Night Thoughts on Journalism

There’s an illuminating item that’s recently been posted on Enemies of Reason about the way that the press has been handling H1N1, and the way in which the distinction between deaths from and deaths with the illness has been blurred.  And it’s very easy to look at the newspaper stands and laugh at the manner in which they generate health scares from nothing – and the manner in which they then keep them going.  (Need one mention the MMR pseudo-controversy that just seems to keep on running?)

It’s not only in respect of health that journalism gets things wrong or sensationalises the trivial, of course – it happens all the time in science journalism more generally.  There is, the wisdom goes, a terrible lack of understanding about science among journalists and – worse – a perception that they don’t care that they don’t understand.  Ben Goldacre keeps returning to this theme: in the last few days, he has picked up on this particularly egregious example – the same story was noted and demolished by EoR (among others) a little while ago – and PZ Meyers has highlighted another in the recent past.  And, of course, bad science journalism and bad medical journalism come together, since it’s in respect of health that much scientific reserch gets into the papers to begin with.  (It’s either health, dinosaurs or global warming…)

So we can construct an argument about bad journalism.  It’d go something along the lines that lazy or incompetent writing is misleading, and thereby puts people’s health and welbeing in danger.  Parents are not getting their children vaccinated because of HPV and MMR stories that are simply not true, and that’s generating a serious health threat.  Others are making other decisions that have effects ranging from unnecessary anxiety to threats to life based on the way that health stories get reported.  Perhaps this might not be quite so worrisome when we’re talking about the way the mainstream press covers a story about, say, the expression of a gene in zebrafish (assuming that it got any coverage at all), since noone sane is going to change their life on the basis of how that gets reported.  But in respect of matters of health… well, that’s potentially a bit different.  And by “a bit”, I mean “very”.

Or we could construct a rather less consequentialist argument, and say that journalism that distorts the facts is blameable without any appeal to the outcomes at all – it’d still be blameable if it made people do optimific things.

A secondary charge is that the press treats “balance” as demanding equal time for all sides – which means allowing vaccination cranks as much space as people who know of what they speak.  (On which topic, Dara O’Briain is worth a watch…)  Again, this is misleading, and perhaps culpably so.

I’m beginning to wonder whether this is correct, though – or, at least, whether there might be at least a limited case for the defence.  With no small trepidation, here goes…

Suppose we want to call the journalism bad.  By what standard are we applying the term?  An intuitive answer would be that the reportage distorts the story – that it is untrue.  However, there’s a few questions that we need to ask about this assertion.

First, what do we mean by “untrue”?  An account of an event could be an outright lie, but that’s not the only way for it to be divergent from the truth or to be misleading.  Clearly, one can be truthful while still diverging from a complete account of the matter in question – and this seems not only unproblematic, but inevitable and perhaps even desirable.  A truthful account will always and inevitably have to be framed by the rules of narrative.  By giving an account of something, there will be some things that will be given importance, others that are not.  That can’t be helped.  A truthful account isn’t wertfrei – it has to be built on some value structure; for it not to be would be the equivalent of showing a film without putting a lens on the projector.  “Truth is un-truth” says Heidegger (somewhere) – to tell the truth is not the same as to give a truthful account; we can’t help but to be partial, and that’ll mean having to tailor any account to fit finite time and finite vocabulary.  (Think of this analogy: we don’t say that a map is untruthful because it simplifies the landscape or because lines of longitude aren’t actually parallel.  Yes, I know that’s Borges’ example.)  So a truthful account isn’t going to be complete, an incomplete account doesn’t necessarily lack truthfulness, and a complete account would be unmanageable.  An account of affairs that’s tailored to fit may diverge from “The Truth” in some abstract, utterly objective, undistorted (and quite possibly wholly etiolated) sense – but since that divergence is unavoidable, it seems odd to blame people for not avoiding it.  Some kind of distortion is built into giving any account of the world whatsoever, and so it doesn’t seem just to blame the scribe.

I suspect that this is likely to be controversial – and I’m not wholly convinced of it myself; there might still be an obligation to be truth-tracking (although such an obligation would be compatible with the account I’ve just offered).  But let’s put those worries to one side, and move on to something else: Were it actually possible for journalists to give a complete and undistorted account of affairs, would doing so actually be their primary duty?

It’s not obvious that it would.

Leave aside all the trivial stuff about lying – as I think I’ve just suggested, you don’t have to be a liar not to tell the truth; you don’t have to be deceitful to deceive.  We might have a duty not to lie, but that doesn’t imply a positive duty to tell everything we know, notwithstanding Kant’s bizarre claim about murderers.  The question stands: Is it actually true that journalists have a primary duty to tell the truth?

There’s a couple of considerations here.  The function of journalism is to tell a story; the function of a journalist is to tell a story and sell it.  This means that his story has to have something about it that’ll make people want to buy.  Moreover, qua employee of a given publication, a journalist’ll have a duty to his employers to generate sellable copy.  And sellable does not seem to have much to do with being dispassionate.  (Granted, there’s a possible exception here for the publicly-funded media; and there might be commercial media whose USP is that they are unsensational – but, even then, the lack of sensation in a commercial medium is a selling point, and it’ll follow in the wake of public demand.)

Moreover, it’s not just the metaphysics of truthtelling that mean stories have to be tailored: the same pressure’ll come from this saleability criterion.  Scientific discoveries are often – let’s face it – very boring indeed, and equally often they don’t contribute more than incrementally to the sum of human knowledge.  And the public isn’t all that bright a lot of the time, either: a large portion of the UK adult population doesn’t even have the literacy and numeracy skills that one could reasonably expect of an 11-year-old, so there’s no point pitching a survey in such a way as would only be understood by a graduate if you want to sell it.  Add to that the demands of space within a newspaper or time within a news broadcast, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the press release from the lab has to be cherry picked and the story retold.

So my worry is this: could it be that the problem with sensationalist journalism is less that it is misleading – all kinds of things can be misleading – than that we’re wrong-headed in our expectations of journalism?  It might be that the press is morally blameable for presenting itself as – in the words of Fox “News” – fair and balanced.  But, again, if this is right, then the criticism that what is presented actually is unbalanced (or uncritical, in the case of the equal-space objection) falls out of contention.  If only the medium in question would admit that it’s telling a story based on the truth, rather than telling us the truth an sich, then things’d be different.

This isn’t about giving carte blanche to idiots and to the press to be deceitful.  It’s just a matter of admitting that it’s hard to tell the truth and it’s not clear that this is what the media are for anyway.  This is a lesson that applies to both sides.  We shouldn’t look to the commercial press for truth (although we could reasonably expect it to be truthful); nor should that commercial press pretend that it is telling The Truth.  At most, it’s telling a story truthfully – that is, not disingenuously (which is why I’m not about allowing the Daily Fail or the Sexpress to continue with their fictitious vaccine scares, just because they are not only misleading, but they are based on claims that are known to be false).

The reason why Kant thought deceit wrong had to do with the expectation of truthfulness; deceit can’t, he thought, be universalised because it’d undermine the expectation of truthfulness upon which it depends.  But not all false statements demand this, which is why jokes aren’t forbidden by the Categorical Imperative.  Noone expects them to be reliable accounts of the world.  And maybe the same applies to much of the media.  If we relinquish the expectation of reliability, it no longer matters that the stories are misleading.

Maybe we just have to have lower expectations.

Trust me: I want to be wrong on this.  And you can rely on me to tell the tr… oh, bugger.

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