Words which Joseph Conrad once wrote about his motives as a writer might well be taken as a manifesto by any serious and responsible journalist – or we might wish that they would.
“Art itself”, he wrote in the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, “may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect”. He accepted that his task should be this: “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see!” Success for him would be that “you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand; and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask”.
More than a hundred years later we still look for these high standards from writers, journalists included. Do we reach them? This was what Pope Francis was looking for when in his recent book, Let Us Dream, he spoke about the role journalists have played in helping us to cope with the woes inflicted upon us by the latest visitation to our world of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Journalists have had a key role in helping us to make sense of what was happening, to balance and assess different accounts and opinions. The best reporters took us to the margins, showed us what was happening there, and made us care. This is journalism at its most noble, helping us to conquer our existential myopia, and opening up spaces for discussion and debate.
But a role is one thing and the execution of a role another. The evidence to be found in the agencies whose chosen and vocational job it is to bring to us our “deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – and that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask” show that all too often, they fail us, succumbing to what the Pope calls their pathologies.
But the media also have their pathologies: disinformation, defamation, and a fascination with scandal. Some media are caught up in the post-truth culture, where facts matter much less than impact, seizing narratives as a way to wield power. The most corrupt media are those that pander to their readers and viewers, twisting the facts to suit their prejudices and fears.
He writes that the media in this way cease to mediate and become intermediaries – presumably meaning that some in the media have ceased to try to stand apart and have just become the mouthpieces of vested interests or loudspeakers for whatever bubble to which they happen to subscribe, obscuring our view of reality. For him, categorically, reporting that rearranges the facts to support ideology for financial gain is a corruption of journalism that frays our social fabric.
But it is encouraging in some way to realise that the public is not fooled all of the time and that in the detritus of bad journalism which surrounds us there may lurk the seeds of redemption. While it has been said, with some accuracy, that no one ever lost money underestimating public taste, bad products do eventually self-destruct.
A Reuters Digital News Report published last year gave us the results of a survey of 2,000 people in the Republic of Ireland. It found that 48 per cent agreed they could trust most news most of the time, the same percentage as in 2019. That’s not a high level of trust. It is just about a pass mark in most people’s books. But elsewhere, it got worse. In the UK findings showed trust levels in the news there to have fallen from 40 per cent to 28 per cent. In the US, trust levels dropped three points to 29 per cent. In the UK trust levels have plunged most among news users who lean to the political left, while in the US, it is right-leaning people who are much more likely to mistrust the news. This Reuters Report showed that the international average was 38 per cent, down four percentage points since 2019.
The question is how low can you go before you implode? We can only hope that sooner rather than later someone will shout “stop!’ and that glimpses of the truth are not going to cease to be part of the human experience.