It's not that we can't agree on truth - we have too much of it. So what do we build that can give us the news we need to progress?
The sociologist William Davies has written a long read on “why we can’t agree on what’s true anymore?” For those of us who were reading the Glasgow Media Group in the 70s and 80s, or the works of Johan Galtung and Peace Journalism in the 90s and 00s, this is hardly (as it were) news.
That news institutions or journalists might have their agendas, or other be in the grip of framings of reality that they were hardly aware of, is a long-standing ambition of media studies to declare.
However Davies’s modern critique is that we don’t believe our “official” news because, in the age of social media and excessive self-communication, we have a plenitude of “truths” and “takes on reality” to choose from:
The problem we face is not, then, that certain people are oblivious to the “mainstream media”, or are victims of fake news, but that we are all seeking to see through the veneer of facts and information provided to us by public institutions. Facts and official reports are no longer the end of the story.
Such scepticism is healthy and, in many ways, the just deserts of an establishment that has been caught twisting the truth too many times. But political problems arise once we turn against all representations and framings of reality, on the basis that these are compromised and biased – as if some purer, unmediated access to the truth might be possible instead. This is a seductive, but misleading ideal.
…While we are now able to see evidence for ourselves, we all have conflicting ideas of what bit to attend to, and what it means. The camera may not lie, but that is because it does not speak at all. As we become more fixated on some ultimate gold-standard of objective truth, which exceeds the words of mere journalists or experts, so the number of interpretations applied to the evidence multiplies.
As our faith in the idea of undeniable proof deepens, so our frustration with competing framings and official accounts rises.
All too often, the charge of “bias” means “that’s not my perspective”. Our screen-based interactions with many institutions have become fuelled by anger that our experiences are not being better recognised, along with a new pleasure at being able to complain about it.
As the writer and programmer Paul Ford wrote, back in 2011, “the fundamental question of the web” is: “Why wasn’t I consulted?”
What we are witnessing is a collision between two conflicting ideals of truth: one that depends on trusted intermediaries (journalists and experts), and another that promises the illusion of direct access to reality itself. This has echoes of the populist challenge to liberal democracy, which pits direct expressions of the popular will against parliaments and judges, undermining the very possibility of compromise. The Brexit crisis exemplifies this as well as anything.
Liberals and remainers adhere to the long-standing constitutional convention that the public speaks via the institutions of general elections and parliament. Adamant Brexiters believe that the people spoke for themselves in June 2016, and have been thwarted ever since by MPs and civil servants. It is this latter logic that paints suspending parliament as an act of democracy.
This is the tension that many populist leaders exploit. Officials and elected politicians are painted as cynically self-interested, while the “will of the people” is both pure and obvious. Attacks on the mainstream media follow an identical script: the individuals professionally tasked with informing the public, in this case journalists, are biased and fake.
It is widely noted that leaders such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Matteo Salvini are enthusiastic users of Twitter, and Boris Johnson has recently begun to use Facebook Live to speak directly to “the people” from Downing Street. Whether it be parliaments or broadcasters, the analogue intermediaries of the public sphere are discredited and circumvented.
What can professional editors and journalists do in response? One response is to shout even louder about their commitment to “truth”, as some American newspapers have profitably done in the face of Trump. But this escalates cultural conflict, and fails to account for how the media and informational landscape has changed in the past 20 years.
What if, instead, we accepted the claim that all reports about the world are simply framings of one kind or another, which cannot but involve political and moral ideas about what counts as important? After all, reality becomes incoherent and overwhelming unless it is simplified and narrated in some way or other.
And what if we accepted that journalists, editors and public figures will inevitably let cultural and personal biases slip from time to time? A shrug is often the more appropriate response than a howl. If we abandoned the search for some pure and unbiased truth, where might our critical energies be directed instead?
If we recognise that reporting and editing is always a political act (at least in the sense that it asserts the importance of one story rather than another), then the key question is not whether it is biased, but whether it is independent of financial or political influence.
The problem becomes a quasi-constitutional one, of what processes, networks and money determine how data gets turned into news, and how power gets distributed.
This last point is important. We’d hardly claim to be objective on the Daily Alternative: we fall within the category of what is often called solutions-based or practical journalism (see our own archive). And we have a strong agenda on the urgency of climate breakdown, the primacy of localist empowerment, and the transformatory power of automation.
Our ideal would be for customised Daily Alternatives to be launched within polities and communities who self-consciously required its media to equip them for empowered and autonomous activity, as citizens, commoners, creatives, carers. Indeed, the “constitution” of these media networks should be transparent and open, as to funding, staffing and decision-making.
This is the spirit of the age. New ventures like WikiTribune (now failed), Tortoise and The Correspondant (launching later this month) all make a virtue of bringing their readers (or “members”) into the heart of the editorial process, so that trust comes from seeing how the news process works.
However, one ambition - indeed, one manifestation - of a “Citizens Action Network” might well be a media function for a mobilised community. How could you wake up in the morning and find a news service that focussed on your local powers and resources for action?