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CounterSpin: Should we trust the newspaper?

In the first of his 'Counterspin' series of columns, Ceasefire Deputy Editor Musab Younis examines the effect that increasingly concentrated media ownership is having on the reliability and accuracy of news reporting. He asks whether systematic distortion could be linked to the ownership structure of the press - and, if so, what prospects there are for a new popular, democratic media.

Arts & Culture, Columns, CounterSpin, Politics - Posted on Sunday, September 5, 2010 2:10 - 8 Comments

By Musab Younis

In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005, Rupert Murdoch suggested that we are witnessing “a revolution in the way young people are accessing the news.” Today, young people “want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it … They want news that speaks to them personally, that affects their lives.”

“Unless we awaken to these changes”, warned Murdoch, “we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans.”

His words were picked up by influential press critic Jay Rosen, who published a piece on his blog – ‘The People Formerly Known as the Audience” – that became popular as a manifesto for a revolutionary approach to journalism. “Once they were your printing presses,” proclaimed the statement, “now that humble device, the blog, has given the press to us … Once it was your radio station, broadcasting on your frequency. Now that brilliant invention, podcasting, gives radio to us.” And so on.

Much commentary has since reinforced the sense that we have entered an age of unparalleled democracy in news production and management – from traditional media to new media – cranking open space in the media world for the popular voice.

The problem with this general consensus is not that it is wholly incorrect, but that it can be seriously misleading. To a substantial extent, the traditional media do continue to crucially shape the type of issues that are permitted to appear on the public agenda. And where progress has been made its significance has often been overstated: in the rush to herald a new age, it is often easy to forget just how much power remains with its traditional guardians.

These guardians are, of course mostly major profit-making corporations, and they continue to decide precisely which issues appear on the agenda, how these issues are framed, for how long they are discussed, in what way, and so on. While it is true that the dissemination of ‘citizen journalism’ has been easier through the internet, it remains the case that only professional journalists working for large and wealthy organisations can actually afford to do this sustainably; and it is perhaps unsurprising, when the key issue of access to resources is taken into account, that they therefore continue to dominate the news agenda.

This is problematic not because they are professional journalists, but because there is a clear tendency – even, you might say, an institutional requirement – for systematic inaccuracies to emerge from the picture of the world that they draw.

Demonstrating media bias and distortion is a lengthy and painstaking task, usually involving careful content analysis of hundreds of articles. An understanding of whether this distortion is systematic – that is, appearing to be an intrinsic feature of the current system of news production – can only emerge when multiple examples and case studies have been collected. Critics and analysts have in the past adopted a range of approaches, from overarching surveys to paired case studies, to forensic examinations of the use of words, and much else in between. Yet although there seems to be little argument with the basic premise held by these critics – less than a fifth of British people say they trust newspapers, for example – there is, at the same time, a surprising lack of awareness (or even interest) about how deeply these problems could be  ingrained within the structure of the press.

And though it is generally accepted that inaccuracies exist within the press, and are perhaps even prevalent, there are less questions asked about whether we can trust news providers, as they currently exist, to provide even a basic outline of the truth.

Take, say, the London protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza in December 2009. Earlier this year, an article was published in the Sunday Times titled: ‘Met allows Islamic protesters to throw shoes’ [sic]. The article claimed that “Scotland Yard” had “bowed to Islamic sensitivities” by accepting that “Muslims are entitled to throw shoes in ritual protest” – because “shoes, and particularly the soles of shoes, are regarded as ritually unclean in the Islamic world” – providing a “concession [which] has already been taken up enthusiastically by Muslim demonstrators” who have already “pelted Downing Street with shoes.”

The Islamophobia is not unusual, but the sheer flagrancy of lying involved here is rather striking. There was a series demonstrations in London to protest Israel’s attack on Gaza, but they were not “Muslim” demonstrations and had nothing to do with “Muslim” “ritual protest” (despite the delightful racist connotations that this image must provoke); while there was a shoe-throwing stunt in a specific area, there was no general “concession”, let alone one which had anything to do with “Islamic sensitivities”: the image of “Muslim demonstrators” “pelting Downing street with shoes” is, of course, pure fabrication.

