How To Be A Journalist
Some people remain under the illusion that journalists are principled seekers of truth, motivated by a sense of noble mission and dedicated to helping others understand the world in which we all live.
OK, once we’ve all stopped laughing and have settled down, we can continue with this article.
Warning: those of a charmingly naïve disposition should stop reading now, because we’re going to be pointing out some unhappy facts of life.
Still here? Thanks, mom!
Let’s begin with the obvious: journalists can only make a living if what they produce attracts a sufficiently large audience. Those liquid lunches don’t pay for themselves and so plenty of revenue must be generated.
Revenues come from two sources: subscriptions and advertising.
There’s a great deal of content out there in the world and so every journalist is in competition not only with other journalists but with blogs and vlogs and Instatweets and all manner of other noise. To stand any chance of receiving a pay cheque, journalists know they need to grab eyeballs and hold onto them for as long as the human attention span permits.
Which, under ideal conditions, can be as long as eight seconds.
That’s eight slender seconds in which to serve an ad or convince someone their subscription is worthwhile.
It follows from this imperative that journalists are actually in the business of grabbing our attention by any means. The idea that this is in any way connected with facts and accurate information is at best risible and at worst a catastrophic delusion.
Journalists are in the sensation business. They live or die according to how much sensation they can generate each day.
This is because we’re not really interested in anything else. We blithely regard everything these days as entertainment and so our minds have become largely incapable of encompassing anything more demanding than the latest celebrity scandal. It’s why we vote for the most entertaining candidate, believe the most absurdly alarmist drivel, and retweet the most outrageous nonsense.
But you, gentle reader, care nothing of this. You want to know how to become a journalist, and so without further ado let us meander our way through the dark arts of creating irresponsibly sensationalist content to mislead the masses and thereby generate a pleasing pay cheque with which to pay the mortgage and put pizza on the table.
Let’s begin with the headline, because, frankly, it’s probably all that most people will read.
A good headline is like a landmine: it explodes inside the head of the reader, shreds their slender ability to reason, and leaves them irreparably maimed and psychically bleeding in the gutter.
It’s surprisingly easy to construct such headlines; all that’s needed is a total disregard for the truth.
We can see how this works by means of a few simple illustrations.
Example One: a research paper is published in a reputable journal that details the preliminary results of a modest study using genetically engineered mice to suppress one gene that occasionally triggers a specific tumor in the mouse’s liver. Headline: Scientists Defeat Cancer With Miracle Cure!
Example Two: the stockmarket index falls from 23,789 to 23, 650 (which is a totally insignificant change of 0.58%). Headline: Stocks Crash, Billions Wiped Out!
Example Three: an unusually strong storm results in seven beachfront houses being damaged and a pet hamster drowning. Headline: Killer Storm Devastates Community!
Example Four: a perfectly ordinary lump of space debris is passing through our solar system, pulled inward by the sun’s gravity. Headline: Scientists Can’t Rule Out Extra-Terrestrial Object Is An Alien Spacecraft!
Moving on now to the content of the story, we can note that life these days is much easier for journalists than was formerly the case. Back in the distant past (e.g. before 2016) journalists would pretend there were always “two sides to every story.” This was, of course, absurd because in reality there are facts and then there are potentially thousands of “alternative facts.” Nevertheless, it was widely believed that a “fair and balanced” report should include a core narrative and then some other tangential narrative.
This was the perfect recipe to enable blatant propaganda to be repeated, amplified, and fed to a gullible public.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, journalists deployed their “two sides to every story” routine to give us: The government of Ukraine today claimed that Russian soldiers are invading Crimea. The Kremlin issued a formal statement dismissing these claims and said that the several thousand individuals involved are all patriotic civilian volunteers acting to secure Russian lives from Ukrainian persecution.
In the UK we saw Brexiteers making all manner of blatantly untrue claims, all of which were dutifully reported by supine journalists in national newspapers and on national television and none of which were fact-checked or refuted. Campaigners for Brexit stated today that the UK will save £350 million per week by leaving the European Union and that this money will be spent to improve the National Health Service. The Prime Minister, speaking for the Remain side, said that the EU is a source of national prosperity.
And of course in the USA things were even worse. Donald Trump yesterday promised to bring millions of manufacturing jobs back to America and force China to buy more American goods to eliminate the balance of trade deficit. He also said he’d withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Hillary Clinton, speaking at a rally in Duluth, said that she would ensure the USA remains party to the five-nation Iran deal despite Israel’s continued objections.
Today, however, life is easier. All editors know that the very last thing one ever does is risk upsetting one’s audience. Journalists quickly learn to tell people what they want to hear and not a syllable more. This means the most important facet of modern journalism is to determine what the Agreed Narrative must be (because this is what will most strongly resonate with the audience and thus secure all-important revenues) and then cling to it ever after. Nothing must be permitted to disturb the Agreed Narrative.
Thus art of exclusion has become nearly as important as the art of sensationalizing everything.
