Dear Media, Look in the Mirror

There’s a lot of REALLY great points raised in this article here, by a Georgian journalist and media scholar, but unfortunately I disagree with most of the author’s conclusions. She claims that noise (ie everything from clickbait to fake news – all the bullshit online, basically) is the new censorship, because it’s drowning out the signal, ie all that is truthful.

Let me clarify. Noise is a major problem, but it’s still not the new censorship. The old censorship is very much still censorship (just ask Chinese people, or North Koreans, or indeed any citizen of a nation propping up the Global Press Freedom Index, or indeed a few near the top too.)

And new forms of censorship are the new censorship – ‘cancelling’ people for holding different opinions, ‘deplatforming’, boycotting, and so on.

This article blames Big Tech for the logarithmic rise in noise online. But to my mind, journalism has only itself to blame for the endless acceleration of the noise-to-signal ratio. In the democratised field of modern tech-enabled communication, journalism could and should have thrived as the pure signal offering. Instead, it allowed itself to become (even more) partisan, skewed, and untrustworthy than it already was.

The general public are not as stupid as journalists (who aren’t as smart as they think) think they are. They have learned how to ‘read between the lines’ of stories which often make little coherent sense, and glean what the missing data points are.

This has eroded trust in their former gatekeeping role.We’re now in a ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario. The public remember every instance when the media got it wrong, or deliberately misrepresented factuality, or presented partisan viewpoint as objective reportage. So when the media, as it does, presents legitimate and reliable work for public consumption, many people simply no longer trust it.

And so they turn to the charlatans’ parade of liars, cynics, clickbait peddlars, conspiracy theorists and ideologues online instead, thereby amplifying those noises and drowning out what little truth there is.

It’s a shitshow, no bones about it. But it’s disingenuous to put the entire blame at the door of Big Tech, much as I loathe them. Journalism needs to take a long look in the mirror to find the cause of its own woes. And I don’t mean the British redtop.

Sidebar of Shame

I have a guilty confession to make. I like tabloids. I used to write for them, quite a few of them in fact. I know a lot of people consider them to be low-rent, inaccurate, trashy or otherwise less than praiseworthy, but I’ve always thought they had a certain irreverent joie-de-vivre.

It’s quite difficult to write news for tabloids actually. Plenty of tabloid journalists have taken jobs with more ‘respectable’ (and poorer-selling) publications, but you rarely see anyone move in the opposite direction. Why? Because it’s actually a lot easier to write 1200 words of polysyllabic prose about a complex set of incidents than it is to summarise things in a succinct and pithy 400 words that a 12 year old could comprehend.

Anyhow, of course tabloids can also be egregious. Their sins are legion, and there’s no need to repeat them all here. But as a society, we get the media we deserve, a media which due to market forces inevitably reflects back our own collective interests and values. Hence it is no surprise that the readers of the UK’s Daily Mail reflect many of the opinions to be found within the paper’s articles.

In fact, one might reasonably argue that their own opinions often go much further into potential objectionability. This too has an entertainment and information value of its own. I often like to dip into the comments below Daily Mail articles to get a sense of how and what Middle England is currently fulminating about.

So it occurred to me one day, today in fact, that comments found below the Mail Online’s legendary ‘Sidebar of Shame’ might add up to an interesting found poem, a kind of meta-opinion from Middle England, a sort of universal reaction to the river of news which brings them to comment.

Every line below is a verbatim and genuine comment, but each is in response to a completely different story. Together it adds up to … well, like the Daily Mail readers, you be the judge.