News media and the logic of commerce: The rising tide of “churnalism”

In his groundbreaking and highly influential book first published in 1983, Benedict Anderson suggests that nations are socially constructed and imagined into existence. The title of the book is now just about a cliché: Imagined Communities.

One of the major contributing factors in the emergence of nations and nationalism in the era of the industrial revolution, Anderson argues, was the development of mass communication – books and newspapers – which he refers to as “print capitalism”. It was this new means of regular communication among and between people who had never met each other which was critical to the development of the imagined community of an entire nation.

The continuing power of communication media to determine how we understand ourselves and engage with each other in both the public and private sphere is well recognised. But degree of this power is difficult to assess accurately. In particular, we might ask – to what extent does the media report political events and to what extent does it control and shape them?

Ten years ago, Gianpetro Mazzoleni and Winfried Schultz (1999) asked this very question. They describe the “somewhat apocalyptic position” of some critics who see

conventional mass communication and new communication technologies as sharing what could be described as a “mutagenic” impact on politics, that is, the ability to change politics and political action into something quite different from what traditionally has been embodied in the tenets of liberal democracy. (p.248)

Mazzoleni and Schultz reject this idea of an all-powerful global media pulling the strings of politicians on a whim. But at the same time they do not underestimate the role of the media in politics. They present the idea of the ‘mediatised’ politics; a “politics that has lost its autonomy, has become dependent in its central functions on mass media, and is continuously shaped by interactions with mass media” (p.250).

Neil Gavin (2009) writes that in this mediatised political world, politicians fear “that the media may shape the public’s perception of what is important … or influence the public’s opinion and attitudes not only about the whys and wherefores of [an] issue but also about government performance.”

And even if there is no such media influence “politicians think that the public are influenced and may act on this premise” (p.766). Thus we are experiencing the carrying on of politics to an ever-increasing extent through and with reference to the mass media.

This might be considered a fairly undesirable state of political affairs in a democracy. But it is far worse than fairly undesirable because of the state of the mass media itself. In Flat Earth News, an analysis of the news media published in 2008, Nick Davies tells a media tale as horrifying as it could possibly be. And he tells it from the inside: currently a writer for the Guardian, and a former UK journalist of the year, Davies has been in the industry for more than 30 years. He writes:

Almost all journalists across the whole developed world now work within a kind of professional cage which distorts their work and crushes their spirit. (p.3).

For Davies the root of the problem is not overweening proprietors (though they exist) or the influence of wealthy advertisers (though it happens), it is the frenzied corporate “logic of pure commerce” and the creation of “news factories” which churn out stories without checking basic facts. Research quoted by Davies has shown that even on the ‘best’ of the UK’s newspapers, only 12% of reporters’ stories are their own work and only 12% of key facts are checked (p.60).

The pressure on journalists and editors to crank out ‘content’ as fast as possible is such that it leads them to run cheap stories, unverified facts and safe ideas. Our news media have been swamped by a tide of PR and their response is simply to repackage and recycle it in what Davies scathingly calls “churnalism” (p.59).

Davies is particularly severe on ‘balance’ – the news media’s habit of giving ‘both sides of the story’. (I recall Robert Fisk being similarly critical.) Balance is, says Davies, a safety net; it is

a fallback, when the attempt to uncover the truth has failed: then, honesty requires that journalists admit their ignorance and lay out the fragments of truth which they have managed to collect.

But to make it the object, to make it a golden rule in the training of journalists [is] to ease the flow of journalism without truth. (p.132)

This happens because in the world of churnalism every lie, every piece of spin, every spurious factoid and every unchecked piece of deliberate deceit – from wherever it issues – needs only to be ‘balanced’ by ‘another view’ for the journalist’s work to be done. Balance has replaced truth as the object of reporting the news. The consequence of this new ‘golden rule’ is that ‘balance’ has become

A gateway through which spokesmen for the consensus are invited to enter our stories with their comments, regardless of whether or not they are false, distorted or propaganda. (p.133)

To get a feeling for just how bad things have become, check out some of the media falsehoods and propaganda Nick Davies exposes on his website here.

What could be done to right this situation? Davies is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for any improvement:

It is highly unlikely that we will find any way of bringing the media back on track. … we are dealing with a system that is running out of control, with the logic of commerce randomly overwhelming the requirements of reporting. A conspiracy can be broken; chaos is harder to control. (p.394)

We might choose to accept the realities of ‘mediatised’ politics and play the game accordingly. But where does that leave us? Reliant upon what Nick Davies is “forced to admit [is] a corrupted profession” (p.3). We can’t be surprised at the outcome.

If we return to my starting point, Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities, it is disturbing to think about role of a corrupt journalism in that imagination, and its influence in the construction of our communities.

However, let’s remember that some journalists do stand out against that corruption of their profession: Robert Fisk (UK), Barbara Ehrenreich (US), John Pilger (Australia) and Gordon Campbell (NZ) are some of those who are familiar to me, and Davies’ book also drew my attention to the splendid investigative work of the US Center for Public Integrity. They give me hope.

Benedict Anderson (1991) Imagined communities (2nd edition). London: Verso.
Nick Davies (2008) Flat earth news. London: Chatto & Windus.
Neil T Gavin (2009) Addressing climate change: a media perspective Environmental Politics, 18(5), 765-780.
Gianpietro Mazzoleni and Winfried Schulz (1999) ‘Mediatization’ of politics: A challenge for democracy? Political Communication, 16(3), 247-261.

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