IN Accomplice: Struggle for meaning (recently published by Ertsberg) emeritus professor Jef Verschueren searches for an antidote to unhealthy polarization. In this contribution, a number of extracts from the chapter on the media have been collected.
Education, media and politics are essential to maintaining public sanity. But they suffer from the ills of the society they serve. Political decision-making is strongly driven by the assessment of public support, rather than an attempt to create support for worthwhile views. Universities are chameleons, taking on the organizational contours and colors of their environment. Disproportionate attention therefore shifts from the central mission of education and research to an administrative meta-level, where the neoliberal principles of new public management be published. As a result, they risk suboptimal performance. Can we see similar derailments in the media?
Our media are predominantly private companies, so efficiency standards are typically dictated by the potential for financial gain for shareholders in the relatively short term. An inevitable consequence is the flow of cheap opinion journalism at the expense of more expensive investigative journalism, which is also channeled through growing media conglomerates. The result is a dangerous paradox. There have never been more means of communication than today. Dissemination of information has never been easier. But the channels seem to be narrowing.
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Not everything in the media is hopeless. With a little effort and a critical eye, detailed and contextualized information can be retrieved directly from the Internet. Added to this is the increasing professionalization of journalists in mainstreammedia to do much of the searching for you. They know how to combine such information with what they get from news agencies and through their networks. Investigative journalism is also far from dead, as evidenced by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which unites for genuine international journalistic research. As a result, the quality of what reaches news consumers is generally good, sometimes even excellent. The better media still refuse to ride the waves of popular sentiment. This is probably why they arouse so much hostility. Trump is not alone in accusing the media of “faking news” when they fail to declare his truth.
Yet the coverage that reaches us does not deserve the greatest recognition. This is not due to a lack of professionalism or passion. The information funnel is not the only explanation either. Like politics and academia, the media has massively given in to the institutional demands of a meta-level life. This is reflected, for example, in the tendency not only to practice the much-needed reflection on one’s own journalistic practice, but also to present it to a large extent, as e.g. The standard do so in the ombudsman’s columns or in the journalistic annual reports that each subscriber receives at the end of December.
More importantly, the primordial journalistic question now seems to be: What do readers and viewers want to read and see? From a market perspective, this is a good question. Yet single from that perspective. We are here facing the perversion of an elementary principle of good communication. This is called in technical terms audience design. Messages should be worded in such a way that they fit the mind of the recipient. It is healthy empathy and necessary reflexivity. That ‘connection’ means that wording enables readers and viewers to understand a message. From there, good communication, and certainly the ‘news’, should add substance. But when reflexivity goes too far, so that what is mainly communicated is what (journalists think) the public wants to hear and read, then we see a derailment. Instead of focusing on the added value of the content, texts and programs are too easily adapted to what editors and program makers think their audience wants – in the hope of increasing sales, viewership or simply click to drive up.
Good catering requires a variety of tasty snacks. In the media, these are often the product of a symbiotic relationship between politics, media and academic research. All political parties have their media specialist and academics receive media training. Journalists often rely on political sources for their work, just as politicians need the media to reach an electorate. The content of the reporting is sometimes the result of scientific research, while the research itself is continuously tailored in collaboration with politically controlled state institutions or increasingly with newspapers and magazines. Nowhere is the symbiosis between politics and media more visible than in the ritualized practice of the information leak. Some politicians routinely try to strengthen their own position or undermine someone else’s by leaking (usually half-assed) information. The media reacts eagerly to this. Leaks that are too quickly proven to be false are then loudly denounced.
All this manipulated attention is also embedded in an entertainment industry that sensationally plays on the public’s voyeuristic instincts. Or in a fruitless attempt to include all opinions, regardless of their connection to the facts. Often, legitimate public attention is too easy an excuse to tolerate falsehoods and empathize with those who believe them. Complicity arises when the realization disappears that truth can never be determined democratically.
It is not unreasonable to place the highest demands on the guardians of the information. That task has become more difficult in a world where social media fosters a viral culture and fragments media audiences. Fragments of media discourse are isolated, combined and recontextualized at dizzying speed. So not only is the public fragmented. The same applies to the messages themselves. And the media are too willingly complicit when content is subsequently constructed around Twitter posts.
Only a fraction of the news circulating on social media comes from professional news sources. As even they rely on narrow channels of information and struggle to monitor anything off the beaten path, global news pollution is perilously close to the air quality over Delhi or Beijing on a windless, hot, busy day. When there is enough smog, extremist sectarian movements and conspiracy theory factories thrive. Social media is the black hole that brings together, so to speak, all the forces working at the meta-levels of politics, institutions and media. It was therefore fitting that Mark Zuckerberg renamed the company Facebook to… Meta!
There are no easy remedies. If there were, the numerous competent and driven journalists and editors would have put them into practice long ago. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle is breaking through a market logic to allow journalists to dispose as freely as possible of their greatest asset, which is time. There will then be fewer resources available for the media to show off. But the quality of their own journalistic research will benefit from it, as will the reputation and attractiveness of the product. If enough media follow this path, the reliability of ‘used news’ will also increase.
There is no good reason why it should not be possible. There are also hopeful trends. But there is only a chance of success if enough editors and journalists are prepared to leave the beaten path more than just symbolically. A refusal to remain complicit is more necessary than ever. Especially in early 2023.
Jef Verschueren (1952) is emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Antwerp. In 1993, together with the late Jan Blommaert, he received the Free Speech Ark award for The Belgian migrant debate. Accomplice: Struggle for meaning (just published by Ertsberg) has as a common thread the search for an antidote to unhealthy polarization. The author finds this in a shared responsibility for derailments in the political debate, in the functioning of important institutions such as the university and in media practice. The nature of the derailment, simply summarized, is over-attention to impression management at the expense of essence in any of the areas where meaning is at stake.