It is indeed possible to state without much exaggeration that a reader would have gleaned a more accurate version of events by simply reversing the major claims made by the article: thus, rather than being granted a “concession”, evidence suggested that Muslims who had attended this demonstration had actually been specifically targeted by the police, receiving sentences of up to two years in jail for acts (like throwing bottles toward the embassy) that harmed nobody.

While the conventional approach is to see the mainstream press as offering at the very least an austere outline of events, with commentary from diverse sources filling in the gaps, in this case, as in countless others, articles have been produced by broadsheet, resource-intensive newspapers that do little but deliberately misinform the reader. Any commentary that followed from the Times piece could not have hoped to be anything but misguided – and only a personal involvement in the case would have corrected for this. The same, incidentally, goes for every single mainstream press article that I have been able to find on the G20 protests, until the video of the attack on Ian Tomlinson by the police emerged.

The careful deconstruction of single articles is important, but of course the problem we are discussing extends much further. The needless and provocative invention of a religious and racial element to the Times story, for example, is hardly an isolated case – this type of distortion is a much-loved pastime of the British press. A 2008 report from Cardiff University, for example, which analysed almost 1,000 articles from 2000-2008 as well as images and visuals, found prevalent and systematic distortions in stories that involve Muslims. The most common adjectives used to describe Muslims were: “radical” “fanatical” “fundamentalist” “extremist” and “militant”; the idea that Muslims might actually “support dominant moral values” was found in precisely 2 percent of articles. And throughout the coverage, people from a Muslim background were dehumanised: they were “much less likely than non-Muslims to be identified in terms of their job or profession, and much more likely to be unnamed or unidentified.” Meanwhile, a detailed recent report from the University of Exeter, which presented similar findings, also noted that it provided “prima facie and empirical evidence to demonstrate that assailants of Muslims” – that is, those responsible for hate crime attacks on Muslim targets – “are invariably motivated by a negative view of Muslims they have acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports or commentaries in the media.”

The scale and blatancy of Islamophobia in the British press has meant that it has received some attention recently, but it is really only one obvious example of a whole range of sweeping and repeated misrepresentations in the British press – many of them, especially on crucial political and economic issues, so insidious that it is much more difficult to focus attention on them.

We are left in a situation, then, where the resources for news production are still overwhelmingly concentrated within a few organisations, mostly run for profit, which are found over and over again to systematically decontextualise, exaggerate, misinform, and distort. And it seems that especially where there is little possibility of repercussion – when dealing with groups, for example, that are unpopular and therefore largely defenceless – the tendecy is to further distort until articles (like Leppard’s in the Sunday Times) appear which bear practically no relation at all to reality.

The uncomfortable truth is that setting up blogs, websites, small magazines, and even organisations that aim to disseminate whistleblown information, is nowhere near sufficient. The ownership and control of crucial information is, despite what we are told, probably more concentrated in 2010 than it ever was, and continues to have very real consequences for the majority of people who are not permitted to speak for themselves.

If we are serious about challenging such a broken system, we should be looking at ways of building prominent, large and sustainable organisations that can provide news to millions of people. These organisations need to be fundamentally structured in ways which makes them both supported by, and accountable to, the very audiences they reach, as with the trade union press which thrived in Britain a hundred years ago. Democracy Now! from the US is perhaps the only existing project that even approaches this, but on its own it cannot hope to compete for audiences against the giants.

The ownership and management of news is often overlooked within progressive movements but, in my view, it is really one of the central questions of our time. Without a change, we face what is essentially the tyranny of distortive power – that utter control over information so encapsulated in Orwell’s image of the memory hole. A less than appealing prospect.

Musab Younis is Ceasefire‘s Deputy Editor. Counterspin, his column on the media, appears every other Sunday.

Less than a fifth of British people say they trust newspapers


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Sep 6, 2010 1:03

Interesting piece, although I don´t think democracy now is the model to follow. Pacifica is dependent on huge funding from foundations, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. They say on their site:

“Democracy Now! is funded entirely through contributions from listeners, viewers, and foundations. We do not accept advertisers, corporate underwriting, or government funding. This allows us to maintain our independence.”

