Manipulations: Is it time to rethink the ethics of news?
The purpose of this blog is, as you know, to comment on ethics in the news. It is written here just above: “Practical Ethics – Ethics in the News”. In this post, I am going to diverge from this purpose, and address a somewhat different topic. Numerous recent events that have been reported in the news raise the following question: what is the ethics of news? What should they be? Below, I outline what I perceive to be a very problematic tension that currently exists between the reality that journalists work in, and the ethical ideals that they subscribe to, and that we as consumers expect of them. I finish with speculating in what we can do about this, on the ethical side of things.
First, consider the following examples:
The treatment of the recent political development in Ukraine. Russian media reported a coup staged by, or at least heavily dependent on, fascists and neo-Nazis, supported by the West. Western media reported a popular, democratic uprising, or revolution, that resulted in the corrupted, undemocratic president fleeing the country, and the formation of a new government and eventually democratic elections. Numerous more particular events remain contested, from the perspective of a reader that engages with journalism of different kinds. Who opened fire on the Independence Square in Kiev? Who are the so-called pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine? What happened in Eastern Ukraine? There are images and stories supporting, and seemingly consistent, with distinct broader narratives that appear contradictory.
A second example that comes to mind is the most disturbing story which came to my attention after I read Peter Singer’s comments on it. It appears the United Kingdom in the last couple of years (after the London bombings 2005) has started stripping citizens of their UK citizenships. In particular one case is discussed, Mohamed Sakr. Mr. Sakr was not a citizen of any other country (contrary to most of the other cases), and his destiny was thus to be stranded stateless in Somalia, where he (presumably not accidentally) was located when the UK decided to take his citizenship away. His life ended as he died as a result of a drone strike, executed by the United States of America. All further information one wishes to get (was the strike informed by UK intelligence data? What were the reasons for the UK to take the citizenship away?) is classified, and there was no journalists present in Somalia. Needless to say, we have no testimonial images of what happened to Mr. Sakr. The little coverage it received was written by an investigative journalist who got in contact with his parents. The facts reported are highly limited, there are no images apart from some old private photos of the family, and we are left with the disturbing insight that certain extreme measures are now taken by the UK in their fight against terrorism.
Further examples of events which are reported in ways that for different reasons are deeply unsatisfactory are ubiquitous. Manipulation of the media is everywhere.
Covering news and reporting events to a larger group of people is, from a historical perspective, very new. Newspapers with large readerships date back to the 19th century. Photojournalism became widespread in the 1930s. News in the common household’s TV starts becoming widespread in the 1950s. In the early days, to report news was to report facts, to publish an image was to give the audience the opportunity to with their own eyes see what happened in other places in the world. Journalists were witnesses to events in the world, and readers, viewers, listeners, were given the opportunity to through the journalist build their own opinions, to increase their knowledge about their countries, and about the world. Journalism and independent media outlets became a cornerstone of democracy. A well-informed people make better judgements, better choices, and this is enabled by the work of journalists. The culmination of this is the Vietnam War. Journalists were allowed to do their job, and to witness and report back to the American public what took place in Vietnam. Consequently, it became clear that news that in no way were false, untrue or fabricated could in fact generate a reaction in the public that, from the perspective of certain very powerful groups, was highly undesirable. How something is reported matter. Images matter. Details matter.
In the last couple of decades, powerful agents of the most various kind have learned to appreciate this insight to a larger and larger extent. Wars are no longer fought only on the battlefield, the success of political movements depend on what kind of media coverage they get, international relations issues depend on how the world perceives of the events, corporations know very well that they benefit from no media coverage at all of certain elements essential to their organizations (e.g. oil extraction in countries where there is no respect for human rights, assembly factories in poor countries, the origin of certain natural resources needed for the end-product), and even certain individuals are well-aware of the importance of their “personal brand” and do their best to control how they are depicted in the media. In brief, the most powerful agents (states, multicultural organizations, powerful individuals) have learned their lesson; they know that they can gain significant benefits from controlling how the media cover them. And, they have learned how to exert a significant, albeit not total, control over their public image, e.g. by not allowing journalists at all in certain places, by creating strong incentives for journalists to not report, or to report in a certain way, by hiding certain operations in different ways, by “assisting” journalists by helping them to get material that can be tailored by the powerful agents, and so on. Certain events cannot be covered by journalists at all, and many events cannot be reported in exhaustive ways (i.e. there are no images, no details, no information that evokes emotions in the readership).
Meanwhile, our media continues to be driven by ideals of objectivity, truth and authenticity. Stories should be truthful, images should be accurate, and the general perspective should be objective. Whereas it these days seems generally accepted that the demand of objectivity is too complex to impose, let us focus on truthfulness and accuracy. Journalists, editors and media owners embrace these values, and the legislation in most countries is construed so that severe consequences follow publication of material that is untruthful and/or inaccurate. And adherence to these values is what we, the media consumers, demand from the media.
