Fill it with facts
Irrefutable facts, context and depth – this is how media of today should meet the ongoing challenges. This is how we can move opinions and insights and keep exposing abuse of power, injustices and lies.
The afternoon in the newsroom at the newspaper VG had been typically quiet on this somewhat slow day in July. I arrived at my work as News Editor around 1.30 pm and now, an hour or so later, we still did not have one single thing going that would make even the most excited reader raise an eyebrow. The only good thing was that Bruce Springsteen was in town.
But then: Well into the evening, the paper received a tip saying that Norway’s most famous drug criminal had escaped while having a birthday dinner in a hotel in the chain Relais & Châteaux. He had been granted leave from the prison to celebrate his 33rd birthday. With him was a 24-year-old prison guard whose task it was to make sure he did not run away. A social worker, who had visited him regularly in prison, was also invited to the dinner.
“Journalism delivers the heaviest punches when it has precise facts”
I was new to VG and to the position as News Editor, having been there for only three months, but this evening was to become decisive for my understanding of what it is that brings power to journalism.
Immediately we sent reporters to the place from which he had escaped. The prison that he was confined to was in the same town, about 50 kilometers south of Oslo. I kept in close contact with our people on the ground. Speaking with the reporter who had been at the hotel I asked: “Do you have a copy of the check?” “No, I didn’t think of that, but I believe I can get it.” An hour later a copy of the check came ticking out of the fax machine. This happened in 1988 and in those days the fax was the Hope diamond of the information technology.
I had a quick look at the check and felt instinctively that it was going to have an effect on Norwegian crime policies. I have worked in journalism for 37 years. Still, those moments when I immediately feel that this specific piece of news will have political consequences, or make life better for at least some people, are markers for the buzzing feeling of the power of journalism. And the knowledge that you have been unusually lucky in your choice of occupation.
No one carried a smartphone
The jailed narcotics smuggler obviously had expensive habits. He relished in duck breast, red wine, “marquise au chocolat” with strawberry sauce, Dry Martini and exquisite whisky in the Relais & Châteaux restaurant, before he asked to be excused and left for the bathroom. He did not come back. To grant a leave to a rough drug criminal and letting him spend a lot of money on fine food, in a place where most law-abiding citizens couldn’t afford to eat, would always create a stir, but it was the exposure of the actual check, payed by the prison employee, that really ignited the debate: Duck breast, expensive wine, Dry Martini and whisky!
“The role of journalism is to expose what others want to hide”
For me, the publishing of the check became the symbol of the fact that journalism delivers the heaviest punches when it has precise facts. When a revelation resounds with the readers it can mean that laws are changed, the political debate takes a new course or obvious faults are corrected. Without the readers’ acceptance, even the biggest of headlines can become an empty gesture rather than a solid punch.
The role of journalism is basically to expose what others want to hide, and to stimulate debate, to inform and to entertain. Different media are catering to different aspects of these elements with their output.
At the time when the drug smuggler enjoyed his duck’s breast there was no such thing as the digital motorway. No one carried a smartphone in their pocket and no one had been given the tools to bring the conversation into the public domain through social media. Digitalization has now made information limitless both geographically and in volume. Does this put new demands on how journalism is presented in order to keep its punch?
I for one think that the answer is a resounding YES. But the increasingly frequent technological shifts mean we are facing huge challenges. In a media landscape where we have moved from a scarcity of information to being burdened by the glut of it, journalism can be sorted into three categories: continuous, context and depth. I am among those who believe that speed in news is a special quality. I have never understood those who claim that the speed in news distribution, that the digitalization has made possible, is in itself a threat to quality.
One of the most epic dramas of the previous century was the duel between Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott concerning who reached the South Pole first. On December 14th 1911, Amundsen could triumphantly place the Norwegian flag on the polar spot. Scott perished.
Aftenposten broke the news on its entire front page. It was the greatest scoop ever in the paper’s history. When? On March 8th 1912. In the history of mankind this was just a blink of an eye ago.
