Darren McGarvey: Everyday media practices feed public’s growing distrust of journalism

Good journalism isn't possible if the public isn't willing to pay for it
Good journalism isn't possible if the public isn't willing to pay for it
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Good journalism isn’t possible if the public isn’t willing to pay for it, says Darren McGarvey

I will never forget the first time I heard a journalist use the phrase “the noddies”. At first, I had no clue what it meant. We had just conducted an interview and I naively thought it was over and that I was free to go. What happened next was so surreal that I found it hard not to laugh, as the journalist proceeded to be filmed, nodding their head at basically nothing, to give the appearance they were listening intently to my every word.

I then learned that the footage of the journalist nodding would be spliced with my interview to create the illusion of a seamless conversation. Obviously, a real conversation had taken place, but the film to be broadcast would be an amalgam of various elements, which included entirely fake nodding.

These days, I’m the one hurrying the journalist up to get the noddies over and done with. I’ve even done some “noddies” myself and no longer bat an eyelid at this practice, or the many other once odd-seeming things that go on behind the scenes. I just accept them as a normal part of news media. The question is: has my insight into the inner-workings of news enlightened me where it’s form and function are concerned, or have I unwittingly become too well adjusted to an increasingly dysfunctional sensibility?

A sensibility that says it’s okay to present something as real when, in truth, it’s often constructed to create a false impression.

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The recent debate about “Christmas Boxes” leaves me feeling torn. For those of you fortunate enough not to get all your information from Twitter, a Christmas Box is the umbrella term for the cosy relationship between political parties and journalists over the festive period. Essentially, newspapers run stories that are pulled from press releases sent to them by politicians weeks in advance, with varying degrees of attribution, which appear no sooner than the date requested. All a journalist does, ostensibly, is paraphrase some of it and ask for comment from opposition parties.

On the one hand, Christmas Boxes are totally uncontroversial. They function mainly to keep political news ticking over during the festive period, when publications operate an even more skeletal staff than usual. To the initiated, it’s no more than a bit of mutual back-scratching between political parties, keen to stay connected to voters, and newspapers that require content to satisfy reader demand.

On the other hand, I have sympathy with the average punter who was, until recently, oblivious to the practice, who feels understandably aggrieved that they’ve been poring over their news under the impression that’s what it was, as opposed to it being the news equivalent of an arranged marriage.

Around 90 per cent of UK adults interact with national newspapers and magazines at least once a month in print or online, according to the National Readership Survey. But this estimate is undermined by a steady decline in sales of around five million a year in the UK. In Scotland, print sales declined across the board, ranging between 8 and 30 per cent in 2017.

The demand for news remains, but the money to research, write and publish it is dwindling like never before. This financial contraction has given rise to a cost-cutting culture in which journalists are now expected not only to locate, research and report the news, but also to sub-edit it and reformat it for multiple mediums. In such competitive and stressful conditions, pre-packaged press releases, forwarded from political parties, that read like news stories, feel less like a sleight-of-hand and more like a stocking full of thoughtful and timely gifts.

However, to the sceptical onlooker, this appears dysfunctional at best.

This scepticism is compounded by the fact many have pre-existing beefs with journalists, whether it be over constitutional issues like Scottish independence or Brexit, the Iraq war or even how their football team is covered.

Growing numbers of readers hold mainstream media in such low regard that they are less likely to give journalists and politicians the benefit of the doubt. For them, this is simply confirmation of what they already “know”: mainstream media is corrupt to the core.

Alternative news blogs, poised to satisfy growing demand for counterpoints to the mainstream, quickly sense an opportunity to land a blow; reframing something like Christmas Boxes as evidence of a sinister collusion to their growing base of followers. Discussion about news media then becomes entrenched, leaving no room for nuance or honest reflection.

Coincidentally, the sharp decline in trust in mainstream news runs parallel to the decline of the industry itself, though how the two correlate remains unclear. Have sales declined because people are giving up on mainstream news? Or has social media, accessible for free, simply become a preferable option, thus eroding the capacity of publications to maintain the high standards that create bonds of trust with readers?

It’s likely a bit of both.

What is worrying – and what we all need to consider deeply – is the increasing contempt in which the trade of journalism is held by larger sections of the public, as well as the subtle contempt for the public creeping into aspects of journalism. And while it’s certainly true that journalists and editors should be held to account like everyone else, it’s equally important to bear in mind that most journalists aren’t reporting politics – they’re reporting everything else.

For those on the inside, who’ve become adjusted to the dysfunctional tricks of the trade, Christmas Boxes are a completely normal aspect of the job, like noddies. Then again, being well-adjusted to abnormality is sort of how dysfunction works. When you are living in a constant state of dysfunction, the mere suggestion there may be a problem can seem misguided, accusatory and deeply offensive.

In truth, you are often the last one to realise, accept and do something about it.