I'm going to spend time this year on the subject of Constructive Journalism.
We live safer, healthier, longer and richer than ever before. But people don't see this. Our perception of the world around us gets worse and worse. As a result, we look for solutions we don't need. Time and again we fall for simplistic political blowhards who make promises they can't keep for problems that are exaggerated.
To get started, watch this video of a talk by Ulrik Haagerup:
It says it all. And when you're done, watch this moving and personal film by Jodie Jackson:
There are some very basic findings here. Our perception of the world is worse than the reality. Trust in news media is falling. We are very bad at presenting information that isn't dramatic and conflict-based.
As I was preparing to write this text, the Guardian published an article by its outgoing national news editor Dan Sabbagh giving an insight into this work – 'Editing news is intense, thrilling and ultimately exhausting'
It's a very interesting piece, but I believe there are many troubling aspects to it, so I'm going to spend the rest of this post looking at it more closely.
I think the text is symptomatic of many things that are wrong with journalism. It concentrates on speed, negative headlines and betrays a sense of competitiveness with other media which do not serve the reader.
It is in no way my intention to criticise Sabbagh personally here. I value what the Guardian does and the reason I want to analyse their work is precisely because they are one of the few institutions that are consistently able to get it right (whatever that means).
So here goes with my amateurish thoughts:
In his article, 'Editing news is intense, thrilling and ultimately exhausting', Dan Sabbagh reflects on his five years as the national news editor for the Guardian, probably one of the most exciting and influential positions in news media today.
He begins by declaring "no shortage of events to reflect on", and then lists as examples the four subjects "Two general elections, two referendums, a dismal string of terror attacks and the horror of the Grenfell inferno". The "dismal string of terror attacks" during the one last year of his five year period stands in stark contrast to one of the most peaceful periods of the last forty years, as this overview by the Telegraph shows. His sentence is factually correct but lacks context.
He continues that the five years were turbulent for a "nation that no longer knows itself", without any reason for this curious conclusion. One might presume that he is interpreting the political turmoil surrounding Brexit, but this is an example of London based proximity bias which I think is seen again and again in the article.
Sabbagh repeatedly describes his task in terms of speed, not of content or quality. He declares openly that "the task is to beat the rolling news channels and publish, within moments ...". This paramount status of speed is extraordinarily dangerous when public opinion is considered. He is basically confirming that 'new' is better than 'good' or 'relevant'. It is implied that the "something happening" or the "news-break" he's chasing is something dramatic, a terror attack, a resignation, a political crisis. This emphasis in itself favours and amplifies 'bad' news.
He returns several times to the 'blood leads' cliché, writing "a deadly incident can happen at any time", a strange and redundant statement that shows how a newsroom is apparently predominantly primed to react with speed to such incidents. Is this the best possible picture of the state of the nation?
Indeed, Sabbagh relegates his interest in the "most important thing happening in Britain today" to "quieter days". Is this not a contradiction? Is he a national news editor or a crime reporter? Both are valid, but they're not the same.
Further on, he at least admits that "amid all the speed, it is necessary to think", again an odd thing to write but implying that it's not always the case. Coupled with his overriding goal of beating the rolling news channels I find the admission problematic.
The "patient" investigative stories he does mention are all negative – "London property ownership, the influence of Russian bots, or sexual abuse and harassment". I appreciate that they're just examples, but they are the three he picked, so reflect their apparent importance to him.
Finally, as a conclusion to his article, Sabbagh's portrayal of his work culminates in the apparent goal or wish of "dominating other media", "the most crucial being the BBC’s running order". Is it the job of a Guardian editor to get on the BBC? I find this very dangerous and a troubling message to his staff members. He continues "and perhaps briefly [dominating] the national conversation". I could not disagree more with this description of a journalist's job. This is not reporting, it is deliberately selecting information in order to influence the public. Indeed, considering that people consistently overestimate crime, immigration, terrorism, danger and risk, is this influence valuable, or is it adding to our misconceptions?
Sabbagh closes his article by stating that an editor's challenge is "not just to act fast but to find ways to change the way people think".
I believe a journalist's job is to present information so that the reader can make their own opinion and judgement.
A "fast", "incident" led race to "beat" rolling news is dangerous. It doesn't give the reader a full picture. It gives them a quick view of dramatic developments. This is and can only be part of the whole story.
To conclude, as I say at the beginning, I value the work that the Guardian does. I do find, however, that this article betrays an inbuilt prejudice towards negative journalism. The concentration on speed above all else amplifies negative stories and takes the oxygen away from a more balanced, contextualised view of reality.
There will always be a car crash somewhere. If we report them all, we'll never cross the road again in our lives.
That's it. I'm not a journalist and I'm not an academic, and I would be spectacularly worse at the job than the Guardian's editors. You might disagree with my interpretation, but reading Sabbagh's article, you would never guess that we're living longer and happier than ever before. And as the Ipsos Perils of Perception poll for 2017 shows us, again, we're wrong about just about everything around us. I think the kind of journalism described by Dan Sabbagh is part of the problem.
I wish him all the best in his next endeavours and I wish his successor a steady hand and a constructive approach to their job. I am grateful that we have the quality of journalism that the Guardian provides and if I didn't respect them so much, I wouldn't have written these lines.