The speed of news today works best when it is reinforcing the punch of journalism. In the same way, the unlimited space that comes with digitalization has given us the chance to tell stories with a depth, highlight different aspects of an issue and the opportunity for readers to study the basic material in an unprecedented way. Digitalization has given us the chance to convey a new journalistic force both in the fast news and in-depth stories
A big challenge in keeping up the journalistic strength is to provide a manageable context for the published material. The general reader is suffering from “information overload.” Media is available everywhere, all the time. Content, formats and distribution channels are constantly fragmented. That makes it increasingly important to explain why it is necessary to know something about this particular subject, and to do it in a way that is neither convoluted nor distancing. We should have a focused presentation of matters that everybody ought to know something about, combined with a far more specialized delivery of special-interest stories. Communication from one to everybody has been the model of mass media. It should gradually develop into one-to-one.
Today anyone can be his or her own broadcaster. The inherent mechanisms in social media, that reinforce exaggerated views and plainly false information, are undermining the credibility of the media using an aggressive and polarizing rhetoric. Propaganda, manifestly aimed at influencing people’s opinions with a one-sided presentation of information, are passed on in the news stream in the same form and with the same expression as the most meticulous revelation.
This topography means that if journalism should have a true strength it has to present irrefutable facts in a matter-of-fact and impartial manner. We are inundated by quick-witted sentences, but I am becoming more and more convinced that it is precise facts that can move opinions. My good friend for many years as editor-in-chief of Aftonbladet and now Director of Programs at Swedish Public Service TV, Jan Helin, has put it this way: “If one was given the chance to wish for a new trend in journalism, it would be that we became able to make stars out of journalists who are opinion-resistant and who, with a passion for facts, manage to tell stories in an exciting and matter-of-fact way.”
At its best, journalism contributes to a functioning democracy by diminishing the gap between what the citizens know and what they need to know about the world around them.
The more efficient we are in exposing the squandering of resources and abuse of power, in giving a voice to the silent, in highlighting the circumstances for the weakest, the better the democracy can become. And that is precisely why the autocrats constantly are attacking the media: the aim of journalism to expose abuse of power, injustices and lies. Therein lies the Power of Journalism.
Therein lies the justification of claiming that journalism is a pillar in any civilized society. Therein lies the fundament to herald journalism as a central part of the democratic infrastructure. But every autocrat has a binary view of the world. You are either a supporter or an enemy. There is never a shade of gray – let alone 50.
That is why it is a part of the morning ritual of the Twitter President to brand us as, “The enemy of the people”, as the standard bearers of falsehood. The best answer must be irrefutable facts, the only things that can, over time, move opinions and insight, inspired by journalism.
In an era where information is increasingly gathered from social media, it is necessary to underline that those platforms do not have any general ambition to consider the varying quality of the information. Here is a quote from Adam Mosseri, VP of Newsfeed, at Facebook: “We don’t favor specific kinds of sources – or ideas. Our aim is to deliver the types of stories we’ve gotten feedback that an individual person wants to see. We do this not only because we believe it’s the right thing but also because it’s good for our business.”
So, in the Facebook world, propaganda, lies and the best journalism has the same value. For the media, this must mean an enhanced effort to make the readers more capable of differentiating between information and propaganda. That will demand an increased awareness of the value of words, a broad fact-base and a tireless focus on reporting irrefutable facts.
As any journalist would know, her most fundamental obligation is to the truth. Truth not understood like a law of science, but as verifiable facts presented in a meaningful context, with the aim to facilitate debate and eventually reach good decisions.
Likes can not be the only criteria
With such a professional ethos, it’s utterly disturbing that the chosen term to characterize the climate for public discourse these days is “post-truth”. According to the Oxford Dictionary it is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
To paraphrase the legendary Joseph Pulitzer: The need for the noble profession of journalism, with an unequaled importance for its influence upon the minds and morals of the people, is better urgent than ever.
To uphold our ability to fulfil this honorable goal we must be aware of the importance of breadth and depth in our reporting, and consciously expose stories which are evaluated also by other criteria than popularity and likes. We must expose reality more than reality shows.
And we must be even more aware of the need to report precisely, wonderfully worded by the late journalist and author Gabriel Garcia Márquez: In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.