Media needs to change as old rules fail to keep up with different times

The media, in certain instances, need to accept that ‘both sidism’ is simply a broken concept when dealing with someone like Trump who will lie and spread false facts like soft butter, writes Alison O’Connor.

Media needs to change as old rules fail to keep up with different times

Imagine if Peter Casey’s doctors had told him after his recent stint in intensive care in a US hospital that it was simply too much of a risk for him to run for the Irish Presidency, and he had listened.

What a yawn fest the last few weeks would have been. Casey has been the gift that keeps on giving. First as the candidate, and in recent days, as the man who is going to shake up Fianna Fáil, and then the political establishment. Certainly he has no shortcomings when it comes to his ego.

The man knows just how to get the journalistic juices flowing but ultimately leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. We in the media need to be very careful about how we handle him.

This is no easy task. In the US and the UK, the media has been grappling with this issue, albeit on a far bigger scale, for the past few years in reporting on Trump and Brexit. The usual rules, in terms of hearing what one side has to say and then going to the other side to get their view, are broken. It was what was quaintly known as balanced journalism.

But times are different now. The media, in certain instances, need to accept that “both sidism” is simply a broken concept when dealing with someone like Trump who will lie and spread false facts like soft butter, without any thought at all to the consequences.

For quite a long time, the both sidism approach was adopted on the reporting of climate change, even though the science pointed overwhelmingly in one direction and the available knowledge indicated that our planet faced catastrophic consequences.

There is a piece of advise to journalists I’ve come across a few times and I’m not sure who coined it, but it sums it up neatly. “If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s ... Your job is to look out the window and find out which is true.”

The problem is as time and technology have moved on, and we’re in an era, in the UK and the US, where lies are pumped out with impunity by those who do not care much for the truth, it’s difficult to follow even good advice. It’s easy for a weekly columnist to sit back and ruminate on where colleagues who have to file not just daily, but hourly, as well as firing off a few Tweets, go wrong. Where is the time for reflection in that sort of a crazy news cycle? It’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s very tough.

The news industry has also been under enormous pressure for more than a decade with declining audiences and constant battles to try and come up with a business plan for the print industry that makes it once again viable. Someone like Peter Casey is clickbait heaven in these straitened times when the metrics add up to how many eyeballs locked onto your latest story.

It’s interesting to look back on the remarks of Les Moonves, CBS executive chairman and CEO, during the divisive US presidential campaign in 2016.

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves.

It’s only been a relatively short time between this and then but so much damage has been done to the fabric of American society and the media there. Ezra Klein, founder and editor at large of Vox.com has been a political journalist for 15 years. While he believes in his profession, he is worried that “we’re making American politics worse, not better”, adding that it is hard to understand a machine when you’re inside of it.

“It’s because everything around us has changed — our business models, the way people read us, the way we compete with each other, the way we’re manipulated. Instead we’re getting played by the outrage merchants and con artists and trolls and polarizers who understand this new world better.”

So back then to Peter Casey. How to grapple with the fact that he got 23% of the vote, a particularly significant sum when you consider that he was registering at just 2% initially, and became the story of the election. This was despite the incredible performance of Michael D Higgins.

Casey, beautifully described this week by author Marian Keyes as a “racist chancer”, also managed in that time to do a serious amount of damage to the Traveller community, an already very vulnerable group in our society.

It would be daft to suggest that independent.ie should not have published those initial remarks on Travellers made by Casey on its Floating Voter podcast. These were significant remarks made by a candidate in a presidential election.

It is what happens after such an event and the decisions made by the media that really matter; the amount of oxygen given to allow that candidate dominate the race with their racist views.

It is difficult to make strategic decisions on the hoof, as it were, in the middle of an election campaign.

So therefore as a profession, we should reflect now on the worthwhile takeaways from it all.

Journalists are not shy in lecturing other professions on keeping up, throughout their careers, with continuing professional development, but we’re not so hot on the idea ourselves. If ever there was a time when we needed help in making tough ethical decisions on what to publish and broadcast, it would be now.

It was clear to anyone that paid even half an ear that Casey is very flakey when it comes to detail yet he was rarely, if ever, properly challenged on his falsehoods and manipulations.

Since the vote he’s been handed publicity on a plate for his utterly daft and nonsensical plan to become the leader of Fianna Fáil.

A classic example was to hear him imply a few days ago, in his typically rambling, hard-to-pin down fashion, that he did not know that the houses in Cabra Cross, near Thurles had been offered to Travellers until he arrived there.

“So it wasn’t that I was just picking on Travellers. I had no idea they were Travellers until I got out there. They could have been Polish. I just saw six beautiful houses empty.”

That’s pure balderdash but he’s allowed away with it. It’s straight from the Trump playbook. How he played us with his threats to pull out of the election only to bounce back in with an announcement in an article he was commissioned to write for the biggest selling Sunday newspaper.

His fellow candidates, who to their credit never followed his lead, although the temptation must have been there, were repeatedly dragged into it by having to give over precious air time responding to the Casey Traveller remarks.

We are lucky that the media in Ireland largely does a really good job and on limited resources.

But as journalists we need to keep reminding ourselves that there are consequences for how and why we report on things and the prominence we give them.

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