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By Thomas Baekdal - February 2022

The problem with 'just-live-with-it' journalism, and what's transactional publishing?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the newsletter. Today, I have two important things for you. In the first article, we are going to talk about the difference between transactional, community, and societal publishing.

And then we need to talk about the problem with 'just-live-with-it' journalism.


Transactional vs community-based vs societal publishing

In my latest Plus report, I'm talking about the shift we see in publishing towards newspapers having a more defined purpose than just 'reporting the news'. Specifically, how that related to three different models of news, centered around being transactional, community-based, and societally focused.

Each of these models represent a different focus in comparison to the needs of the individual, and it's vital for publishers to not only focus on this, but to better understand the nuances with them.

In my latest Plus report, I explain how this works, and what makes each model different from the others.

Take a look at: Transactional vs community-based vs societal publishing


"Just-live-with-it" journalism

One of the most frustrating things we media analysts have to fight with are the deeply set journalistic cultures that nearly everyone in the industry is living by, but that we know is bad for us.

The latest example of this is something I now call just-live-with-it journalism, which is a problem that I am noticing more and more. But, let me explain what this is by first talking about how we got here.

We are going to start with both-sides journalism.

In journalism, we have long known about the problem with both-sides journalism. We have seen the damage this causes in studies, in real world examples, in relation to news avoidance, and in the everyday polarization and antagonistic tone that we experience in so many places.

We can draw a clear line between both-sides journalism and harassment in comments. We can see how it directly fuels and enables anti-vaccine movements. We have seen how it has strengthened the polarization around immigrants; how it has diluted the me-too discussion; and it is instrumental as to why it took 20 years before we did something about climate change.

And these are just a few examples.

The reason why is simple. Both-sides journalism presents two opposing arguments as equals, and instead of telling people what the facts actually are in a clear and consistent way, we confuse the topic so much that people end up just believing whatever they personally feel is right.

And since the public is not unified by default, this leads to arguments, polarization, and misinformation. Neither of these things are good for us. They are not good for the public, nor are they good for the media industry.

However, both-sides journalism is not the only bad thing we do, there are two other things that relate directly to it, but which are even worse.

"Stacked-against-us" journalism

The second bad thing that I often see is what I call "stacked-against-us" journalism. This is a form of journalism where if you are presented with facts, as journalists we feel that we must find someone, or several people, who can contradict it.

We have seen this with many different types of stories, but the worst examples are from the pandemic. Let me give you a simple example. Back in May 2020, about three months into the pandemic, we, in the western countries, managed to convince ourselves that wearing masks was something of a mystery. For some weird reason, we managed to create the impression that masks might not do anything, despite the fact people have used masks for hundreds of years to fight virus outbreaks.

I say in the western countries because they had no such illusions in Asia. Here they put on a mask the second the virus started spreading, and we could see in the data that it helped.

However, while we were running around like headless chickens, a study by a multidisciplinary group had looked at the combined findings across 77 different studies, and concluded this:

Face masks could offer an important tool for contributing to the management of community transmission of Covid19 within the general population. Evidence supporting their potential effectiveness comes from analysis of: (1) the incidence of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission; (2) the role of respiratory droplets in transmission, which can travel as far as 1-2 meters; and (3) studies of the use of homemade and surgical masks to reduce droplet spread. Our analysis suggests that their use could reduce onward transmission by asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic wearers if widely used in situations where physical distancing is not possible or predictable, contrasting to the standard use of masks for the protection of wearers. If correctly used on this basis, face masks, including homemade cloth masks, can contribute to reducing viral transmission.

In other words: Masks are important and they work!

Mind you, there were elements about this study that weren't correct. They assumed that the virus could only spread via droplets, which was later identified to be incorrect. It's actually air-borne, and the virus particles are so tiny that cloth masks don't protect from it. But, it was still a very important analysis at a critical time during the pandemic.

So, from a journalistic perspective, the focus now should be clear. We need to report this to the public. We need to tell our audiences that masks work, and that it's primarily used to prevent spreading the virus to others because most people are asymptomatic (and thus don't know that they are spreading it). So, "put on a mask" should be the headline in tomorrow's newspaper ... right?

But, for some strange reason, many journalists and newspapers felt that this was somehow un-journalistic. That listening to the result across 77 studies was not factual, but something we needed to question and create doubt about.

For some reason, journalists really struggled to actually write: "put on a mask" ... in fear it would make them sound biased or something.

This was an insane perception of things. I mean, if it is a really hot summer day, you don't have a problem telling people to put on sunscreen.

In fact, here is an example from Marie Claire doing just this, and you will see the same in newspapers and other magazines.

But why do we do this? Well, because it's scientifically proven to prevent skin-cancer, even though the actual number of people who might get this type of cancer is a small percentage (less than those who ended up getting COVID).

It's the same for masks. We had real world data that proves that countries that used masks managed COVID better, and we had the result of analysis across 77 different studies ... So why did we suddenly have such a big problem telling people "Masks, always!"

