the coverage of politics, in the coverage of economics. And that in these areas, as important as it is to be critical, to be sceptical, to be detached, to challenge those in power, there is more to it than that, and journalism can be about much more than simply exposing problems.'

It’s a brilliant and exhaustive exegesis of why we hear so much bad news. I’m intrigued now about Rasmus’s general research. What is your research interest at the Reuters Institute, how did you get there and what are the questions you pursues in your own time?

'My core interest as a researcher now is to understand how the institutional preconditions for independent journalism are changing.' This is Rasmus’s opening statement and he takes some care to unpack this. He covers firstly the future of journalism in light of the increasingly untenable business model it is based on, and secondly the centrality of journalism in democratic society.

'We’ve inherited a media system in which there are two basic ways in which journalism is supported, or at least journalism that is relatively independent of other pressures. One is through the private sector – companies that produce journalism for commercial reasons. The other side is the institution of public service media, agreed by the political class and supported by the population, who see having public service media is a good thing, something that is worth paying for in the form of a licence fee, or in some countries appropriations via taxes. Both of these forms of media are facing an immense structural transformation today. The two major sources of revenue, users paying and advertisers paying, are both in jeopardy. And this means that literally tens of thousands of journalists are losing their jobs.'

He expands on this: 'this has a lot of consequences for the kinds of news that gets produced. The Financial Times serves a different audience to the Daily Mirror and so it produces different news; what happens in the future if we have more Daily Mirrors than we do FTs? The same thing for public service, a future in which the public service is done differently or there is less of it is a world in which journalism functions differently.'

'Journalism is an imperfect but important part of democracy and it’s important to understand that, while some of these things are about large structural changes that are of an epochal nature – the rise of digital media, the transformation of our economy from one that’s primarily organised around regional and national hubs to one in which much is globalised – there are also choices we can make as citizens on the basis of how we think about the way in which our media is developing.'

It’s an intriguing point to finish on – have you come to any conclusions as to what we as citizens could do to help give journalism a better future?

'I’m in my early 30s, I’m part of the last generation who has a living memory of what a low-choice media environment was like. I grew up in a fully democratic market economy in Denmark, and yet I can still remember a time in which we had one television channel that broadcast for something like 10–12 hours a day. And the main source of news beyond that was a couple of newspapers you could get. Now my students think I’m from the Stone Age when I say this - and for obvious reasons: this is completely unrecognisable to people who are just 10 years younger than me.

'So we’re at a moment now when there is a new generation growing up for whom digital media is a given. But I think what we as media users and as citizens probably ought to be thinking a little bit about is: Why is it that the news we get exists? Why did that journalist get paid?'

'I think at the moment, in the western world, that news is still largely produced because people like my parents subscribe to newspapers and watch linear, scheduled television around which you can place advertising, whereas my own news habits are much, much harder to build sustainable businesses around. Our parents’ media generation will disappear; we will have to think about whether we will pay for news, and, if not, what happens then? It’s a question that will confront us in the relatively near future.'

It’s a fascinating area of research – how did your ideas come to be? What planted the original interest?

There is more to democracy than simply voting: it is also that we as citizens are empowered to make meaningful decisions about ideals, interests and aspirations – about who we vote for, but also whether we want to get engaged in other ways. And the precondition for that is knowing something about the world that goes beyond your personal experience.

'There are always two ways of telling one’s story, you can create narrative coherence in retrospect or you can tell the one which is all just sound and fury. And both are true – right – in a way?' He smiles, 'I think that probably the more compelling one is the one with an element of coherence to it. My most fundamental interest, intellectually, is what the institutions are that make it possible for people to be a citizen. It’s clear that one of the key preconditions of citizenship is information – an ability to orient oneself in public life. I’m interested in things which make it possible for individuals to exercise some influence on political democracy, beyond casting their vote. There is more to democracy than simply voting: it is also that we as citizens are empowered to make meaningful decisions about ideals, interests and aspirations – about who we vote for, but also whether we want to get engaged in other ways. And the precondition for that is knowing something about the world that goes beyond your personal experience.

'From a business and policy point of view, my interest grew out of my experience of living and working in the US. I came there as a European and I just realised from being part of conversations in the US that there were a lot of assumptions, unquestioned assumptions, about why things were happening in the media that lent themselves to a pretty deterministic narrative: things being a necessary, logical and inevitable conclusion from certain things going on in society, that I just knew as a fact were not so because I had come from a different place, where the same structural transformations were underway but things were developing rather differently, in part for political reasons, in part for cultural reasons. So I became interested because it was made visible to me how, even within a range of relatively similar countries, there were actually quite dramatically different things going on in the field of journalism. So I just became really interested in these similarities and differences.'

Rasmus then moves on to talk about coming to Oxford and his work at the Reuters Institute: 'One of the exciting things about coming here – initially as a research fellow and now as Director of Research – is that through an institution like the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism I get the opportunity to meet journalists and media professionals and media policymakers from such a wide variety of different countries. Every day I’m confronted with this endlessly fascinating combination of an almost global set of shared aspirations among journalists and media policymakers on one level, but also an incredible array of fascinating differences. Differences in how these things operate, in how they are underpinned, in what the businesses are like, in what the policies are like. So every day I’m given 100 new questions for comparative research.'

He continues: 'This is just an amazing environment to work in. My own background is in political science and communication research. But I think it is clear from what we’ve talked about so far, as important as it is to rely on the core strengths of political science and media communication research to understand journalism and how it intersects with citizenship in a democracy, it’s not sufficient. So for me here to work at a university like Oxford with access to resources from the Saïd Business School to understand the business side of this and economics, to have access to people at the Oxford Internet Institute to understand the technology side of this and the way in which people use that technology, to have access to the Oxford Martin School to really be in touch with a bunch of people who think much more about the future – it’s just an immense privilege, that really is like almost no other university.'

 

It’s been a fascinating and thorough discussion of bad news and the future of news. I want to know more about how we as citizens weigh up collective good with private gain. We know the future of news is in jeopardy, but will that convince many of us to change our habits? How do we go about making decisions for the public good even if they contradict our immediate good? I'll be speaking to moral philosopher, David Edmonds, a moral philosopher at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.