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Holding the media to account

Why media should be more open to dialogue – even if that means raising uncomfortable questions.

Editor’s Note: This text appeared in the last issue of our weekly newsletter for media managers. Sign up and receive the latest media updates and opportunities.

Experts had a lot of advice for the media in the weeks before, and then after, the US presidential election. Most had to do with not buying into, or amplifying, the baseless messages of vote fraud that many feared the Trump campaign would put out (and then did).

The media ended up, by and large, doing a pretty decent job of handling attempts to manipulate the truth. It’s unclear if the scolding/ schooling by experts had much to do with it, as busy journalists rarely have the time or inclination to listen to such. 

More likely, Trump’s incessant mockery of a free press as an institution led to the backlash (rather than a reflection on or admission of past failures), which was even joined by former friends at Fox.

There’s a few reasons why people decide to “tell the media what to do,” but most revolve around the fact that people are unhappy with the reality news organizations are reporting. This is somewhat flattering – it assumes the media are way more influential than they actually are – but mostly it shifts blame to a convenient third-party (and people can agree “the media” is at fault, even if they don’t agree on what the answer should look like). 

In some cases, however, it can be an opposition to the narrative or lens through which outlets are reporting. A recent example was the reporting on France’s “anti-Islamist” measures to counter terrorist activity that most recently led to the decapitation of a history and geography teacher, as well as daylight assassinations in the streets of Nice. 

The French President Emmanuel Macron himself led the charge in criticizing “Anglo-Saxon” media (as the French call them), calling Ben Smith from New York Times  and penning a letter to The Financial Times (which removed it’s own, earlier article on the topic citing factual errors).

Macron was right on factual errors in the outlets’ reporting, as well as the broader theme of Western (especially American) media interpreting events through the prism of their own cultural wars (and specifically US identity politics, which go counter to France’s secularism). 

But even that has limited impact – a moment of reflection was followed by defense of the NYT’s position, accusations of Trumpism and suggestions that Macron was deflecting from a weak economy and challenges to his presidency.

If attempts to influence media coverage from outside are doomed to be ineffective or backfire, how then, is constructive feedback to be delivered? There’s probably no miracle solution – discussions with media critics, audience surveys, and introspection all have their part to play. 

The experience of Denmark’s #MeToo wave – which started from the media sector (and a few years later than in most countries) – is an interesting case in point. Much of the coverage was focused on experiences and self-examination, starting from “marginal” voices within newsrooms (like interns and freelancers) and ending on the executives themselves. The discussion about how to best carry out such a national conversation is still ongoing.

Such stories of self-reflection on behalf of the media, however, remain rare. In the short to mid-term, it is probably safe to assume that most attempts to influence coverage – whether it is through argument, education or bullying – will probably backfire. It is a natural, and necessary, feature of media that any attempts to influence editorial generate pushback, though it has not kept the media safe from manipulation.

In the longer-term, however, we can hope that a new generation, more diverse and open to challenge, will help new media lead and engage in dialogues about the narratives it is missing or distorting (inadvertently or not). 

If they are able to withstand the tech giants (a big “if”), the media winners of the ongoing winner-takes-most battle in the digital subscription markets will be more self-confident and well-resourced. Hopefully, this will also mean it will be more open to dialogue, ready to take a more active role in driving the discussion – even if that means raising uncomfortable questions.

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