In the year of Brexit and Donald Trump, neither of which the media saw coming, the talk has been of a broken media, unable to usefully analyse, report or inform while at the same time being flooded with fake news.
There are various ways to read the UK vote to leave the European Union, or the United States election outcome – but concern that the media is no longer trusted and is failing to inform keeps coming up in the mix.
From the fake news farms in Macedonia, to the role of Facebook – now a prime news source – in spreading it, to the far-right gaming Google’s algorithms so that Hitler is good and Jews are evil, it seems we’re flooded with false information.
And if that were not bad enough, we also have a media obsessed with entertainment value to the extent that the resurgence of the far-right is portrayed as a hipster sensation.
It is no secret that airtime can elevate the popularity of a political party: in giving access and a platform, media signals to its audience that the politician in question is acceptable and viable.
You might also question the value of giving platform to extreme, hateful voices – the idea may be to challenge and debunk such views, but the outcome can be a widening of exposure and legitimacy.
This was the debate swirling about the Daily Show’s interview between host Trevor Noah and Tomi Lahren, a YouTube hit with a line in angry, race-baiting rants.
Perhaps there is something to learn from the way German media reports on the far-right – having played a role in Germany’s de-Nazification effort, it has historically been more wary of giving hateful or anti-immigration views a platform and is now calibrating such decisions in the face of the country’s far-right party, the AfD.
Several German journalists I spoke with noted that, following the horrific lorry attack in Berlin last week, media coverage was mostly restrained over bringing in voices that blamed refugees for the attack.
The digital age has perhaps created a privileging of opinions over slow, expensive reporting – so then it can’t be a surprise when facts are no longer sacred and everyone’s view, however malicious, deceitful or bigoted, is seen as deserving of airtime.
Post-Trump and Brexit, media outlets stand accused of not listening to or reporting the public mood. But, as journalist and campaigner Paris Lees, who comes from a British area that voted to leave the EU, told the BBC’s Newsnight programme last week: “Nobody wants to listen to us when we want to talk about housing or schools or jobs … but suddenly, when people have got racist concerns, everybody wants to listen.”
Part of giving power to the far-right is to do with prioritising their preferred issues. What would happen if there were just as much coverage of housing, jobs or corporate tax avoidance as there has been on immigration?
You could also make the case that counter-narratives to the far-right are insufficiently reported. Redressing this might mean giving space to lives, work and campaigns that challenge the arguments and appeal of the populist right – or it might be about amplifying positive political activities.
For instance, when UK Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right terrorist earlier this year, Guardian readers asked why they had not previously heard of this MP’s tireless campaigning for her constituency, for Syria and for refugees.
This resulted in a piece about the ‘unsung MPs quietly making Britain better’. Of course politicians and governments should be held to account by the media, but if good work isn’t reported, it cements the idea that parliamentarians are ubiquitously self-serving and corrupt – something that the far-right has pounced upon and used as a part of its social diagnosis.
At the end of a year of ruptured politics in the West, there’s a tendency to look for something to blame: Elites, the working class, Facebook, the Russians.
None of this finger-pointing will solve complex structural, political and economic problems that have been brewing for some time and have multiple causes.
But while we take a hard look at how we got here and scrutinise what’s ahead, the one thing we do need is a robust media, one that can handle it – one that can question and challenge the state we’re in, rather than collective collapsing into despair or acquiescence.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The media we need in 2017’.