The Responsibilities of Journalism

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by Jon S via Flickr

“Journalism is not about positivity or solutions – it’s about facts”

There are responsibilities of a journalist that are universal and undeniable – the responsibility to obtain information ethically and legally, to fact-check claims and report truths. Corbyn told an ITV News reporter that “it’s your responsibility to make sure the opposition voice is heard” – is that true? Trump would say that the press has a responsibility to report the ‘facts’ he peddles, and he lambasts them as “liars” and “fake news” when they do not.

Do journalists have a social responsibility? It’s often said that the press doesn’t cover the planes that don’t crash, the boats that don’t sink – but should they? In my pursuit of a career in journalism, these questions have often bugged me. Do I want to make a living by painting a bleak picture of the world and shining a light on the worst aspects of life?

To discuss whether it is right for so much negative journalism, first let’s understand why there is a bias for negativity. Firstly: supply meets demand. In one study, Trussler and Soroka asked unwitting participants to pick from a selection of news stories – good and bad. Participants tended towards negative stories (yet, interestingly, later said they preferred good news). Why? Perhaps the German language holds the answer, with their word ‘Schadenfreude’ describing the pleasure we glean from the misfortune of others. Aristotle would suggest ‘Catharsis’ – the effect of purging negative emotions through art, such as a tragic play. Psychologists believe it’s a negativity bias, evolved to respond quickly to negative threats.

Secondly, negative news is a requirement to uphold what I believe is a key role of journalism. In my mind, what makes journalism the “fourth pillar of democracy”, is it’s role in exposing injustice and untruths. That, by its nature, is negative. So stories about hypocrisy, controversy, unfairness are negative and perhaps depressing to read – but essential for the upkeep of a press that preserves democracy.

So yes – it is true that the media ignores the plane that doesn’t crash: but rightfully so. That’s not what ‘news’ is. So, when I first heard of “constructive” journalism and “solutions” journalism, I was a bit sceptical. It seems unrealistic, and perhaps even dangerous, to paint a pretty picture of a world that can sometimes be pretty nasty. I’m also sceptical of the idea that journalism has a duty to report on ‘solutions’ to problems. Firstly, the problems that journalists report on don’t have easy solutions. It’s easy to say tax dodging could be solved by closing loopholes, but maybe it could be solved by reducing taxation? Is the solution to poverty a welfare state, or a stronger economy? These questions divide the experts and the population at large, and it is not the place of journalism to simplify them.

Nonetheless, I agree that journalism does neglect its responsibility to cover good news in society. In this online age, where journalists have click-quotas to fill, effort goes into stories that generate views and attention. That is the negative news. But this is no reason to neglect the positive stories, as they help us form a more rounded view of society.

Above all, it is my opinion that the role of journalism is to report the truth, and the whole truth. The papers are not the place to speculate about solutions, and leaving out the bad stuff is not helpful to anyone. The truth, no matter how depressing or challenging or messy, should be the goal of good journalism.