Being foundation funded and independent are mutually exclusive. I like Amy Goodman and some of DN’s output is excellent, but you can’t take money from the wealthiest families on the planet and then turn around and say you’re independent.

Sep 6, 2010 15:24

Interesting article. With you completely on it. A cruel and almost hilarious sting of it is that alternative media sources, like blogs (etc.), are not and will not legitimatised by the mainstream media and so they are not legitimate to a mass audience no matter how illegitimate the mainstream media is.

I wonder how much the problem lies in the process of news creation in general. Even alternative sources gazump someone’s reality, make/force opinions, and recreate the world for the reader. The process inherently reshaping people. Less than a fifth say they don’t trust the newspapers but nonetheless it still forms the world we live in.

Sep 7, 2010 9:59

Good article. I’m surprised about one omission though. Rather than hailing Democracy Now as the shining beacon of alternative media I’m surprised you didn’t mention Indymedia. For the past 10 years Indymedia has been providing an open publishing platform for activists and commentators to publish their own news. Whilst there are, undoubtedly, some problems with this unmediated approach (disinformation campaigns by the state, for example), the principles that no one is an expert and that first hand reports by people with a connection to events are more important than analysis by armchair pundits are more radical than the values of most of what passes for ‘alternative’ media.

Also, whilst you rightly point out that Muslims are demonised by the media there are many other scapegoats such as migrants, black youth, “benefit cheats” and so on. There is some interesting analysis of media discourse against migrants in this article: https://nottingham.indymedia.org.uk/articles/125
The Press Action blog is also well worth checking out: http://pressaction.wordpress.com/

Sep 7, 2010 11:36

Thanks for the comments, some very pertinent points raised.

SK – There may be a problem with news creation in general – but I think there’s a point at which coverage can be accurate, useful and informative, within some inherent constraints. Even these constraints can be toyed with and potentially overcome if we think about ways to democratise news production and make newspapers organisations that serve the population, rather than try to exploit them for the benefit of advertisers.

Tom and D – I highlighted Democracy Now! (DN) rather than other organisations for one reason: it reaches hundreds of thousands of people, potentially millions, every day with original journalism and analysis via TV, radio and podcasts. It is precisely this kind of scope that I think we need to build within the ‘progressive’ media – small projects are useful, but by their nature they won’t reach most people.

Tom, your criticisms of DN are very relevant here – accepting charitable foundation funding is always a difficult choice, but I think DN have managed to do it without compromising their political outlook. But I do agree that we should be constantly looking for ways of funding that are both sustainable and democratic.

D, you rightly point out Indymedia here. I think it is an extremely valuable tool for activists and it can be an excellent way of getting information, often from people on the ground, that hasn’t been specially filtered for public consumption. I deliberately didn’t mention it here because I think that if we are serious about producing a new kind of mass media, we have to face up to the fact that there are some major problems with the Indymedia model. I’ll be dedicating a specific column on this very soon and look forward to the discussion.

Sep 9, 2010 0:55

I think this quote from Malcom X says more than I could ever hope to on how the source of funding affects the nature of the product:

“We are the only black organzation that only black people support! These so called Negro progress organizations – Why, they insult your intellgence, claiming they are fighting in your behalf to get you the equal rights you are asking for… claiming they are fighting the white man who refuses to give you your rights. Why, the white man supports these organizations! If you belong, you pay your two, or three, or five dollars a year – but who gives those organizations those two, and three, and five thousand dollar donations? The white man! He feeds those organizations! So he controls those organizations! He advises them – so he contains them! Use your common sense – aren´t you going to advise and control and contain anyone that you support, like your child?”

You say democracy now´s content isn´t affected by the enormous funding they receive from extremely wealthy backers – enabling them to have a plush tv studio, considerable salaries for their main players and everything translated into Spanish and on their site without advertising revenues… My view is that if their message was genuinely in opposition to what the people holding the foundation purse strings were comfortable with them putting out they wouldn´t get paid and they know it – they know what topics they are allowed to cover and what they should steer clear of. Once an organisation gets accustomed to receiving that level of funding – and we are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars annually – maybe more – it becomes virtually impossible to contemplate continuing the operation without it.

