Journalism in a time of crisis: why learning to read critically is important

4 minutes to read
Column
Odile Heynders
30/11/2017

On 16 November 2017 Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian published "A Mission for Journalism in a Time of Crisis" in which she claims that the media must redefine its values and principles. Her argument is convincing, but a call to a strategy of reading could be added.

In her inspiring Guardian article on the history and future perspectives of journalism, Viner conveys that in our era a serious consideration of reporting, producing, distributing and obtaining news is needed. Journalists have to rethink ‘what we do and why we do it’. Viner describes how the Manchester Guardian developed almost 200 years ago out of a need for accurate reports on social and political events happening. The newspaper was founded ‘in a mood of great hope, and faith in ordinary people’. This optimism and faith have declined drastically in the last two decades, showing a rapid transformation of the public sphere due to new technologies and social practices. The transition from print to digital has had consequences for streams of information as well as advertising, with many people getting most of their news from Facebook organising newsfeeds with algorithms.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas compared the public sphere to the café in the eighteenth century European town, where men gathered at tables, read newspapers and discussed the state. Today, according to Viner, the public sphere can be associated with a digital town square mobbed with bullies, misogynists and racists, bringing a new kind of hysteria to the debate.

Sometimes fake news spreads out of panic, sometimes out of malice, and sometimes out of deliberate manipulation.

This rather gloomy perspective also was presented by Viner in an earlier article, published in July 2016, in which she underlined how ‘technology disrupts the truth’ and argued that in the digital age it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken to be true. Sometimes fake news spreads out of panic, sometimes out of malice, and sometimes out of deliberate manipulation.

To counter this pessimistic perspective Viner in her current paper declares that ‘facts are sacred’ - The Guardian will give people the facts, ‘because they want and need information they can trust’. She illustrates this by pointing at the 800.000 readers that today financially support The Guardian and help the newspaper to secure a future for journalism. I myself am a supportive reader of The Guardian since the summer of 2016, when both Brexit and the upcoming elections in the US asked for in-depth and reliable information, and made me realise that this was more precious than ever before. The Guardian, but Liberation and Die Zeit as well, help to unravel the complex information on European and global issues. Combining various national perspectives illustrates that sources of information are and can be interpreted and discussed in various ways.

At the end of her article Viner presents an agenda (of 5 principles) for the future (I paraphrase): 

  1. We will develop ideas that help improve the world, not just critique it, 
  2. We will collaborate with readers and others to have greater impact, 
  3. We will diversify to have a richer reporting, 
  4. We will be meaningful in all of our work, 
  5. We will report fairly on people as well as power and find things out. 

Even though I am sympathetic with all these standards, I also think that they do not ultimately help to address the real problem of the digital square crowded with angry people throwing overexcited and un-reflective messages on online (visible and hidden) platforms.

My additional argument would be that we do not (only) need principles for writing and reporting, rather more necessary is that in this context of excitable speech (Butler 1997) we share and agree upon principles for reading. To put it differently: a renewed interest in and application of philology is necessary. Readers -I take our students as examples- have to learn how to deal with online and offline sources and how to critically interpret texts (in word and visual). New forms of knowledge and information are all over the internet, but it is difficult – we see the students struggle - to distillate insightful messages out of all these confessions, contributions and chitchat.

Philology – originally a literary or classical narrative analysis - implies that we have to learn how to interpret and understand a text on the basis of a few steps: 

  1. Who is the author of the message and what is her intention?
  2. What are the words, discourses and images used – how effective are they?
  3. How is the text structured? 
  4. How is the text persuasive (or not)? 
  5. What is the blind spot in the text? 
  6. What is the (historical) context and who has responded to the text?
  7. What is the ethos expressed?

These steps can be motivated by research – by Peter Brooks, Paul de Man, Judith Butler and others, leading beyond this column – but more importantly, they will slow down the reading and demand concentration and critical reflection.

More and more narratives and texts are circulating on the net, subversive user practices open up new public or semi-public spaces, and we very easily get lost in the expanding space between respectable websites and sweeping statements. The problem is not so much that some stories are fake or beyond or post-truth, it is that we are not aware of this and do not respond appropriately to it. In this context, it is relevant to realise who are the producer and the consumer of the text, and how it relates to the world. 

I argue in addition to Viner’s mission statement on reporting, that we should be more conscious of reading strategies (philology) and the management of reading in order to make more in-depth analyses of the narratives we are confronted with online. We need to revalue and update the philological approach to make it applicable to online information and a combination of old and new media. This implies slowing down, blocking off the ongoing media feeds, determining what to zoom in on, and taking responsibility for understanding the transferred (not always communicative) message. If we want to counter the mistrust in institutions, we could demand more effort put in reading and judging. Starting with this in our university programmes.

References

Judith Butler (1997), Excitable speech, A Politics of the Performative, New York and London: Routledge.