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By Thomas Baekdal - November 2020

Adversarial journalism, conspiracies, impact of journalism, and the future

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to another edition of the Baekdal Plus newsletter. In this edition we are going to talk about some of the more serious elements of journalism.

We will talk about:

COVID, elections, and the problem with an adversarial press

Over the past six months, several of my readers have asked me whether I was going to write an analysis about how we have covered the pandemic.

And yes, I have been thinking about this. But it's such a difficult topic to talk about because each country has been so different in how it has handled the pandemic, and how we covered it.

For instance, try comparing media focus in Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Austria, France, United Kingdom and the United States. It is practically impossible.

In each country there have been very different problems. In some countries the problem has been with the government's response while in others it has been with the health authorities'.

So, I don't know how to do a media analysis of COVID-19 coverage in general, but there are a number of highly critical problems that we do need to talk about.

The most important one is the problem with how we in the press have a very politically focused adversarial style of journalism. This form of journalism may work well for other things, but in a pandemic it makes it easier for the virus to spread.

So, I put together an article about this called: "COVID, elections, and the problem with an adversarial press". Please take a look, because this is a critical thing that we need to do something about.

How we spread conspiracy theories

Another really important thing is the problem that many news articles inadvertently help form and spread conspiracy theories.

This has become somewhat of a pet peeve of mine because, almost every single time this happens, I come across people who have been misinformed because of something they read in the news.

I want to give you an example of how this happens.

As you may have heard, we currently have a bit of a crisis here in Denmark. Our health authorities have discovered a mutated strain of the COVID-19 virus that weakens the effect of COVID-19 antibodies, thereby creating the risk that future vaccines won't work as well. And we discovered that this came from Danish mink farms.

As a result, the Danish government has ordered all 17 million mink in Denmark to be put down, as well as enforcing a total lockdown in the parts of Denmark where these farms are located. The reason being (or so the health authorities fear) is that Denmark might be the next Wuhan.

It's a pretty serious deal, and it's obviously going to hurt not just the mink farmers and their suppliers, but all Danish taxpayers in general.

So, what do we do in the press? Well, obviously, we covered it ... quite extensively. And most of these articles have been good.

But, within a day, we also started seeing articles like the one below. Here, one of the largest Danish newspapers is reporting that one of the right-wing parties apparently don't believe that it is true, and has stated (without any evidence to support it) that there may be something else going on.

And we are 'just reporting it'.

When I saw this, I got really angry. Look what we are doing here. We are helping a right-wing political party to spread a conspiracy theory, without having any proof or data that anything like this is going on.

In other words, this is entirely based on their opinion, but there are no facts that can support this view in any way. And here we are, as the press, just helping it spread.

The outcome of this was immediate. Here is a comment that a person posted on this article.

Yes, of course, they use this situation to get rid of an industry that they do not like. WHO says they are following along but have been advising on culling or tighter restrictions. It is solely Mette, Heunicke and Mølbak's decision. It all an exaggerated and insane abuse of power.😱

You see what is happening here? A political party made a statement that something 'secret' was going on, without any evidence to support such a claim. Then the press provided them with a platform and told this to every reader in the country, thereby massively helping this conspiracy theory to spread. And some of the readers who read that article, now fully believe that this conspiracy is real.

We did this - and we did it in the midst of a really serious crisis. We are effectively undermining what the health authorities are trying to fix.

As I wrote on Twitter the other day, there is no excuse for this. But worst of all, we are doing this in the press, while at the same time constantly telling Facebook to be more responsible for what they allow on their platform.

We are being worse than Facebook, because we are causing this to happen.

This problem is related to studies we have seen recently, one of which was published in MIT Technology Review, which found that the press are the biggest amplifiers of disinformation. It's not Facebook or Russian hackers ... we are the biggest problem here.

The example above shows how this happens, where we are 'just reporting' a conspiracy theory in such a way that it polarizes the public and directly causes part of the public to become misinformed.

Here is another example, where we are doing exactly the same thing, and the effect of this article was also that some people started believing this is true (it is true that they get more money, but there is no evidence of any wrongdoing, so the accusation is false).