Not that the coverage of most issues on DN isn´t far more accurate than on many corporate networks. The difference is that when you watch CNN or Fox you know some rich guy with an agenda to push is responsible for what you´re watching – DN is dangerous because too many people aren´t aware of where the funding for what they are watching comes from.

Personally speaking I would rather they took advertising from non-corporate smaller businesses over foundation money. In terms of reach and consistency of message I think Russia Today or Press TV are good examples – they are watched by millions and have put out some of the most honest and accurate reports I have ever seen on any major news station in spite of being funded by advertisers.

Like I said it´s not that I have anything against democracy now – it just grates me that people think they are independent and anti-establishment when they most likely would never have heard of DN if it wasn´t for the establishment cash that underwrites the entire operation.

Sep 9, 2010 14:03

Russia Today and Press TV do produce some good reporting, but they are funded by the Russian and Iranian governments respectively, and are obviously compromised when reporting on news which affects the interests of the states involved. See RT’s coverage of Chechnya, or Press TV’s coverage of anti-government protests in Iran, for two obvious examples.

Your claim that Democracy Now! is compromised by its receiving “foundation money” might be true in theory, but the only way I can think of demonstrating it would be to provide examples of stories that the network should be covering but isn’t, because such stories would be “genuinely in opposition to what the people holding the foundation purse strings were comfortable with.”

With Russia Today and Press TV, for example, it would be easy to provide a list of stories relating to anti-government activity which the networks have either avoided reporting entirely, or seriously misrepresented, due to the interests of the governments involved.

You didn’t provide any such examples for Democracy Now, so your claim that it is politically compromised remains theoretical.

Sep 10, 2010 4:06

There are plenty of things about Democracy Now’s coverage which could be improved in my opinion – for one they play into the paradigm “right vs. left” lesser of two evils politics far more than I am comfortable with even though they’re nowhere near as bad as openly corporate outlets like Fox or CNN.

There are plenty of issues you won’t see covered on DN though… For example the fact that U.S. companies built up Hitler’s war machine and ran factories in Nazi Germany during the war producing weapons and equipment that were used against allied troops. That wouldn’t have anything to do with DN taking thousands of dollars of Ford Foundation money would it? Similarly, and anyone who watches more of DN’s stuff than me should correct me on this if it’s inaccurate, but I haven’t seen too much about the history of eugenics and how all US foreign aid is conditional on third world countries implementing vicious population control policies from Amy Goodman. Nor about how some of the biggest foundations are owned by the same families who pumped huge sums into early eugenics operations in the US and Nazi Germany and who are today obsessed with global population reduction. Not that Fox or CNN show that either.

Your points about Press TV and RT are certainly correct, however as with watching Fox, most discerning people are aware of the conflict of interest and make allowances accordingly .. However in my experience you are just as likely to hear about the Russian government staging terror attacks as a pretext to keep a stranglehold over Chechnya on Russia Today as you are on DN… and that´s not very likely at all. in general DN barely touches the issue of western government-sponsored terror and military false flag attacs as a pretext to start conflicts despite overwhelming documented evidence.

The main issue is that taking money from a foundation inherently compromises the content a media outlet is going to touch.

This isn´t a theoretical point in my opinion – these foundations aren´t giving up inordinate amounts of money because they believe in the free exchange of ideas and want the public at large to be better informed. You kind of imply that it´s my opinion or a contested point that they are funded by these organisations as well… Their own website is quite clear on this although, understandably, it is downplayed and there is no doubt that many of their long time listeners are unaware of the fact, not to mention unaware of the history behind many of the families that started and still run the biggest foundations.

Not that Democracy Now isn´t very effective when it comes to covering important news on many relevant issues – for me they are spot on when it comes to covering the illegal wars and the arms trade and corporate malfeasance and police brutality and the erosion of civil liberties in the US. My problem is that they don´t go far enough.

Lorene Guidaboni
Oct 23, 2010 9:57

Long time reader / first time poster. Really enjoy reading the blog, keep up the good work. Will definitely start posting more oftenin the near future.

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