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Confronting the "split personality" of the media

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 19 Feb 2013 11:50 GMT
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John Lloyd, Director of Journalism at Reuters Institute and a contributing editor to the Financial times, gives an interview to the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) at King’s College, London, exploring the case for a more strategic journalistic approach to future humanitarian threats of greater dimensions and dynamics.

HFP and Reuters Institute are to collaborate on an initiative to test how best to achieve what John Lloyd describes as, more strategic journalism to cover “long-term issues which attract and inform a wider audience about the big challenges facing the world which they or their children will inherit”.  John Lloyd gave HFP the following interview:

HFP: Is it fair to say that journalists should accept, implicitly, that they have an ethical obligation to do their best to serve their audiences and that means providing the most comprehensive information – not just about what has and is happening but about what might happen? 

John Lloyd: Yes, by and large, journalism has been split between two imperatives. One is the self-claimed imperative to serve the public in the sense that we hold power to account, we make the significant interesting, we inform citizens about their rights and duties, but also about what surrounds them...what they should know, especially things which might be hidden by the authorities or by corporations.  We give ourselves a very high civic duty.  On the other hand, most journalism, apart from that which is in some sense publically funded like the BBC and so on, is market based - produced by people working for companies which have to make a profit or at least cover their costs.  So the two imperatives are always at war and for journalists the difficulty is trying to marry these two.  However, my contention is that since we claim we are the guardians of civic morality, then we have a duty to constantly push further in understanding what we do and in proposing new ways of doing it.

HFP: So, if fundamentally, journalism should be about serving the interests of humankind as a whole, and if it is failing at present to provide a strategic reporting dimension in its various news services, then we can say it is failing those whose interests it purports to serve?


John Lloyd: It’s failing in the sense that increasingly now we are aware of long-term risks and challenges and it does seem that these are at least as numerous as at any other time in modern history.  Information on these risks at the moment tends to be constricted to interested circles – activists, academics, people who’ve taken up an interest in a particular issue...most obviously ecology and global warming which has a wide circle of activists and scholars and people in NGOs.  Only occasionally do the media take these up consistently although global warming was one exception.  It was covered a great deal for a couple of years at conferences, forecasts were covered and there was a good deal of speculation that this or that weather pattern or hurricane disaster was due to climate change.  But now that’s rather gone, in part because journalism is relentlessly in search of the new, and if you’re running stories about coming disasters and there isn’t a disaster, or the disasters are relatively localised as say Hurricane Sandy was in the east coast of the United States, then people by and large shut off.  News editors then say we don’t want any more global warming stories or they’re relegated to a small part of the newspaper.  The challenge then is finding some kind of narrative in which these long-term issues can be couched and made interesting beyond the circles of ‘the interested’.  That is a very large challenge because daily journalism, especially popular journalism, goes for the here and now.


HFP: But is it a challenge worth facing up to and are there not creative ways in which journalists can make such issues as humanitarian threats of the future interesting to their audiences?

John Lloyd: Yes there are creative ways but they have to be thought through.  If you isolate the issues which are long-term challenges – global warming; shortages of water, food and energy; the possibility of further diffusion of weapons of mass destruction – most of these interact in some way or other and if you take them individually, each has a number of events and timetables surrounding it.  There are conferences, seminars and events and the trick is to find out what these surrounding events are and then construct a narrative around them.  So you then substitute for the day-by-day news diary which every news organisation adheres to religiously, because that is the spine of everyday substitute a matrix which plots the issues and events around each of the long-term challenges.  Your publication which now is most likely web-based, is a news site about these issues and it constructs its so called front page, its features, its editorials, its opinion columns, based on that agenda. It’s a varied agenda.  It’s not amenable to what journalists like to do to attract readers – having fun  by putting in material which is entertainment interest.  But we can think of ways of making it more attractive such as using one of the laws of journalism which is, that if you want to make an issue readable or watchable, you personalise it...humanise bring in people...increasingly that means celebrities.  We shouldn’t go too far down that route but we can go there to an extent by using ordinary people.  There are ways of doing it but the large question mark is of course whether or not it can ever be made commercial...whether people can make money out of it as people have for two centuries out of newspapers and half a century out of commercial television.  It may well be that this exercise will always require either state aid or more likely, not-for-profit aid.

HFP: Can I just share with you that in exploring media interest in our initiative called MEDIA FUTURES, which seeks to test media interest in playing a more focused, active and consistent role in dealing with future threats, we’ve found significant sensitivity among journalists to the idea that they should accept a moral or ethical obligation to fulfil this challenge. That would seem to be opposed to your view that the general media should play a more effective role in giving audiences a comprehensive view of what they ought or need to know?  So do you agree with HFP’s viewpoint that the media can and should be fulfilling the role of interrogating the powers that be to focus on long-term humanitarian planning?

John Lloyd: Yes it can and should be doing it, but the split personality of the media  means they have to make money...they have to attract audiences.  Even public broadcasters need to attract significant audiences or be corralled into an ‘eat your vegetables’ kind of minority corner and see the vast majority of the viewing population  go to the fun channels while they’re left with the usual suspects - the people who watch are the people who would watch...people who already use specialist websites, who read the serious magazines and newspapers.  But the challenge shouldn’t be given up, to make serious issues more generally interesting.  It’s a very big challenge because what has been the ‘Law and the Prophets’ for the last 40 years or even before that, is that popular journalism really cannot concern itself with serious issues unless it makes these issues into a subject of polemic.  And the polemic usually is, “these people are screwing us again...they don’t know what they’re doing...this lot is terrible...let’s have the other lot”, and that has become established as the way popular journalism is done.  The people who do that are not stupid.  They tend to know what does attract people and it is perfectly true that if you make a serious effort to put in the kind of issues we’re talking about – look at the bogeyman for popular journalism for instance, the European Union, unless you are going to slag it off and talk about the filthy French or greedy Germans - then nothing is read or watched.  So to break through the kind of ‘eat your vegetables’ journalism into something which can attract and hold attention is a difficult thing...but it’s worth trying.

