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Reality testing: measuring the long term impact of journalism

We have to stop pretending that bad journalists aren't journalists.

When Margaret Wente was getting busted repeatedly for plagiarizing, her publisher, The Globe and Mail, more or less defended her. Critical commentators’ noted that no one spins harder or better than a newspaper team defending one of their key assets.1

The thing is, journalists are trained story tellers. They’re fast. They’re persuasive. They’re wordsmithy. They edit. They curate. They’re good at their craft.

Journalism is the business of influence and journalists have been influencers since before the phrase was catching.

I remind myself of this when I hear journalists explaining just how important journalism is to our society.

I mean, is it really? How would we know?

How do we measure the actual aggregate successes and failures of the press? Newspapers, for obvious reasons, tend to amplify and mythologize the successes. They suppress the failures.

When a news org closed down in Nanaimo some years ago, white newsies lamented the loss of local journalism. However, local Indigenous commentators argued that the newspaper had been systemically racist and colonial and, frankly, good riddance.

I get it. I suspect journalism is more conservative inertia than “epic shining force of progress”.2

But how do we know? How do we measure? And who do we count?

When we read a poorly written article it is tempting to think “it’s not journalism”.3

Defenders of “pure” journalism will stack the evidentiary deck by excluding bad actors from their pool of acceptable data.

But. Bad journalists are still journalists. Racist editors are still editors. Climate change denying newspapers are still newspapers.4

Footnotes

  1. See the Globe and Mail’s bio page (PDF) for Wente and compare it to the Wikipedia page.
  2. See, for example, how news widely misinforms people about violence.
  3. Defenders tend to ignore the evidence that CNN got Trump elected. They ignore the role of Fox News in increasing COVID fatalities. They simply pretend that Rebel Media isn’t journalism; but it is. And Fox News is also journalism. And we have to count their cumulative impact when we assess the social and cultural value of the industry.
  4. Many denied climate change, explicitly, for twenty years. Then they denied climate change, implicitly, for a decade. Then they argued against making change to mitigate climate change for another decade.

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