And, as a media analyst, I have seen this across the world. A while back, I asked on Twitter:

Cause and effect:
Imagine that a conspiracy theorist has 100,000 followers, and then we write about and 'hold him to account' in the press, and then next week, he has 200,000 followers.
Did we do a good job?

This is what we must learn, because right now, we can clearly measure how we in the press are causing harm to the public, and worse, we are undermining our response to the ongoing pandemic.

We can blame the politicians or Facebook all we want, but it won't change the fact that most people hear about these things from us, and they end up believing in conspiracy theories because of us.

We must change this!

What exactly did we do over the past four years?

Speaking of impact, we also need to have a very uncomfortable discussion, and it's about the US, the US election, and what exactly we achieved over the past four years.

Now, I really hate having to write this, but like the other topics above, this is such an important thing that we need to talk about.

Okay, so why am I talking about this?

Well, back in 2016, we, the press, were instrumental in helping Trump get elected. We all know that we did this, not on purpose, but simply as a result of the way we covered the 2016 election.

We overexposed Trump, we helped him polarize the public in the way we covered things, we forgot to focus on political issues and what they mean to the public, and instead turned the election into one gigantic reality TV show.

As I said, most journalists and newspapers didn't do this on purpose, but this was the effect of what we did.

Then we spent four years covering Trump pretty much non-stop 24/7. In fact, there is a Twitter bot that keeps track of how many mentions there are about Trump on US newspapers per day, and here is the average over the past year and a half.

Every single day, the New York times has had between 5 and 10 mentions of Trump, and the Washington Post has had about 15 mentions per day.

So, we have held Trump to account several times per day. We have pointed to every single flaw he had, every lie he said, everything! And we have done this for four years straight.

Well, now it's 2020. The US is more divided than ever, news fatigue is on the rise, and we just finished another election. At the time I'm writing this, we still don't know the final result, but it looks like Biden is going to win (Update: The newspapers just announce Biden the winner). But, it's really, really, really close.

In fact, it's so close that it's not even funny.

So, here is my question to you.

What did we do? What exactly did we do over the past four years that changed the world for the better?

We did not manage to hold Trump to account, in fact, all our reporting made almost no difference, as we can see when we look at the votes. We did not help unite the country, instead we split it further apart.

We did not even manage to get people to trust us, because our own audiences have become wildly polarized and politicized as well.

So, again, what did we do?

Well, you might say, we got Biden. But not really. Not when it is this close and the public is actually more divided today than in 2016. You might also say that without the press, things would have gotten even worse, but that didn't stop hundreds of journalists being targeted by the police, something that was unheard of just a few years ago.

As a media analyst, I hate writing this and I do not want to say this. But I have to, because this is a wake-up call. What the past four years have conclusively shown us is that our current form of journalism doesn't work.

We say we are holding those in power to account, but those in power are not impacted by it. And BTW, this is not just about the US, we saw the same thing in the UK.

Boris Johnson directly lied to the British people ... and became the prime minister. We fact-checked his misinformation, and yet, more than half the population believed in it anyway. We overburdened the public with stories, so that Johnson could use it against us by telling the public to just "get Brexit done", to get it all over with.

I really, really hate saying this. But when I look at this from the perspective of a media analyst, it is very clear that our current form of journalism is actually doing the exact opposite of what we intend it to do.

We need to change how we do journalism.

This leads me to my final point, and it's a quick one. The US election is over. Again, as I write this, the votes are still being counted, but regardless of who wins, the media must change.

The public is worn out. We cannot handle four more years of media coverage. We need something else, something new, something better.

We have reached our breaking point, and I seriously worry about the future of news media if we do not change.

This is seen even more clearly outside the US, where constant US coverage has dominated our newspapers to such an extent that some European newspapers feel more like local US newspapers.

The reaction from this is clear, but I want to show you two articles that were recently published here in Denmark. The first one is from Søren Schultz, a Danish media commentator who recently wrote this:

I completely agree with him.

The second is from a former Danish politician and now author, Ritt Bjerregaard, who wrote this:

Again, I completely and totally agree.

This is the challenge we now face. The public has had enough ... we have had enough. We want something better, something more relevant, something more impactful, and more focused on the public.

I believe in the future of news. The future of news is amazing. I also believe the world needs journalists more than ever. But I do not believe in what we did over the past four years.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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