On December 20, in a piece both depressingly necessary and emblematic of the year, Britain’s Channel 4 news released a fact-check. It assessed claims by a writer for the Russian state media channel Russia Today.
As terrible reports of injured and dead civilians, many of them children, poured out of besieged and bombarded Aleppo, this writer suggested in a speech to the United Nations that western journalists were “compromised” and that the same bleeding children were being recycled in different reports.
Channel 4 ran through factors explaining why it was “beyond reasonable doubt” that the pictures in dispute were in fact credible, adding: “… the simpler explanation is the more likely one: children really are being orphaned in Syria, or left wounded and distressed …”
This is the bit that highlights the trouble we’re in: that the truth of journalists not being able to verify all information coming out of Syria leads some to believe that everything reported by otherwise credible news outlets must therefore be fake – including attacks on children.
To a degree, this is nothing new: propaganda is a part of war – we’ve seen battles over information in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in particular during the Gaza war of 2008, when Israel did not grant Western media access to the strip.
But, in the year of Brexit and Donald Trump, neither of which the media saw coming, the talk has been of a broken media, unable to usefully analyse, report or inform while at the same time being flooded with fake news.
There are various ways to read the UK vote to leave the European Union, or the United States election outcome – but concern that the media is no longer trusted and is failing to inform keeps coming up in the mix.
From the fake news farms in Macedonia, to the role of Facebook – now a prime news source – in spreading it, to the far-right gaming Google’s algorithms so that Hitler is good and Jews are evil, it seems we’re flooded with false information.
And if that were not bad enough, we also have a media obsessed with entertainment value to the extent that the resurgence of the far-right is portrayed as a hipster sensation.
The digital age has perhaps created a privileging of opinions over slow, expensive reporting - so then it can't be a surprise when facts are no longer sacred and everyone's view, however malicious, deceitful or bigoted, is seen as deserving of airtime.
And there’s trouble in the unthinking pursuit of balance, which has created false equivalence. This showed up in the US election campaign, when Trump and Hillary Clinton were treated as equally flawed.
If politics is presented as entertainment, it can be no surprise that the populist right will play to that: Trump mastered it, but so did the anti-Islam leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders. As did Nigel Farage, former leader of the Brexit-pushing UK Independence Party – the party has one seat in parliament but Farage is a ubiquitous media presence because, well, it’s amusing, isn’t it?
But it’s no secret that airtime can elevate the popularity of a political party: in giving access and a platform, media signals to its audience that the politician in question is acceptable and viable. You might legitimately ask why, in this context, Farage gets more attention in the UK than, say the Green Party (one sitting MP) or the Liberal Democrats (eight MPs).
You might also question the value of giving platform to extreme, hateful voices – the idea may be to challenge and debunk such views, but the outcome can be a widening of exposure and legitimacy.
This was the debate swirling about the Daily Show’s interview between host Trevor Noah and Tomi Lahren, a YouTube hit with a line in angry, race-baiting rants.
Perhaps there is something to learn from the way German media reports on the far-right – having played a role in Germany’s de-Nazification effort, it has historically been more wary of giving hateful or anti-immigration views a platform and is now calibrating such decisions in the face of the country’s far-right party, the AfD.
Several German journalists I spoke with noted that, following the horrific lorry attack in Berlin last week, media coverage was mostly restrained over bringing in voices that blamed refugees for the attack.
The digital age has perhaps created a privileging of opinions over slow, expensive reporting – so then it can’t be a surprise when facts are no longer sacred and everyone’s view, however malicious, deceitful or bigoted, is seen as deserving of airtime.
Post-Trump and Brexit, media outlets stand accused of not listening to or reporting the public mood. But, as journalist and campaigner Paris Lees, who comes from a British area that voted to leave the EU, told the BBC’s Newsnight programme last week: “Nobody wants to listen to us when we want to talk about housing or schools or jobs … but suddenly, when people have got racist concerns, everybody wants to listen.”
Part of giving power to the far-right is to do with prioritising their preferred issues. What would happen if there were just as much coverage of housing, jobs or corporate tax avoidance as there has been on immigration?
You could also make the case that counter-narratives to the far-right are insufficiently reported. Redressing this might mean giving space to lives, work and campaigns that challenge the arguments and appeal of the populist right – or it might be about amplifying positive political activities.
For instance, when UK Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right terrorist earlier this year, Guardian readers asked why they had not previously heard of this MP’s tireless campaigning for her constituency, for Syria and for refugees.
This resulted in a piece about the “unsung MPs quietly making Britain better”. Of course politicians and governments should be held to account by the media, but if good work isn’t reported, it cements the idea that parliamentarians are ubiquitously self-serving and corrupt – something that the far-right has pounced upon and used as a part of its social diagnosis.
At the end of a year of ruptured politics in the West, there’s a tendency to look for something to blame: Elites, the working class, Facebook, the Russians.
None of this finger-pointing will solve complex structural, political and economic problems that have been brewing for some time and have multiple causes.
But while we take a hard look at how we got here and scrutinise what’s ahead, the one thing we do need is a robust media, one that can handle it – one that can question and challenge the state we’re in, rather than collective collapsing into despair or acquiescence.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.