Journalists are not out to intentionally deceive…

I just watched as a CNN reporter inadvertently confirm that he was completely unaware of what the actual problem is with fake news, and to be honest, what the problem is with the entire media profession. He kept repeating that he knew of no-one in his profession who was out to intentionally deceive. This was in response to a Trump supporter (who I can’t say that I admire) who was calling the segment a fake news story. They were looking at whether the President’s security is costing too much. But this is precisely the problem; why look at that? Why, of all the stories that they could be doing, were they looking at that issue? What is it that constitutes news?

Rather than getting bogged down into a discussion about whether that particular piece was ‘news’, the issue instead should highlight the real question: what are the factors that drive one story being chosen over another. It’s a debate about agenda setting, editors, ownership and real, perceived or pretended public opinion. It is also about deception, but not necessarily intentional. Should it matter, by the way, whether it is intentional? We do divide between intentional and unintentional killing, but we also put both people in prison.

One of the reasons this is a story is that some people will genuinely think it’s important we discuss how much the President spends on security. For some the President bit is more important and for another it’s the spending bit. Another person will argue, it’s not, and that there are more important things. A third person may argue, that whilst this story is important, there are equally important topics to discuss. A fourth person may say that this story is not important and that there are few really important topics to discuss. We could go on, but suffice to say it’s not what people think that is going to give us the answer to this issue. Because of this thought experiment we can surmise that public opinion, either real, perceived or pretended, is not what is driving this story, it can’t be, public opinion, you should see, has to be pretty broad. Does CNNs other stories reflect this diversity? I don’t think so because in this age of branding, there is a systemic tendency to follow branding and give what your consumers want.

Can we fall back on the claim that it is CNN’s public who want to see this sort of story? I think for the same reasons as above, that can’t be true either. It’s not like CNN would put at the bottom of the screen ‘this is for all you guys who think this is important’. What about the other watchers who disagree? Are they supposed to just switch it off? If that is the case, then can we say CNN, or any media outlet, is truly speaking on behalf of the public? Isn’t it truer, under this perspective, that CNN is speaking to its tribe. Doesn’t that necessarily make them partisan? Doesn’t this also fly in the face of what we think the fourth estate should be doing? Finally, is it acceptable in a journalistic or moral sense, for CNN to claim it is for their viewers only? By the by, all this shows the problem with mixing interest (capitalism) and public services too.

So what is true? Not much, and that’s the problem. If I understand this security spending story as negative, we could say that its motivation is to implicitly attack the President. Or its motivation is to be negative towards spending on security. We could also say, it’s just one story amongst many others and in the collection of these stories we would see a different picture. I’m not sure we would, but again, that’s a different debate. What is key here is understanding that it is in all these questions, in all this uncertainty, that deception, intentional and unintentional, reigns supreme. If I can’t prove anything, I can be wrong and thus, I can be (and probably am being) deceived. I need a ‘benchmark’ to know what is true.

Academics who are specialists in this field are well aware that there are strong arguments for the idea that what we get on the news is a mixture or friction between what the owner of the media outlet, what the editor, what the journalists and what the public (and others such as advertisers) want to see. It is a friction between tribes, motivations and intentions. But they also know it’s really hard to prove any of this. So again, it’s not so important whether I am or are not being deceived, it is that I could be.

Now, under these premises, ask yourself, what are the reasons we are watching or reading news story x. The first answer has to be, because it is in front of me. But why is it in front of me? The only answer can be, that the producer of x thought it is newsworthy. But why did they think that? Can you see how we’re not going to get any certainty down this or related lines of enquiry?

And this is the exact problem with fake news and the media in general. It’s the uncertainty (or unjustified certainty) of everyone involved that is the problem. We won’t be able to trust the media or news in general until we all know that the selection of news stories is at zero or a minimum; that we are getting the whole story, and all the stories, positive and negative, important and mundane (as boring as that might be to read or watch); that there is a global authority who can police the media (but not censor it) and investigate all this; that a media outlet represents all the different types of views there can be; that there is a guider and champion of truth (i.e. of these different views); and that, when we see a story, we know that whether it is important to us or not, whether we agree with it or not or whether it is fitting with my agenda or not and so on, that we also know all the ‘or nots’ are being satisfied elsewhere. So no, your intention can’t be proven Mr Media, but we are being deceived in some way nonetheless.