Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Suggestions for a new press ethics / the indirect effects of fake news

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It is no secret that I am deeply troubled by the incompetence, irrationality, and partiality of journalists*. For some years, the short-comings of journalism have seen a partial cure through independent, Internet-based, sources of news and opinions. True, the average blogger is worse than the average journalist, but there are very many bloggers who make journalists look clueless.** True, many of the independent news sites are even more partial than traditional news papers, but they are partial in different directions and help to give readers a different perspective and to overcome the censorship*** and partisan angling that is common in journalism.

*For the sake of simplicity, I will mostly speak of “journalist”, “news paper”, and similar. This should not be taken to exclude e.g. TV news, TV reporters, and the like. The problem is a general one with traditional news media.

**And, frankly, when I hear journalists speak derisively about bloggers, or complain about bloggers not treating “real journalists” with sufficient respect, I marvel at their conceit and lack of self-insight.

***Usually driven by a fear that the readers will come to the “wrong” conclusion (i.e. another conclusion than journalist has) if exposed to the uninterpreted and unfiltered facts.

The new phenomenon of “fake news” threatens to end this cure: Firstly, the presence of “fake news” makes alternative sources of news less likely to be trusted to begin with. Secondly, traditional media and their allies are campaigning massively for more censorship against “fake news”. If that happens, even those alternative sources that engage in honest reporting could end up suffering severely, (E.g. because platforms like Facebook could choose to censor on the mere suspicion or because of uninformed or malicious complaints directed at actual news. This problem is worsened by the simultaneous increase in complaints against “hate-speech”—which, sadly and real occurrences of hate-speech notwithstanding, quite often amounts to nothing more than disagreeing with the politically correct “truth”) Considering how these things tend to run, it would also not be unsurprising if the bars were pushed higher and higher over time, giving traditional news sources their monopoly back. The meaning of “fake news” could very soon turn from actual fakes (“Trump is an alien”) to that which violates the world-view of the journalists or the politically correct (in Sweden, possibly, a study indicating differences between men and women that are in-born and not caused by societal brain-washing).

Depending on developments, “fake news” per se could prove to be a smaller problem than these side-effects…

Given this situation I have to call for another cure through a new type of press ethics based on strict adherence to principles like:

  1. To always report the facts in a manner that allows the readers to form their own opinions—even if they happen to deviate from the journalist’s. This includes not selectively filtering facts that that are unpleasant or incongruent with the journalist’s world view, and not presuming to be an arbiter of what is relevant and what not. (Except to the degree that space constraints prevent a listing of all details that e.g. Sherlock Holmes might have liked to hear.)
  2. Never to assume that journalists are more clever, better informed, better at critical thinking, …, than their readers. Quite often, the assumption is faulty even for the average reader—and it will virtually never be true for a significant part of the readership.
  3. Never to mix news and opinion. Opinion belongs in opinion pieces. If a journalist wants to express a certain opinion, he should keep the news clean and write a separate opinion piece, clearly marked as such. More often than not opinion pieces will be irrelevant; when they are relevant contrasting opinions should be allowed a say.

    As a notable special case, issues of ethics, “right and wrong”, …, are always (?) a matter of opinion, and, if ever, such opinions should only be applied when they are supported by a virtual consensus of the population. In many cases, a better solution is to contrast something against a specific set of rules. (E.g. by preferring “X’s article violates several rules of press ethics suggested by Michael Eriksson” rather than “X’s article is unethical”.)

  4. Ditto news and analysis, with the addendum that analysis is usually better left to an independent expert on the matter at hand than to a journalist (and that analysis might be relevant far more often than opinion). A good analysis, of course, will give all sides of the issue a fair hearing and will not be limited to using one particular approach. (Unless using the approach is uncontroversial: Solving a mathematical equation usually leads to the same result irrespective of which (sound) approach is used; however, a fiscal measure can lead to very different expected results when analyzed with different models.)

    I point especially to the many, many instances of journalists encountering a scientific study and jumping to a conclusion that is premature, only one of several possible, or simply nonsensical. Even something so trivial is often not understood as that “the study failed to show X” does not automatically imply “the study showed not-X”.

  5. To understand that the “common wisdom” among journalists, politicians, and the average citizen is often very far from what science actually says and to give preference to scientific opinion over personal opinion when reporting.
  6. To, as a counter-point, understand that not everyone who claims to be an expert actually is, that scientists often differ in opinion, and that the softer sciences are often fraught with ideological concerns.

    Experts tied to political or ideological movements are particularly likely (deliberately or through a biased world-view) to make flawed claims. To boot, the risk of encountering “experts” who simple lack the intelligence, tools, and/or depth and breadth of knowledge is considerably higher when talking with a member of a movement than with, say, a university professor.

  7. To always respect and convey any uncertainty present, especially in a legal context. For instance, someone suspected or accused of murder should always be referred to as “murder suspect” (and so on). In fact, considering how many miscarriages of justice take place, it is better to speak in terms of “convict”, “convicted”, and similar, even after a suspect has been found guilty—and to speak in terms “found guilty” rather than “guilty”. (In the U.S. system of bartering confessions for less punishment, not even a confession can be seen as conclusive proof of guilt.)
  8. To always give both parties in a controversy an equal say (or at least the opportunity for it) and to never side with either one in a news item. (That a journalist will side with one or the other in private is often unavoidable.) Siding within an opinion piece or analysis might or might not be justifiable depending on the circumstances, but it is clear that the siding should be based in reason and not emotions or prejudices about the parties involved.
  9. To never distort or exaggerate someones opinions or statements, including making assumptions about intent, motivation, inner state, unstated opinions, etc. A particular problematic case (that I have often complained about) is distortions like someone protesting against (militant) Islamism but being categorized as anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. Another is the common assumption or claim that someone is racist or sexist based even on a factual, scientifically uncontroversial claim that does not fit the own world-view.

I stress that this list is by no means complete. There are likely many items of a similar type that can be added, with an even greater number coming from other areas, at least some of which are present in many current attempts at similar lists*. I could probably write several blog entries alone on journalists’ use of language… Admittedly, these several blog entries would be on the wrong abstraction level for a discussion of press ethics, but the point is that there other problem areas.

*While much of the above goes contrary to what many journalists appear to consider their role and would imply a major change of course.

I further stress that this list is intended for journalists and their like. Some of it can be taken to apply to e.g. bloggers or commenters too, especially where issues like representation of others’ opinions and other matters of “intellectual honesty” are concerned; however, much of it is simply irrelevant, redundant, or impractical when we move away from traditional journalism. (Starting with something as simple readers’ expectations: Blog–personal opinion. News paper–facts.)

As an aside: It is almost funny that the “fake news” debate has started in the wake of increased criticism of the press (at least in Germany). Even the phrase it self is close to the “Lügenpresse” (“lie press”, “liar press”) used by some German groups to belittle the press. While “Lügenpresse” has caused an outrage among journalists, I can only see it as unfair on two counts: Being too much of a blanket claim, seeing that some areas are worse than others, and ascribing a deliberate intent to the reality distortion that is often going on. More often than not, I suspect, it is just incompetence, in particular lack of critical thinking, that causes the distortion.


Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2017 at 12:07 am

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