Is the media being played?

Journalists should cut through the noise amplified on social media and invest their time in traditional truth-seeking.

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett is seen on a cellphone camera as he talks to reporters prior to the Berkshire annual meeting in Omaha
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett is seen on a mobile phone camera as he talks to reporters [Rick Wilking/Reuters/File]

Every other month, a major political event is described as unprecedented, unexpected or unpredictable.

From the election of US President Donald Trump and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, to the growing popularity of the far right and the many outlandish, divisive statements by world leaders, headlines increasingly tend to write themselves.

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But should it be this easy? Should journalists rush to cover each and every comment posted to social media? Is the industry playing a role in distracting the public from key issues? Are news organisations handing out platforms? In short, is the media being played?

Here are some views …

Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:

“Journalism should be done in a logical and methodical way and it can sometimes be difficult to do that when there is a lot of noise in the room. But when the noise is loudest, the journalist has more of an obligation to stick to her or his task. These are difficult times for the media, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to prove to the public that what we do is worthy. The public deserves to know what is important, and what is not.

Media institutions are under enormous threat on a number of fronts these days, not least because the traditional business models are failing. And I think it is fair to criticise the media for forgetting – at times – what its true purpose is.

But each threat is a chance to re-examine what we do and to become better as a result. What we cannot afford to do is to forget that our primary duty is to the public, not ourselves.”

Marija Ristic, editor of Balkan Insight:

“In recent months we saw the most rapid decline of media freedom on a global scale; we are faced daily with the growth of disinformation and propaganda in both traditional and social media.

In the Balkans, we like to joke that the post-truth phenomenon is something that our politicians invented decades ago

by Marija Ristic

In the Balkans, we like to joke that the post-truth phenomenon is something that our politicians invented decades ago. What speaks in favour of that theory is the fact that one of the hubs for the website production of fake news was Macedonia.

We are facing a chronic loss of public trust in the media, mainly because the media remain vulnerable to political and business pressure, pushing aside objective and professional journalism.

At the same time, independent journalists work in a hostile environment, characterised by physical attacks and threats, punitive lawsuits and smear campaigns.

In circumstances like this, critical and investigative reporting is more needed than ever. It is encouraging that the number of small independent media organisations in the region is growing, mainly focusing on fact-checking, data and investigative journalism.

With micro projects supported mostly through crowd-funding, and focusing on corruption and organised crime, this new generation of journalists is using the freedom and tools given in the online space to hold public officials to account for their abuse of power and over untruthful statements.

Although their impact may sometimes be limited, as they mostly publish only online and their funding is not always secured, this can be a starting point to rethink how to rebuild the media using the tools and open data that are available to us in the digital age.”

Khadija Sharife, Africa editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and director of PPLAAF: 

“Corporate companies use the same legal and financial systemic gaps that criminal cartels do: the tax avoider and drug trafficker share this tactical DNA. Neither can they do without it. Ironically, the OECD is not only an umbrella body for the world’s most economically powerful countries but also doubles as the shield for most of the world’s more vicious onshore and offshore tax havens.

Consider that the UK, when stripped to the core of its financial empire, oversees the largest landscape of tax havens in territories such as the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda, etcetera – many of which are vulnerable islands, politically and economically.

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Because companies and cartels are camouflaged by the financial rules of the game set by the OECD, policymakers have tended to ‘win’ limited transparency but almost never accountability. Predatory activity is sustained. So when exposing a scandal, expose the policy gap too – as a fact, not advocacy. Make sure the story is in the context of the bigger picture.

Make the impact go the distance. This requires broadening how and what evidence is collected so that when law enforcement or policy-focused people come calling, you have enough armour ready for an indictment.”

Hilary Aked, freelance journalist and PhD researcher whose thesis investigates the pro-Israel lobby’s response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement:

“Based on little more than a template website, self-promoting ideologues too often succeed in gaining a platform on mainstream media.

Take the case of Jonathan Sacerdoti, described by the BBC as director of the ‘Institute of Middle East Democracy’. When it gave him unchallenged airtime on four occasions during Israel’s 2012 ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’, Sacerdoti had a long-standing record of pro-Israel activism, including having worked for the Zionist Federation.

Eventually, the BBC conceded it had breached impartiality guidelines.

But another person associated with the now-defunct ‘institute’, Sam Westrop, simply moved on to using a different vehicle. His ‘Stand for Peace’ website spread allegations about mostly Muslim individuals and groups.

He was eventually successfully sued for libel – but not before a British newspaper had uncritically regurgitated dubious claims which led to a Muslim charity losing its government funding.

The press has also reported on similar ‘extremism’ claims made by outfits such as ‘Student Rights’ and ‘Sharia Watch UK’ even though the people leading these bodies – Raheem Kassam and Anne Marie Waters – soon turned out to be extremists themselves.

It’s up to journalists to ensure they use credible sources. In the era of ‘alternative facts’ it’s critical that they do so.”

Source: Al Jazeera