Lessons for journalists in a pandemic: seek the truth and reflect on your own power

“Journalists need to look into the mirror and see themselves as others see them,” argues Alan Rusbridger in this extract of his new book
People hold a banner reading "Free country, free press" in Budapest during a protest to defend press freedom after the editor-in-chief of independent news site 'Index' was fired. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

People hold a banner reading "Free country, free press" in Budapest during a protest to defend press freedom after the editor-in-chief of independent news site 'Index' was fired. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

21st November 2020

This piece is the preface of News and How to Use It: What to Believe in a Fake News World, a book authored by Alan Rusbridger, Chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The book was published on 26 November 2020.    

Who on earth can you believe any more?

I am writing this at the peak – or so I hope – of the most vicious pandemic to have gripped the world in a century or more. The ques­tion of what information you can trust is, all of a sudden, a matter of life and death.

As an average citizen you have four choices about where to find information on this new plague.

You can believe the politicians. That might work if you live in, say, New Zealand or Germany – less so if you are in Brazil, Russia, China, Hungary or the United States. And maybe not so much in Britain.

What about the scientists? As politicians have struggled for authority – or even understanding – some leaders thrust scientists and doctors into the limelight. We began to absorb many lessons in epidemiology, immunology, exponential curves, antibody tests, vaccines and the modelling of viral infections. And we learned that scientists disagree with each other. They harbour – and value – doubts. They even change their minds. To some this is reassuring; to others, confusing.

Or we can turn to our peers. As always, there is good and bad on social media; expertise and madness; inspiration and malicious nonsense. New words have been coined – infodemic and infotagion are just two – to describe an environment of viral information chaos which never­theless has proved massively addictive as people the world over stumble in search of light.

And then there is journalism.There has been much to admire here: some brave reporting from inside hospitals and on the streets; some clear and honest analysis; some tough investigations into governmental advice and inaction; some brilliant visualisation of data and some admir­ably simple explanations of complex concepts. The best news organisations have performed a real, vital public service.

But – as with social media – there is bad to counter the good. Some were slow to grasp the immensity of what was happening. There will be a special place in journalistic hell for Fox News and its initial torrent of Trump-­echoing propaganda. That coverage will have helped contri­bute to numberless deaths. There was lamentable confusion about how to cover the nightly parade of presidential lies, sulks, boasts and vain­glorious irrelevance that flagged itself as public information. There was uncertainty about how to communicate risk.

Some news outlets – initially, at least – seemed unable to imagine the scale of what was happening: it was easier to report on what videos Boris Johnson was watching in his hospital bed than on the hundreds dying every day all around. The newsrooms that had jettisoned their health or science correspondents struggled. The idiots who suggested that 5G phone masts could be spreading the disease encouraged arson and trashed their own brand. So, it was a mixed picture.

COVID-19 could not have announced itself at a worse time in terms of the question about whom to believe. Survey after survey has shown unprecedented confusion over where to place trust. Nearly two-­thirds of adults polled by Edelman in 2018 said they could no longer tell a responsible source of news from the opposite.

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This was not how it was supposed to be.

The official script for journalism was that once people woke up to the ocean of rubbish and lies all around them they’d come back to the safe harbour of professionally-­produced news. You couldn’t leave this stuff to amateurs or give it away for free. Sooner or later people would flood back to the haven of proper journalism.

This official narrative was not completely wrong – but nor was it right in the way the optimists hoped it would be. There was a surge of eyeballs to mainstream media sites, but it was too soon to judge if the increased traffic would remotely compensate for the drastic loss of revenues as copy sales plummeted and advertising disappeared. It normally didn’t.

Journalism in the age of coronavirus

At the very moment when the UK government recognised journal­ists as essential workers, the industry itself looked more fragile than ever.

Surveys of trust showed the public (especially the older public) relying on journalists, but not trusting them. Another Edelman special report in early March 2020 found journalists at the bottom of the trust pile, with only 43% of those surveyed holding the view that you could believe them ‘to tell the truth about the virus’. That compared with 63% for ‘a person like yourself’.

As the pandemic wore on, so trust in both UK politicians and news organisations slumped. Between April and May 2020, according to the Reuters Institute, trust in the govern­ment plunged a full 19 points – partly, it was thought, as a result of newspaper investigations which appeared to show double standards between what the government was saying and what its top advisers were actually doing. But if reporters expected gratitude for their efforts they were disappointed: the same period saw an 11­point fall in trust in news organisations.

I spent most of my working life in journalism: I would like people to believe the best of it. I like the company of journalists and, as an editor, was frequently lost in admiration for colleagues – on the Guardian and beyond – who were clever, brave, resourceful, quick, honest, percep­tive, knowledgeable and humane.

But it was impossible to be blind to so much journalism that was none of those things: editorial content that was stupid, corrupt, ignorant, aggressive, bullying, lazy and malign. But it all sailed under the flag of something we called ‘journalism’. Somehow we expected the public to be able to distinguish the good from the bad and to recognise it’s not all the same, even if we give it the same name.

The official story paints journalists as people who tell ‘truth to power’. But ‘truth’ is a big word, and we seldom like to reflect on our own power.

Now, four years on from being full-­time in the newsroom, I want to bring an insider’s perspective to the business of journalism, but also look at it from the outside. How can we explain ‘journalism’ to people who are by and large sceptical – which is broadly what most of us would want our fellow citizens to be? 

