Commentary: Seeking the truth, not the tragedy, in journalism

London’s Grenfell Tower fire victims aren’t furious just with local authorities for ignoring safety concerns raised before this month’s blaze killed at least 79 residents. They’re angry with journalists too.

The burnt out remains of the Grenfell Tower are seen in North Kensington, London, Britain June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

As reporters covered the fire at the apartment block last week, some residents turned on Jon Snow of Channel Four News, the most senior of Britain’s news presenters, and accused journalists of being vultures attracted to death and tragedy. “You didn’t come here when people were telling you that the building was unsafe!” one man told Snow. “That is not newsworthy. You come here when people die. Why?”

The Grenfell residents are hardly alone in accusing the media of not serving their needs. It’s no secret that trust in the media has declined. But the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report, published this week, provides sobering insights into how the digital revolution has disrupted the way we gather the information we believe we need to orient ourselves in the world, or in our neighborhood.

The report shows that trust in the media varies from country to country, from over 60 percent in the Scandinavian countries to the low 20s in Greece and South Korea.

In the United States, trust in the media has risen from 33 percent during last year’s election campaign to 38 percent this year.

That may be because, as the Reuters report notes, “concern about the spread of false news online” increased the perception of the value of professional journalism.

Most sobering is the report’s comment that “the economic outlook for most media companies remains extremely difficult.” That statement doesn’t include the communications giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google, the latter two of which garner more than 80 percent of the advertising that used to go to traditional media.

But two issues are likely larger. One is what Janine Gibson, the chief editor of Buzzfeed UK, calls “representation without judgment.” Speaking at a seminar in London this week, Gibson said that the digital and social media world implicitly equates what news organizations spend time and money verifying, with “the guy in an attic” who puts out a piece of opinion masquerading as news, without having had to exercise his judgment on the veracity of his narrative.

The latter, said Gibson, “is of course much quicker than the news which checks, because checking takes time.” The result, too, can be duller. The more careful is the reporter, the more complex becomes the story. But the guy in the attic can be simple, dramatic – and attract the eyeballs.

At an extreme, the attic-writer is putting out “fake news” - a commodity popularized by President Trump, who seems to see all news which does not praise him as “fake.” Fake news may have won Trump the presidency. Even if not, his use of it gives credence to a tendency to distrust news we don’t like.

It’s also becoming clearer that measurements of “trust” in the news media don’t really measure trust in the news media. They measure pleasure gained from the media. The Digital News Report says that there exists “a strong connection between trust in the media and perceived political bias.” That is, people trust the reports which flatter and further their views.

This isn’t new: people have chosen publications which line up with their political choices throughout the history of news. But for most of that history, those who consumed journalism did so passively. There was no comeback, except through a letter to the editor (probably unpublished) or a cancelled subscription.

Now readers are empowered by technology, often aggressive in their distrust and disgust, to intervene in stories. James Harding, director of news at the BBC, speaking at the same event as Buzzfeed’s Gibson, said that “we at the BBC are very careful to make clear what we don’t know as well as what we know. But people now can fill the space of ’don’t know’ themselves”.

We still live in the first phase of a revolution, not just of journalism but also in the ways in which we seek and use information, and in what we place our trust. As printing disrupted the late medieval world, so the replacement of print by digits has disrupted the 21st century. It is presently calling into question the nature of truth, and the trust we can place in it.

Truth is hard to get right, especially at times of tragedies like that at Grenfell Tower. Finding and publishing it won’t always avoid anger directed at the messenger, but journalists need to show they are truth seekers rather than vultures feeding on tragedy.

That will give substance to journalism’s necessary democratic role – and perhaps answer the “why” asked by the man who confronted Jon Snow.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.