But the real problem was not just that we developed a culture where we couldn't just tell people the facts. We started to work against it.

So, here is an example from the Guardian (but I saw this across so many other newspapers too). They were reporting about the study that I mentioned above, but instead of just reporting it as "this is what we now know", the journalists felt the need to counter it.

And so the Guardian reached out to several people to get their opinion on this. As they reported:

But the report prompted other scientists to express their reservations, warning that it amounted to no more than opinion and overstated the available evidence.

They quoted four people:

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the report "falls short of delivering new evidence and too casually dismisses precautionary principle when addressing the possibility that masks and coverings could have negative effects on people's behaviors.

But he has no evidence that it doesn't do this, so we are talking about the difference between the result of 77 studies, and the personal misgivings of a person with no data.

Next came this:

Dr Ben Killingley, consultant in acute medicine and infectious diseases at University College London hospital, was also critical: "The report is overly optimistic about the value of face coverings and it is incorrect to conclude that the evidence shows that face coverings can reduce viral transmission in the community. There is in fact no good evidence that face coverings achieve this.

But there is good evidence. The interdisciplinary group looked at 77 different studies. They are not perfect studies, but we did have evidence that clearly points to masks working.

He also said:

Killingley added that the report largely ignored real-world data, which suggests low effectiveness, albeit for protection of the wearer.

Again, not true. The actual study explicitly points out that the most important aspect of wearing a mask is to prevent the spread, not to protect the wearer. So, he didn't even know what the study said before telling the Guardian this.

The next quote was this:

Dr Antonio Lazzarino of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, agreed. "That is not a piece of research. That is a non-systematic review of anecdotal and non-clinical studies."

The evidence we need before we implement public interventions involving billions of people, must come ideally from randomized controlled trials at population level or at least from observational follow-up studies with comparison groups.

Okay, so apparently we should do a multi-year study before coming to any conclusion, at a time where COVID was killing millions. On one hand we have 77 studies that show that masks would work, and on the other a person who says: "Let's just wait until we have even more data".

He continued to say:

"Based on what we now know about the dynamics of transmission and the pathophysiology of Covid-19, the negative effects of wearing masks outweigh the positive".

Not true. In fact, the Guardian didn't care about fact-checking this. They just allowed him to make this statement, presented as a counter-argument to the result of 77 actual studies.

Then the Guardian quoted this:

Prof Trisha Greenhalgh, of the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, welcomed the report, saying it adds weight to the argument that face coverings by the general public could be part of a route out of lockdown.

Okay...

But look at what is happening here. As a newspaper, they took a study based on analysis of 77 other studies, and then they stacked the arguments against it. Three out of four people were reported saying "don't trust this study".

There was no reason for any of this.

The result was devastating. Back in May 2020, the anti-mask movement hadn't really started, but articles like this one (and hundreds more in other newspapers) gave them exactly the fuel they needed to start their movement. And in the months afterwards, we saw these exact arguments being used as to why mask studies should not be listened to ... not just this study, but every study.

And this happened because, at the most critical time during this pandemic, we were too afraid to just tell people to wear masks.

Imagine if we had done this with sunscreen. Imagine if we had started reporting that we didn't know that sunscreen worked ... and then a month later when a group of scientists had analyzed the combined findings of 77 sunscreen studies, and found it to work ... we then reported that as: "But this person says that we can't trust it", "and this person says that sunscreen makes things worse", "oh ... and this person points to negative effects that outweigh the positives".

Think about the damage to society such a narrative would cause. It would dramatically reduce the public willingness to wear sunscreen. It would fuel an anti-sunscreen movement, and it would make it nearly impossible for scientists to do any work in the field without being threatened by crazy people.

Right?

This is why stacked-against-us journalism is incredibly damaging to society ... and to the news industry.

Of course, none of the newspapers doing this intend for this to happen. In fact, when the Guardian wrote the story above, they had a story, they followed up with some extra interviews, and they reported it all. That sounds like really good journalism ... the kind of work we are supposed to do.

The problem is that the outcome doesn't match our intent. It's the same with both-sides journalism. We are not doing that to increase the problem with polarization, but that is what is actually happening.

So, we need to think about this in a much more defined way. This culture of work has proven to be really problematic, and so it is our responsibility to change our approach.

But this leads to the third problem.

"Just-live-with-it" journalism

What if you were to take the both-sides journalism, and the stacked-against-us journalism, and you took that a step further and simply started telling people that they should just accept it whenever something bad is happening?

I mean, the very concept of this goes against everything journalism is supposed to be. As the press, we are supposed to hold those in power to account, to protect democracy, and to expose wrongdoing against the minorities and society as a whole.

So if we just stopped doing all that and instead started to push the narrative that people should just accept when things are getting worse, that's ... well... insane.

However, as a media analyst, I'm starting to see more and more examples of this. Obviously, COVID has been a big example of this, but it's not just COVID, I'm seeing this for many different topics.