An unhealthy 'omertà'

This new book aims to touch on some of the things about journalism that might help a reader decide whether it deserves their trust, and offer a glimpse to working jour­nalists of how they are viewed by the world outside. It deals with some aspects of how journalism – at its best and worst – is practised, thought about, paid for, owned, controlled and influenced. To many insiders these are givens: to many outsiders they are mysteries.

A decade or more ago none of this would have needed spelling out quite as much as it does today, with mainstream news such an easy target for deliberate and concerted denigration. But journalism has, it seems to me, always struggled to describe itself honestly, if at all. As long as the readers were there and the bottom line looked healthy, there didn’t seem much need for the public washing of dirty linen. And, anyway, some of it was too complicated really to get into. Mix in the unhealthy omertà which can sometimes provide a shield from the uncomfortable scrutiny editors, and many aspects of journalism go oddly unexamined.

That feels like a strange thing to write in an age in which the some­times obsessive social media microscope can be focused on the work of newspapers and individual journalists. It is also true that there is a small industry in the academic consideration of media. But – valuable as the best of it is – the harsh truth is that most of that research will never be read by a single working journalist, let alone the average reader.

So, some of what follows may feel terribly basic. What is a journalist? That is, in a way, the most elementary question of all – which doesn’t mean it invites a simple answer. You can train to be a journalist, but you don’t have to. We who think of ourselves as journalists can’t quite decide if we’re a craft or a profession, or neither. You can work for the Daily Star or The Sun and call yourself a journalist – but your concep­tion of what’s involved in the job would differ vastly from someone at the BBC or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Oh, and Julian Assange calls himself a journalist. So, while ‘proper’ journalists may despise him, his fate is – in ways we may only glimpse darkly – intertwined with theirs.

Proper journalists do ‘journalism’, and have done for three hundred years or more. But in those three hundred years no one has settled on an agreed method. Is there a consensus that everyone aspires to ‘objec­tivity’ in their work? No, of course not. What’s gospel on one side of the Atlantic is mocked on the other. What’s taught in one American J­-school is derided in others. Is there a common view of ‘impartiality’, ‘fairness’, ‘balance’ – or any of the other aspirational words bandied around to label what journalists do, or would like to do – or what others (such as the BBC) should do? No, there isn’t.

Is there agreement on common procedures about how to correct work in the digital era? No. There are different metrics, differing ambi­tions; the aims are not inevitably the same. Some want journalism to be a form of public service; others care more about profit. Can we agree on a common concept of ‘public interest’? No. We really struggle.

And does it matter? There have always been those who believe in the Big Tent theory of journalism: ‘It’s a rough old trade and we stand and fall together, always been that way, always will be.’ Part of me believes some of that. Part of me embraces the messiness of what jour­nalism is – its untidy edges and its irrepressible knack for reinvention and resilience.

But the problem today is an existential one.

Sometimes British journalism, in particular, feels like a knowing joke. If you’re on the inside it’s humourless and disloyal to let the side down. And a bit, you know, boring and woke. But professional producers of news are now in a fight for survival and in competition with many others who don’t see it all as an in­joke. How can we explain why it deserves to survive – as, obviously, I think the best of journalism does? In an age of information chaos, a good newsroom is, to me, as essential as the police force, the hospital, the fire station or the prison.

Why journalism should be trusted

How can we expect an outsider to understand all this? I have written in these pages about techniques, about transparency (or lack of it), about the people who own the press and how their influence works. I have written about some of the most celebrated practitioners of journalism and realise that, even after days spent looking into some of their work, I still have no measure of how much they should be trusted.

If that’s true of me, having worked in this imperfect trade for forty years or more, how can we possibly expect an average reader to navi­gate this maze? Should they pick a brand rather than an individual journalist? We have seen all too clearly how institutions change. Titles that were once incorruptible, or at least honestly campaigning – the Telegraph, the Express, the News of the World come to mind – can mutate into organisations that are ethically and editorially challenged. Why, at their worst, would anyone single them out for trust?

And then there are things that, as I’ve come to write this book, I find myself unable to explain. I can’t see why an industry that is fighting for trust and credibility would knowingly employ columnists who, for instance, are ignorant of the truth of climate change. Why would you do that? If journalism is trying to persuade sceptical readers that it is the safe harbour of reality, why would it handsomely reward and cele­brate people for writing rubbish?

We have seen in recent years some high-­profile failings of journalism, not least the phone­-hacking scandal, which rumbles on to this day. Equally, there are heroes and heroines of reporting as glorious as at any time in a century or more. There is now more disinformation put out into the world than ever before, much of it politically motivated. The owner of a media business can raise or corrupt it. And rarely is a paper all good, or all bad.

So, it’s hard to write a book with a simple message about journalism and why it should be trusted. Much of it should; quite a lot shouldn’t. It is, as they say, complicated. We need to keep our wits about us as we consume all forms of modern messaging. A sceptical reader is a good reader.

And journalists need to look into the mirror a bit more and try to see themselves as others see them. The best of journalism will thrive. Maybe we needed a pandemic to wake us up to its importance.

More from the Reuters Institute

  • Read this piece by our Director Rasmus Nielsen on some of the challenges facing the news media
  • Check out this article by Meera Selva on how press freedom has been threatened in the pandemic
  • Read our report on the dramatic and unequal impact of COVID-19 on independent news media here
  • Subscribe to our 'Future of Journalism' podcast on your favourite platform: Apple Podcasts | Spotify  | Google Podcasts
  • Listen to our podcast series about the Digital News Report here