HFP: Let me suggest, perhaps cynically, that an obstacle to achieving more strategic journalism is that there is a lack of real journalistic interest or inquisitiveness in critical issues because they just don’t jump out at general news reporters who are essentially lazy.  Is that fair?

John Lloyd: Yes to an extent it is.  We are less lazy than we were.  The high days of Fleet Street which were actually pretty low in many ways where when newspapers were almost effortlessly popular.  By popular I mean in the sense that the broadsheets, as they were, had large readerships - niche audiences to an extent so that in the UK,  The Telegraph had the ‘right’, The Guardian had the ‘left’ and The Times was for the upper classes and spanned both.  There was vicious competition so that The Sun went up, The Mirror went down, and so on.  Nevertheless, as for what was written and also broadcast between the 50s and the 90s, as long as they had their niche, quality wasn’t a huge issue.  People did get away with rather bad journalism – unchecked, sloppy, sometimes rather badly written and very often people didn’t really work for more than two or three hours a day.  That’s not to say there weren’t some tremendous journalists who worked very hard.   But newspapers and to a degree, broadcasting, could be produced, once you got the knack of it, relatively easily.  It’s not the same now.  There is much more work done, less drinking and less going out of the office which is sometimes bad and there’s a great deal more fear – fear of loss of jobs – and so the profession or the trade has changed greatly.

HFP: Is there a case for saying that most journalists all too often fall victim to the idea that because other journalists aren’t doing it, it can’t be interesting or made interesting and therefore isn’t worth doing?

John Lloyd: To a degree, but as I said earlier popular journalism isn’t stupid and the people who do it are not stupid.  They know, because they’ve tried it again and again, what attracts and what doesn’t.  So to make something serious generally interesting is a really hard job and for almost all editors and reporters, the question is why...why should we try to do it.  It’s hard enough now keeping the circulation up doing the thing we know will attract. This serious stuff we know won’t attract.  Why bother.  The other issue which is much more serious than laziness or anything else, is lack of understanding.  Most journalists are recruited now from university but more often than not they have an arts or social sciences degree.  On a specialist paper like the one I work for – the Financial Times – many of the people are economists, increasingly with a PhD or an M.Phil having gone on to post graduate work, and others have degrees in things like English or an arts subject.  So journalists are picking up information on the job about subjects they’re covering.  The assumption is, you’re now chemicals correspondent - pick it up.  And of course you can to a large extent but you’re always struggling a bit at the start and the coverage is less about the fundamental issues of the chemical industry worldwide for example and more about companies’ results, mergers, acquisitions, strikes and new things on the market.  The problem of ignorance among journalists should never, ever be underestimated. It is very, very high. Marjorie Scardino who’s recently retired as chief executive of Pearson which owns part of The Economist and all of the FT, gave a speech which made her unpopular in which she said ignorance is a real problem among journalists.  That’s true even on the FT and it’s true in spades elsewhere.

HFP: And yet perhaps the craft of journalism is whether or not you’re a student of a particular subject, you have the instincts of where to go and whom to ask for the right information?

John Lloyd: Yes you do have that.  That’s one of the major skills and one of the major possessions of any journalist is a contacts book...acquiring people you can call and say “what the hell’s happening”, and who will tell you rather than put the phone down and not take the call. It’s absolutely the gold dust of journalism.

HFP: But still we’re faced with the challenge of getting that issue into the minds of journalists or even getting it on to their radar.  I wonder whether a fatal flaw in your ambition to see journalism embrace what we might call the challenge of providing long-term, strategic analysis of future events is, that in the end, the media sees anticipation of future what-might-bes as ‘pointy-headed research’ which is just that – pointy-headed and therefore too abstruse or oblique for general interest?

John Lloyd: Well it can be.  The problem with much research including medical research which is usually more immediately interesting to most people, is that it’s written for other researchers.  And now a vast amount of academic research is written for other academics.  Philosophy is a good example.  Even if you have a degree in philosophy as I have, it’s quite difficult to understand articles on modern philosophy.  It’s not so difficult to understand moral philosophy but to understand philosophy which is increasingly mathematically or data based, is difficult.  To understand it you have to go back and train again.  But the other issue is that the use of big data sets is becoming generally diffused and serious publications are now training their journalists to use them or are hiring people who know how to use them.

 HFP: So in weighing up the aims of our Media Futures initiative, do you think these are doable and should be pursued?

John Lloyd: I think they should be pursued.  We at The Reuters Institute want to look at Media Futures and the course at LSE which teaches up and coming leaders of future strategic issues are also interested in this.  We want to see how it can be done.  I’ve talked about it with others and while interested, their first response is, “I don’t see how to make money out of it”, and that is a critical point especially in a difficult market.  We have to explore how this can be made to work and seek support from big information companies such as Pearson, the big education publisher, or Thomson Reuters or Bloomberg or others.  It’s worth the challenge.

Garry Selfridge from Humanitarian Futures Programme interviews John Lloyd, Director of Journalism at the Reuters Institute and a contributing editor at the Financial Times.

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