How should we report politics in a post truth age?

Tim Abbott via Flickr

By Harry Ridgewell

When Tim Berners-Lee gave away the internet for free in 1991 it was supposed to mark the herald of a new era of information and democracy. It has undeniably given us more information. In fact, more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire history of the human race. However, how much of this data is being used and how much of it is verifiable and informative?

There is a massive growth in data, with Facebook users sending an average of 31.25 million messages and viewing 2.77 million videos every minute. But are memes and the Youtube video of a monkey riding a pig really enlightening?

The digital age has given much power to the public but stripped authorities of having credibility on any subject. What started out as a 24-hour news cycle has ramped up to a minute by minute news cycle. Gone are the days of fact checking. The internet has created a race to the bottom and more specifically a competition to who can publish first. The quality of journalism has dropped, errors and fake news are all the more common and the audience have come to expect this fast pace, yet believe less and less of what they hear.

With so many people posting and commenting on news all opinions are increasingly being seen as equally valid. This is fine when arguing what colour something is, such as when a discussion over whether a dress was gold and white or blue and black went viral in February 2016, but has serious repercussions for political reporting. Much in the same way that people couldn’t agree the colour of the dress, people no longer seem to be able to agree the facts.

While journalists were once respected, the same can’t be said today. Events such the Leveson inquiry and the failure to predict the global financial crisis, ‘Brexit’ and Donald Trump’s victory have left people sceptical of political reporting. According to IPSO’s 2016 Veracity Index journalists and politicians are in the bottom five least trusted professions by the public. Interestingly, 48% of the public said they trust economistsexactly the same percentage who voted remain the EU referendum. This disregard for people of authority is epitomised by Michael Gove’s remark during the run up to the referendum: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

Emotions have filled the void of facts, or rather trumped them. As Aaron Banks, the multimillionaire and backer of Leave.EU puts it, “The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It doesn’t work. You’ve got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

So pervasive, is this attitude of denying once commonly thought facts that it could be said we live in a “post-truth” age. In fact, 2016 was the year that ‘Post-truth’ was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, not that you will believe it.

So what can be done to re-establish some bona fide facts which we can have a sensible debate over? Fundamentally we need to return to an era of longer investigative journalism. You aren’t the first to publish the news if you get it wrong. You are the first to publish fake news.

Trust needs to be rebuilt between politicians and the public so that the public can trust what journalists report. According to IPSO’s 2016 Veracity Index 65% of the public trusted the ordinary man or woman in the street compared with only 15% who said they trusted politicianssix percentage points down on last years’ survey. You only have to watch an episode of Question Time for five minutes before a member of the audience says politicians are out of touch with the people and gets a round of applause.

Journalists need to be more open about their work. According to Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of American Press Institute, “Journalists need to do a better job labelling what is news reporting, what is an opinion piece, and what is news analysis.” In the Leveson inquiry, Lord Leveson said transparency is key for the public to regain faith in reporting. He recommended openness about payments, errors and biases of journalists and interviewees.

Journalism is screaming out for more local reporting. Regional papers are in decline in the UK and former Derby Telegraph and Leicester Mercury editor, Keith Perch, said some regional daily newspapers have lost 80 per cent of their editorial staff since 2006. Perhaps if there was increased local coverage then the perception that journalists work for the elite or are in some sort of London metropolitan bubble could be burst. People would feel more represented and we wouldn’t be living in such an era of angry politics. Nor would it have been such a shock that ‘Brexit’ and Trump won and the public would have more trust in pollsters.

Journalism needs to address the rise of social media. According to Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016, 35% of the UK public use social media for news. The problem with social media is rather than broadening our horizons it tends to reaffirm our views. Facebook’s algorithm finds more of what you like (including news) and therefore we are unexposed to facts of potentially conflicting opinions. At the moment the algorithm places popular articles higher up in your news feed regardless of factuality. This is how many of the great fake news scandals of 2016 were created, such as ‘Pope Francis endorses Trump.’

While the internet’s freedom and lack of censorship has allowed millions to access data, it has done so at a cost of credibility. There is no quick fix but trust in political reporting can be regained if journalists return to longer investigative journalism. Transparency and greater representation are needed to signal to the audience they are valued and regain trust with journalists. It’s time news organisations take some responsibility and act.

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