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'It is like a feral beast'

Tony Blair has a few words for the media as he walks out the door:

The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st-century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not actually the masters of this change, they're in many ways the victims.

The result, however, is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by "impact." Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamor, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is often secondary to impact.

It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unraveling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

Broadsheets today face the same pressures as tabloids; broadcasters increasingly the same pressure as broadsheets. The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked.

The consequences of this are acute. First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial. Watergate was a great piece of journalism, but there is a Ph.D. thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up. What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct. But misconduct is what has impact.

Third, the fear of missing out means that today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out.

Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than, the news itself. So--for example--there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.

In turn, this leads to a fifth point which is the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course. In other words, this is not exceptional. It is routine.

Read the whole thing. Being Tony Blair, of course, he goes on to suggest that government may have a role in repairing these faults. I don't think so. But he's put his finger on some of the things that are wrong with the news today.

In today's media, a story on some new government policy initiative will open not with what that initiative is, but with a 'critic' saying what's wrong with it. The critic is not the official opposition, but just some unelected busybody fronting an organization claiming to represent some special interest group or be concerned with a particular issue. These sound-bite providers are summoned at will by the media, and are chosen for what they will say much more than any expertise or relevance they have to the story. And if for some reason they are not available the generic 'many', 'some', and 'critics' are always able to speak and let the reporter editorialize behind a facade of objectivity.

Then there is the reporting on motive. No action by the government is reported on without meandering asides as to what nefarious motives are behind it. The latest poll numbers and unrelated events will be woven into the story to cast doubt on the sincerity of all involved.

Skepticism and rebuttal are important to hear, but now they seem to crowd out the actual information. And I think it's just going to get worse before it gets better.

UPDATE: Fark's Drew Curtis has recently written a book about media stupidity. Some of the best quotes from it can be found here.


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