About the concerning evolution of the media from reporting to activism, from investigative to “virtue journalism”
In the fall of 2020, Fearless Canada hosted an open letter addressed to journalists’ professional organizations and to politicians, calling for open, unbiased coverage of all perspectives on the corona crisis. The post “Assembling a collective of Canadian professionals and skilled workers for honest and open coverage of the health crisis” and the letter included in it refer to the code of ethics for Quebec journalists, which invokes values of “critical viewpoint”, “impartiality”, “fairness”, and “independence”. The letter contrasts these and many other ethical aspirations with the one-sided reporting about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. Specifically, the authors and signatories denounce the suppression or outright attack of the mainstream media on initiatives such as the Great Barrington Declaration, America’s Frontline Doctors, the German Corona Committee, and the Spanish Médicos por la verdad among many dissenting doctors’ and scientists’ groups.
The role of the legacy media in the ongoing fear-mongering campaign around COVID-19 is of greatest concern for the future of Western democracy. Journalists, producers, and publicists turned themselves into proponents of government restrictions and parrots of public health edicts when they should have asked tough questions about the validity, necessity, proportionality, and efficacy of the measures. Recently, I discovered a gem of a video by Swiss journalist, author and communications consultant Giuseppe Gracia, The video “Was ist bloss mit den Medien los?” [“What on earth is going on with the media?”] is posted in German; I am outlining the gist of Gracia’s insider observations here.
From the onset, Gracia dispels rumours that there is a conspiracy that controls the media. Instead, he characterizes the appearance of coordinated narratives as swarm behaviour or, at worst, uncritical reproduction of the positions published by the leading outlets. Gracia then identifies two problematic developments in the press: (1) While journalists were expected to speak truth to power in the past, they now increasingly criticize the populace; and (2) the act of reporting is increasingly replaced by persuasive writing. Since a majority in the media tend to be politically on the left (70% progressive or green according to Gracia), this political bias is reflected in the contents and opinions presented to readers and listeners.
At the time of Gracia’s training, questioning the state and other powerful organizations such as the churches was seen as the role of journalists. According to Wikipedia, the term “Fourth Estate” positions the media in relation to the “traditional European concept of the three estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners”. Gracia would argue that the press and news media as the fourth estate have turned on the commoners instead of watching the modern incarnations of nobility and clergy. Interestingly and in a complementary way, the modern European use of the “Fourth Power” refers to the important role of journalism in monitoring the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of parliamentary democracies. In this scenario, journalists have all but abdicated their role, or invented a new role, by questioning the citizenry instead of the people in power.
Related to this change, the product of journalistic work has also changed according to Gracia. Journalists used to report on issues of interest, though this reporting has always been packaged in a narrative and influenced by the writer’s personal leanings. Yet today, the reporter has turned into an activist, and investigative reporting morphed into “transformative journalism” with the goal to influence the audience according to predefined positions. The German term “Haltungsjournalismus” is difficult to translate, but “virtue journalism” in analogy to the wide-spread COVID virtue-signalling seems most appropriate. Meanwhile, in the good old days of journalism, according to Gracia, the journalist was expected never to associate with a cause, not even a “good” one.
Gracia finishes off with a positive thought, the much expanded possibilities of publishing in the digital era. Indeed, I have discovered a great many extraordinary writers, video commentators, and publishing platforms in the last year and a half. Nevertheless, we have also witnessed the great vulnerability of alternative media at the whim of the big tech firms, with countless Youtube videos, Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts being shadow-banned, censored, or entirely shut down for disingenuous claims of misinformation.
In another recent video titled “Media Distortion, the Covid Narrative & the Death of Journalism“, award-winning Canadian journalist Amanda Euringer speaks about her observations of a dramatic shift in journalism after the beginning of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and about the longer-term changes in the news media with the growing role of Google and other big tech platforms. Euringer gives us detailed insights into editorial processes and the influence of funding sources on journalistic contents. This influence can be tied to funding from both the private sector and government grants, such as $30m in COVID-19 recovery grants paid to Canadian media. In addition, she demonstrates the huge impact that Google search has on information retrieval in this crisis, e.g. when trying to look up dissenting researchers or suppressed out-patient treatment options for COVID-19.
As an outspoken Facebook user, Euringer also reports aggressive push-back from friends and acquaintances when posting controversial facts or opinions about the pandemic. People question her expertise, a bit like the comments I receive about a geographer not being qualified to contradict all those doctors and health scientists who are supposedly on board with the killer virus narrative. Yet, Euringer beautifully argues that the journalist’s strength is that they are not the expert, thus not biased in the subject matter at hand. (I feel like I am perhaps acting more like a journalist than a geographer when writing this blog!) Ultimately, Euringer and interviewer Dr. Angela Durante come to the sad conclusion that our trust in the the big tech corporations as well as the news media, including our public broadcasters such as the CBC, is misplaced; we are no longer receiving or easily finding comprehensive and unbiased information.
As with the Fearless Canada letter discussed in the introduction, mainstream journalists have been reminded of their failures at least occasionally over the last 18 months. For example, as Colin D’Mello of CTV News tweets about a confusing 24 September 2021 press conference by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, IT entrepreneur Andrew Rouchotas calls him out on Twitter for propagating the public health narrative and failing to ask questions as its cracks become apparent. Nevertheless, the space for investigative reporting within the media and for critical commentary accepted for publication is few and far between. We will need the media on the commoners’ side in order to end the self-perpetuating SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.