Let me give you a simple example.

In many countries we are currently experiencing an increase in consumer prices due to many different factors. I'm not going to talk about why this is happening, but here is how one newspaper chose to report it:

This is exactly the problem I'm talking about above. Here you see the newspaper focusing on a very real problem in society, but then they felt the need to counteract their own reporting by finding someone else who could give the 'both-sides' angle to it, and argue that it isn't a problem at all.

As a media analyst, every time I see examples like this, my head just explodes.

First of all, this culture that exists in the press that you have to find the opposite view for a story is just bad. You don't have to do this. It is okay to simply report "Consumer prices are increasing by the highest amount in 14 years".

Right?

You don't have to do anything else than this. You don't have to find someone who contradicts it. There is no need for that. In fact, you are undermining your own journalism by doing this.

It's so bad.

But this is not the real problem. The much bigger problem is with how it also impacts your community journalism, solution-journalism, and how it illustrates a level of entitlement that does you no good.

Let me explain.

First of all, as I explained in the Plus article above, one of the critical elements for publishers is to get community journalism right. You have to be a part of your community as a newspaper, instead of just reporting to them from a distance.

But look at those headlines above. Here they are saying: "Well, here is a problem you all face, but ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯"

This is the opposite of community journalism. You are basically telling your audience that you don't care about this.

Secondly, we have solution-journalism. As I also talked about in the Plus article above, solution-journalism is a critical element of any community newspaper. It's not good enough to just report that something has happened because your readers are the ones it is happening to. They already know that. So, you have to use your journalism to help fix the problem, to explore the options, illustrate paths out of it, or investigate alternatives.

But here, they are just reporting "live with it" ... as in, "don't even try to solve this. Just give up ... and, you know, suck it up!"

So, you are creating anti-solution journalism, and that just doesn't have any value to anyone.

But finally, it illustrates a level of entitlement. I'm sure that most editors are making more than enough money to be able to manage a slight increase in the cost of milk.

But here is the thing. Many people can't manage this. In fact, many people struggle to just get by with what the prices were before. So when you report like this, you demonstrate your entitlement.

And sadly, this isn't just about food prices. As a media analyst, I have seen examples of this for many other stories, often facing marginalized groups. I have seen it happen often in relation to immigrants, in the US we have seen it related to the Black, Latin and even Asian communities. I have even seen it happen in relation to #MeToo. A newspaper will write about something bad that happened to women, but then... the very next day, they managed to find someone who could give them a quote saying that "it isn't actually a problem for most people, and we should just accept that not everything is fair".

I mean ... what the heck??!?!

And then, of course, we have COVID. I don't know where to start with this, but with COVID, this form of journalism has now become the standard. Every week we are pushing the agenda that people should accept increasing levels of infection. We should just accept more deaths, more suffering. Vulnerable people should just accept having to isolate themselves for ... well... forever apparently. And, we should just accept that nothing can be done, and that COVID is now just a thing that happens all the time. And BTW, because it is something that just happens now, we should stop vaccinating people, and get rid of the testing program ... and we shouldn't even measure it because we are tired of reporting about the data.

I mean... Nnnnnnnnngg!!!! (Head explodes.)

Of course, every newspaper doing this is not intending to be bad. They are just being 'realistic' or 'pragmatic'.

But this is not being realistic. This is giving up. This is arguing that we should stop trying to find solutions, we shouldn't even be looking for it ... and we shouldn't try to do vaccines either because... well... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I'm reminded of a tweet by Prof. Christina Pagel:

I keep being asked when we can go "back to normal" or "like it was before". My personal thoughts:
We've added a new disease to our population, more infectious and more severe than flu. The world pre-2020 no longer exists - we may want it to, but it just doesn't.
We could act as we used to & accept millions of people getting sick once or twice a year. Yearly education, business disruption. And gradually, a slightly sicker pop'n. That seems to be the current plan in the UK and e.g. US.
But that's NOT the old normal - it's worse.

This is what just-live-with-it journalism is causing. It's not just continuing what we had, it's reporting a narrative that tells people to accept a world that is worse.

And the problem with this isn't just what is happening right now. It's that it creates a 'new normal' so that the next time something similar happens, it will be even harder to do anything to fix it. We lost this pandemic, but we also already lost the next one.

This cannot be the legacy of the press, and I hope that my story here can help stop this culture from forming any further. If we lose the ability as the press to focus on the problems and their solutions, then we also lose our future market. Both-sides journalism, stacked-against-us journalism, and just-live-with-it journalism undermine all of this.


Speaking of 'just live with it'. Chris over at Media Voices shared a very good animated short yesterday that illustrates what happens if we 'just live with it'.

It's in french, but you can enable subtitles to get it in English.

 

Want to know more?

Don't forget to check out the two paywall reports in my new 'known to work' series, where we explore strategies that we have clear evidence for.


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Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. 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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