Let’s imagine we’re a local newspaper somewhere in Trump Country and that despite this unfortunate fact there are, astonishingly, some people among the general population who are able to read. The local newspaper is part of their community, part of who they feel themselves to be. When a local boy shows up at Walmart with seventeen AR-15 rifles, twelve Glocks, three Remington 870 shotguns, and a grenade launcher and proceeds to slaughter thirty-two people in the middle of their back-to-school shopping, it’s clear there must be no mention of the phrase gun control.
Instead there will be a puff-piece about how the community is gathering to offer up their thoughts and prayers and a couple of sentences about how the local boy was known to be suffering from mental illness and finally the article will point out that after the killer had dispatched those thirty-two people stone dead he was shot in the leg by an off-duty police officer which totally proves that guns save lives, which is why god in his wisdom gave us the Second Amendment.
Conversely, let’s imagine a national TV program that appeals to middle-class white liberals. It’s obvious the editorial position will be to avoid transgressing whatever Politically Correct shibboleths are presently fashionable and it will take a comfortably predictable stance on every issue that’s presented. Thus a school closure will be depicted in terms of the negative impact it will have on the local community and as an act of uncaring civic vandalism on the part of local government.
At no time will any mention be made of the fact that thanks to decades of union-led resistance to even the most rudimentary reforms, academic standards had continued to fall while teachers’ benefits continued to rise, effectively bankrupting the County.
One of the many charms of the Agreed Narrative is that it removes any need for boring fact-checking. Even better, it requires little or no effort because all that’s necessary is to learn what others who are aiming at the same general audience are saying and writing. A consensus view is therefore easily manufactured simply by copying the narrative wholesale. Once established, the Agreed Narrative becomes truth simply by ensuring that no contradictory information is ever included.
Journalists know that the average person is never going to stir themselves to look up the sources of their copy and potentially discover that these stories are at best infantile distortions and at worst wholly fabricated. Journalists know the average person just wants to be entertained and told what to believe.
The final key to being a journalist is to avoid providing any semblance of context. Nothing spoils a juicy headline or story more than boring old reality. What’s more newsworthy: Scientists predict more than fifty billion people will die this winter from covid-19 or A group of statisticians are predicting mass death this winter, using the same model that produced their previous six predictions (which were all wildly wrong).
Amusingly, it is still believed in some circles that the so-called “Fourth Estate” is an essential bulwark against tyranny. According to this delightfully optimistic view, dedicated journalists ensure the good functioning of society by diligently uncovering and revealing malfeasance by the powerful, thus ensuring that wrongdoers are held to account.
In reality of course, journalism has become the predominant means by which liars and frauds succeed in winning votes. It is not a matter of chance that blustering incompetents like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, and a long list of other infantile halfwits have all won high office over the last few years. Each and every single one triumphed because journalists dutifully repeated their lies.
Why? Because those lies made better copy than dull boring old facts and truth. Which meant those lies did a better job of grabbing eyeballs and generating revenue.
And that, dear reader, is all that counts. No revenue, no pay cheque for the journalists. Job One is always and forever securing that pay cheque. And so the media promotes the least-capable because they are the most newsworthy.
What’s better copy: Trump proclaiming that eating your toenails cures cancer, or a boring article on the details of protein misfolding? What will keep more viewers gawping mindlessly at their screens: Brexiteers claiming that leaving the EU will generate a thousand trillion new jobs overnight, or an interview with an economist who talks about global logistics, trade interdependencies, and the impact of tariffs?
We are the reason that journalists feed us infantile nonsense.
We are the reason the Trumps of this world are voted into office.
Because we just want to be entertained.
And that’s why it is so easy to be a journalist these days.
But here’s the thing: by pure accident a perfect feedback loop has emerged. Once “news” relies on sensationalism then everything must be sensationalized in order to stand a chance of grabbing attention. So when we hit on some wonderful sensationalist story like “Covid-19 is killing everyone everywhere, we’re all doomed!” there’s no way out of the loop. Every story has to be about how we’re all going to die from coronavirus, because every other story is all about how we’re all going to die from coronavirus. Ironically the only way to be heard is to sound like everyone else.
And thus a perfect self-reinforcing loop becomes established and there’s no obvious way out.
People don’t want to read about facts such as there’s no meaningful correlation between infection rate and mortality rate (you can prove this yourself with 5 seconds of searching on Google). People aren’t interested in being told that gross infection rate numbers are meaningless because as more people are tested what matters is actually infection rate per thousand tests. Ordinary folk just want mental pablum shoveled into their heads so they can believe something without making any mental effort, just as they consume endless McSlop because it doesn’t require any chewing.
Journalists give us what we want, and it’s killing us and destroying our societies. If we were smart, we’d ignore the media entirely and do our own primary research.
But we’re not smart, and so we have journalists. Who are, in the words of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and voiced by the incomparable Roberta Flack:
Killing us softly with their song, killing us softly…