fears that the COVID-19 pandemic may deliver a coup de grace to UK print journalism. I fear he may be right. Newspapers have been struggling for decades in an increasingly hostile media environment, with advertising revenue flowing away to social media. As he says, quoting Roy Greenslade, publishers have been engaged in the delicate task of managing newsprint decline while, in parallel, seeking to create a digital journalism business model.
Some of this is an inevitable consequence of technological change, but some of the industry's injuries were self-inflicted. They could have been mitigated through better strategic thinking and a firmer moral stance. How did Scotland's newspapers manage to alienate a news junkie like myself? For over 50 years I was an avid consumer of newsprint. By 2010, I was so sickened by the collapse of mainstream Scottish journalism that I stopped buying papers altogether. Now I feed my fact addiction from other sources, mainly online, often produced by non-journalists.
Journalists have always had a weakness for 'stories' – eye-catching, gut-wrenching opportunities for fine writing. But once newspapers also contained facts, dull solid facts – trial reports, parliamentary speeches and votes, auction prices, even the toing and froing of ships and their famous passengers. Local papers reported school prize-givings and the opening of summer fetes. This kind of reporting was labour-intensive and low on pizzazz. It could not match the glamour and immediacy of the new worlds promised by television, the internet and social media. But it did offer a genuine alternative route.
Instead, print journalism tried to fight the electronic media on their own ground and failed miserably. This recognition owes a lot to hindsight. But even at the time there was a clear case – certainly moral, perhaps also economic – for concentrating on factual reporting and in-depth investigation, letting the ephemeral flow online. Instead, newspapers largely opted to go post-factual: they sacked their specialist reporters and replaced political correspondents with wannabe comedian sketch-writers. Investigative journalism gave way to rehashed press releases.
Print journalism scored another own goal by leaving these unsourced. In investigative reporting there may be good reasons for concealing sources, but basic honesty suggests that press releases should be identified. If the source is reputable, no harm done; if the source has a hidden agenda, readers should have the opportunity to work this out for themselves. This is one area where good online journalism now beats print, by including hyperlinks that allow readers to track back and draw their own conclusions.
Admittedly the zeitgeist did not help. Truth-seeking has come under pressure on several fronts. Since 1945, the developed world has moved from information starvation to information glut. The spread of education and democracy has undermined traditional deference to authority, making it harder to distinguish experts from charlatans. Celebrity influencers proliferate on social media. As a result, the opportunity costs of truth-seeking have increased: if people want to winnow truth from falsehood, news from fake news, they need to work harder. The image of mice on a treadmill comes to mind.
Meanwhile, truth itself has come under attack from many different quarters. Some postmodernists rubbish the whole idea. On the right, market fundamentalists insist that economic forces provide the only valid criterion: in a world of perfectly informed markets, consumers can't be mistaken. A million satisfied customers can't be wrong. A weird inversion of the same argument is replicated on the left: truth-seeking is elitist and anti-democratic. All views deserve equal respect, no matter how ill-informed.
Above all, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of informed debate and open-ended commitment to truth-seeking. The world needs more facts and fewer stories. Can print journalism rise to this challenge?
It is not clear to me what media coverage Bryan Stuart
followed, but the mainstream media I followed gave significant coverage of defence evidence in addition to which it was, necessarily, balanced. The fact the prosecution witnesses outnumbered defence witnesses inevitably resulted in greater coverage. What could any reasonable person expect?
Having bemoaned the lack of coverage of defence evidence, he criticises the prosecutor for 'almost complete failure to cross examine the defence witnesses'. It is not clear to me whether he bases that opinion, from 'a layman' as he reminds us, from first-hand observation of the trial or on the 'little media coverage' of defence evidence. If it is the latter, his opinion can only be next to worthless, while if the former, he is necessarily disadvantaged as a layman to appreciate the tactics favoured by a highly capable experienced prosecutor in his judgEment calls and knowledge of finer points of law. To suggest the alleged failure to cross examine to the extent referred to by Mr Stuart is indicative of acceptance of its truth or its being irrelevant, is naive in the extreme.
He refers to the jury's verdict as amounting to 'comprehensive failure' by the prosecutor to prove his case. It should be borne in mind that although the verdict was acquittal ,all were majority verdicts, with the second most serious charge, assault with intent to rape, 'not proven' by majority. The voting statistics of course remain unknown but all that the majority demonstrates is that less than eight of the 13 voted for guilty. Whether that amounts to 'comprehensive failure' may depend on the hue of the rose-tinted glasses worn.
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