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Archive for January 29th, 2009

One of the most disturbing trends in modern journalism is the manufacturing of news. Of course, journalists – or, at least, editors – have always had the power to decide what is or isn’t news, which is why Rolling Stones’ conversion of the New York Times’ motto “All the news that’s fit to print” to “All the news that fits” is so cynically funny. But what I’m talking about goes even deeper: I mean cases where reporters from reporting the news and starts to making it – often out of very little substance.

For example, Susan Faludi, who is best-known for Backlash, her book on the reactions to feminism, but is also one of the keenest observers in general of the media in North America, notes that, after the September 11th attacks, reporters claimed that women in the United States were suddenly lusting after firefighters. As Faludi observes, this trend was based on no statistical evidence, and often nothing more than a few off-hand comments. Yet it soon became a truism that the media took for granted, its members forgetting that they had created the story themselves.

Some manufactured news is relatively benign. Stories to mark the anniversary of an event are usually fairly lame, but perhaps in an era where the cultural memory is so short, they serve more point than simply providing journalists with an easy story based on old material. And at least anniversary stories are based on real events, although the danger exists that new interpretations will be slipped in, as happened with the twentieth anniversary of Expo 86 in Vancouver, when journalists managed to pretend that the considerable political dissent that the event generated never happened.

Similarly, while journalists reporting on other journalists means that, rather disturbingly, they move from behind behind the scenes to being part of the news, that does happen naturally from time to time. About the worst thing you can say about this type of manufactured news is that journalists do not make nearly as fascinating copy as they seem to believe, and, while they are indulging their own interests, they are usually boring the general public. Still, reporting on journalists can cause an imbalance in the news, as happened when Conrad Black went on trial and dozens of eastern Canadian journalists, many of whom had either worked for Black or with him, gave him coverage that was not only wildly excessive, but so willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that the quality of reporting slipped badly.

However, other types of manufactured news undermine the supposed traditions of journalism more consistently. The manufacturing of a trend based upon a few anecdotes or wishful thinking, the sort of occurrence that Faludi is making a career out of documenting, exists on all levels of journalism, but makes a mockery of the idea of investigation and the effort to uncover truth. Instead, it is the passing off of fiction as reality through repetition – and all the deadlines in the world cannot excuse the fact that it is simply shoddy reporting.

Similarly, when a journalist interviews a celebrity, they frequently fall into the associational fallacy – the idea that, because someone famous endorses something, it must be good, or at least news-worthy enough to be on the front page rather than in the sports or entertainment sections where it belongs. Given the power of the media (and, since the Internet, that power has become greater than ever, even if those who hold that power have shifted), any promotion of sloppy thinking is an event to regret. And when that promotion becomes a regular event, it becomes even more alarming. I also have to wonder why editors are giving away free advertising.

At times, manufactured news turns even nastier, being based on outright distortions and over-simplifications. For instance, recently in the free software media, a great deal of attention was paid to the fact that Linus Torvalds, the benevolent dictator of the Linux kernel, was no longer using one piece of software (the KDE desktop), but had switched to a rival (the GNOME desktop). This switch was only a small part of an interview that covered far broader-ranging and interesting topics, and the comments were casual. Not only that, but the switch was provisional, with Torvalds saying that he would reconsider his choice the next time he set up a computer. But, by giving these comments an exaggerated importance, free software journalists ended up systematically misrepresenting the affair to the public.

What makes this manufacturing of the news particularly troublesome is that, being overworked and under deadline, journalists often borrow from one another. This habit breaks the implied contract that journalists have with readers – especially if the journalist is a columnist – since one of the claims that journalists have to their audiences’ attention is that they are supposed to offer expert information or informed opinion.

But, when manufactured news enters the picture, the habit becomes a means for distortion and poor research to become more accepted.

I can’t say that I have always resisted the temptation to manufacture news myself. I’ve done my share of anniversary reporting, just as most journalists have done. But that is minor peccadillo at best, and sometimes useful. Nor, I’m sure, can I claim that bias creeps into work despite my best efforts – real bias, I means, not the sort that people mean when my efforts to marshal facts leads to a conclusion different from theirs.

But, for me, journalism is supposed to be an effort to express the truth as I see it. Deliberately, consciously manufacturing news is an abandonment of that effort for convenience, and produces only distortion. As I struggle with mixed success to keep my own hands clean, I can only become angry at other people in my profession who no longer even try to do so.

And so, too, should their readers.

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