It's the journalists, stupid!

It's the journalists, stupid! (1).png

I've been spending some time researching Constructive Journalism, especially in Austria. Friends have said I should offer solutions and suggestions, and not just criticise.

It's tricky. I'm not a journalist. But here are a few observations and a couple of suggestions. 

Journalists are making it worse. They should make it better. 

To be very clear: I don't mean fake news. I mean the good guys. The good guys are making it worse for all of us. They just don't know they are. 

There are many good journalists working today for good quality media. But they're trapped in an agenda of politics, fear, crisis, scandal and corruption. They are giving us a wrong picture of the world around us. 

My suggestion: Journalists should step back from the day-to-day grind of local news agendas (even world news is driven by a local agenda). They should take a look around them and ask themselves if they're providing a service to their readers, or to their shareholders (in terms of clicks, impressions and adverts). 

Journalists are gullible. They should create their own agendas. 

Journalists are too ready to adopt agendas given by politicians and interest groups. 

Here are three German terms prevalent in Austrian media in the last few years. They are all inventions of politicians, and they all fail to address the problems they pretend to describe.

Journalists have worked these terms to death and contributed to the false perception of the things they pretend to describe. 

1. "Flüchtlingskrise"

Flüchtlingskrise (refugee crisis). Wikipedia (English version) describes the term as the feeling of crisis felt by the influx of migrants moving through Europe. As if the crisis were happening to us, and not the refugees. 

Here's how the term "Flüchtlingskrise" grew in the past few years, according to Google Trends. This is a direct result of deliberate framing by politicians. 

NB: If you're using an extension like Ghostery this embedded chart and those below might not load. Pause the extension to see the chart.

Flüchtlingskrise describes a state of crisis in Europe, not the state of utter destruction, death and horror in Syria, Afghanistan or Irak. Ask a refugee when the crisis began, and they might tell you it was before they gave up their livelihoods and left their homes and families, not when they reached Europe.

Politicians of all colours have fought this so-called crisis with all their might. 

Journalists have helped them all the way. 

2. "Mittelmeerroute"

Mittelmeerroute (Mediterranean route). This is a very clever neologism interpreted almost exclusively to describe the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. Politicians of all parties have used the term, but most spectacularly the now Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz during his election campaign. 

Here is Google Trends of the term, showing how it suddenly appears out of nowhere. 

Sebastian Kurz wants to "close" the Mediterranean route. He knows it isn't possible, but he knows his voters will like him for saying it. 

Journalists also know it isn't possible, and they know what Kurz is doing, but they still report every time he says it. 

Here's a bonus: Balkanroute (Balkan route). The same applies to this neologism. Here's the Google chart on that. 

3. "Obergrenze"

Obergrenze ("upper limit"). This one is more nuanced, as it's a generic term, and could theoretically apply to anything. But read a local newspaper in Austria, or ask someone on the street, and one subject springs to mind: refugees.

One of the main weaknesses of political parties from all sides is that they have taken on this framing rhetoric and scramble to respond to it. After all, if you don't have an upper limit, you agree to unlimited immigration, don't you? So what's your limit? 

It's an unanswerable question, and therein lies the genius of asking it so many times. 

Here's the chart. Note the bump beginning in 2016. 

So the question is, why do journalists keep asking the questions the politicians want them to ask? 

An Austrian politician (I'm based in Austria) has a very limited sphere of influence in the world, and even in Europe, yet Austrian media reflect world events through an Austrian political lens, distorting the reality to fit local political agendas and talking points. 

This is counterproductive. 

My suggestion: Journalists should dedicate a portion of their working week to subjects and interests outside the domain of Austrian politicians.

The reality is that most day-to-day political events and decisions taken by local politicians have little if not no effect on the lives of the general public, which are far more influenced by slow-moving general international developments in things like health, energy, peace and science.

In other words: real progress. Journalists need to learn to talk about progress in a way which engages their readers.  

Journalists are bad at statistics and science. They should get out more. 

I remember seeing a T-shirt that said: "Talk to old people, they know stuff you don't".  

The same could be said of scientists. Now they really know stuff that I don't. 

Journalists are very bad at presenting events in a context of progress. They concentrate on dangers and risks when these have become smaller and smaller over the last century. 

My suggestion: Journalists and their media should develop new ways of presenting factual information. If they don't, they'll leave the field to politicians who are pushing the "Well, if that's what people think, it's true" agenda, which is stupid and dangerous.   

There are bad journalists and bad media. Journalists should stop engaging with them and trying to prove them wrong. 

There are media out there who have a business goal, not a journalistic goal. In Austria, the two main agitators are the Krone newspaper and the Österreich newspaper. 

My suggestion: Journalists should avoid comparing themselves with their bad counterparts and should avoid trying to correct them.

Walk away.

They will print lies and spread fear in order to increase their distribution and sell adverts. That's what they do. Deal with it. They're doing it very well and they don't care what you think. 

Concentrate on being better, being different, being unique, being valued, and being heard, instead of being "right". Nobody cares. 

If your journalistic ideal is to prove the bad guys wrong, you're not a journalist, you're a campaigner. 

We need better journalism. The good journalists are the ones who need to change and the ones who can change, not the bad ones. 

Make the choice. 


Your next steps


If you think this post is still too critical and not constructive enough (which it probably isn't), let me know in the comments below. I'm learning here, and I'll probably need some help.