Throughout history, journalism has been used for many different purposes. It has been used to promote public morale, provide an antidote to social depressions, and expose injustices by revealing the voices of the oppressed. However, in a world of fake news, important stories have been lost by the rapid pace of today’s journalism. We can all remember the famous image of Alan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach. Despite drowning in his attempt to flee the conflict, today the crisis infrequently makes headlines despite the fact, to date, the war has displaced around 13 million people (NY Times).
The ability to shock and expose the injustices of governments and societies is not new to journalism. William Howard Russell, often cited as the first war correspondent, exposed the government’s disastrous handling of the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the devastating number of fatalities that subsequently ensued. This sparked a gripping new kind of journalism – one dedicated to precision, truth and immediacy.
There are cases throughout history of heroic individuals using journalism as a provocative agent of justice and a vehicle for truth. Nellie Bly, a journalist for the New York World faked mental illness in order to be admitted to an asylum in New York City in 1887. The abusive treatment of the patients and lack of sanitation, caused by government cuts, provoked outrage and forced the government to grant almost $1 million in new funds for the institution. Similarly, in 2012, investigative journalist Katherine Boo released a book titled Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in Mumbai Undercity, documenting the people she encountered in the three years she lived in the slums of Mumbai. These are clear examples of journalism working to promote the voices of those often passed over in society.
Yet, with the changing mediums of journalism over time, today’s stories seem to have increasingly less stamina. From the initial spread of news through newspapers, to TV and now online, there is a much larger variety of platforms to receive news than ever before. With this increase in platforms, combined with online algorithms predicting what we want to read, logic assumes that stories need more stamina to be able to penetrate the collective public conscience. An Ofcom report in 2018 discovered that 44% of adults consume online news via social media as well as TV, magazines and newspapers. However, social media was also one of the least trusted mediums of news.
This lack of trust hints at the modern socio-political ‘fake news’ crisis, which has become particularly potent through Twitter’s narration of the coronavirus (case in point: Trump advocating injecting disinfectants as a cure). With 145 million daily users on Twitter, there can be too much information and not enough clarity or importance given to the most ground breaking stories, such as the rise in domestic violence in the UK during lockdown. Research from Google Trends has suggested that today, a news story stays in the headlines for only seven days, likely very different to the popular memory of stories when newspapers were the only source of journalism.
Former journalist Alistair Campbell has emphasised the individualistic nature of modern journalism. From early journalism through newspapers, Campbell advocates that today “everyone should think of themselves as a brand” able to perpetuate reputable, true news or fake news. News agencies now have teams who specialise in cracking down on the spread of disinformation. James Hamilton, a professor of communication at Stanford University, recently said in an interview, “journalism is said to be the first rough draft of history.” If this is true, to provide stamina for important stories in journalism, we face the greatest challenge of allowing the most important and true stories to penetrate our conscience and make history, without the risk of disinformation by fake news, and keeping the tradition of provocative journalism alive in order to allow history to ring true.
To hear more about the risks within journalism today relating to fake news and the changing landscape of conflict, listen to our new podcast with former The Guardian foreign correspondent Dr Rory McCarthy, available on Spotify on ‘Purple on Demand.’