There is a tension here, which I believe is illustrated by the examples in the beginning of this text. Journalists and media outlets are bound to, by the frameworks they operate in but also by ideals they embrace themselves, ideals of truthfulness and accuracy, while the objects of their investigations do their best to make sure that the only truthful and accurate reporting that journalists can produce is of a very particular kind, beneficial to the agent, or at the very least not harmful. The more powerful the object of an investigation is, the more problematic the coverage becomes.
In order to fully appreciate this, we should recognize that truthfulness and accuracy in this context are very complicated notions. First of all, there will at any point be an abundance of possible both truthful and accurate stories that journalists can write. Limiting the sphere of possible stories does not make the journalists’ job impossible in a strict meaning; it just forces them to write about something else. Second, there is, for any event possible, always a multitude of both truthful and accurate stories and images. When writing a story, cutting an image, or publishing a report the journalist always makes a selection of what to include in it, and how to represent it.
What happens is that certain of these selections are made impossible. By not allowing photojournalists in certain locations, or by creating so dangerous environments for photojournalists so that they cannot work there, an agent can make sure that there will be no visual testimony to the atrocities that are committed. In that way, the ideals for accuracy that are so embraced by both journalists and media consumers can be abused so that the risk of emotional reactions that follow when a vast public get to see appalling images is minimized.
Numerous deeply problematic consequences follow from this situation. I will point out three. Two forms of inequality, and unacceptable working conditions for journalists.
1) This situation creates a very problematic inequality in terms of event types. Certain types of event evoke stronger reactions than others, even if the consequences of them are very similar, and it is easier to write and to report about certain types of event. It is harder to accept the requirements of truthfulness and accuracy and to write about the starvation that followed a specific economic policy than to write a story about the effects of a drought that is both truthful and accurate. It is easier to write a truthful and accurate story about the effects of a natural disaster than to write a truthful and accurate story about the effects of structural discrimination.
2) The situation creates very problematic, unequal coverage that depend on the object of the coverage’s power. We all at the very least suspect that there are children who fare very ill in North Korea, yet it is close to impossible to get any images of this that meet accuracy requirements. The consequence is then that we get no news about it, and when we do get news, they are factual and evoke less emotion than what would have been the case if we had had images. At the ideological antipode, the US has learned its lesson from the Vietnam War and now does its best to make sure that journalists can only report from conflicts where it is involved in very specific ways. Accurate images that do depict atrocities committed by, or resulting from the activities of, US military forces sometimes occur, but it would be very naïve to believe that access to this type of material is easy to come by, and that the US does not do what it can to limit it. This can be contrasted with how access to material that reflects the effects of for example terrorist attacks is at the very least much more open.
3) Another consequence of this is that we have created remarkably dangerous working conditions for journalists. The greater the insight powerful agents have in the importance of controlling the media, the more severe working conditions they will create for journalists. As long as media outlets and journalists are bound by their ideals of truthfulness and accuracy, actually publishing a story about the suffering of people who live under an oppressive regime requires that journalists take extreme risks. Which furthermore obfuscates the reporting since we instead of the intended report get to read stories about assassinated journalists, such as this one.
A general conclusion to draw from this is that the seemingly desirable ethical ideals that underlie media are problematic as long as the objects of investigation do not respect transparency ideals.
What are we to do about this?
A better understanding of the phenomenon is an obvious, and perhaps minimal, remedy. Some of the problems arise because we as media consumers react more strongly to certain types of reporting. The image of a starving child affects us more than a factual report about a famine in North Korea, where the journalistic ideals in combination with an oppressive and totalitarian regime make it impossible for journalists to provide us with images. Perhaps, better awareness of this phenomenon among media consumers would reduce the impact of attempts to manipulate the news. Often enough, crude facts are available, even if journalists are prevented from getting access to details.
A more extreme suggestion would be to stick to the ideal of truthfulness, but to interpret it in a more general way, and to question the accuracy ideal. The CIA admitted to waterboarding prisoners, we know it happened, but we have no accurate images of it. A generic image depicting waterboarding in relation to a story about this would not meet the requirements of accuracy, but it could be truthful if we by truthful mean that it depicts the general phenomenon waterboarding, and not the particular waterboarding of the prisoners in question. Similarly, one could, sticking to such a notion of truthfulness, introduce images of starving children when one reports about famines in North Korea, or pictures of molested bodies when one reports about violence in the Central African Republic. The children would not be North Korean, and the molested bodies would not be from the conflict in the Central African Republic, but they would be truthful if we by truthful had the general phenomena in mind. Journalists would not die attempting to get the images, and accepting this type of reporting would be a way to reduce the inequalities outlined above.
This is a radical proposal of course, but in order to protect our democracy, to protect journalists, and as a remedy against a growing trend of this grand scale manipulation of what we care about, perhaps it is a necessary step. If nothing else, the possibility of a counter-reaction in a similar direction could be a concern for those who currently do manipulate our news, as it reduces the importance of manipulation as such, and it could maybe make them think twice before they do it again.