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Against Stupidity in the Media

Angela Phillips is the winner of Philosophy Now’s 2019 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. She gave this acceptance talk at Conway Hall in January.

Stupidity is not about intelligence, or education. Rather, a stupid action or statement usually follows an untested assumption. It is stupid to leave your house without your keys because you didn’t check that they were where you thought they ought to be. And our assumptions too often come from a broad understanding of the world that we have stopped bothering to reconsider, because, ‘Hey, we’ve always thought that, so it must be true’. Broadcasting a conclusion based on an untested assumption simply compounds the error. It is stupid.

Rick Lewis and Angela Phillips

Test Assumptions

I think my own first struggles with the stupidity of entrenched assumptions emerged from my encounters in the early 1970s with men who genuinely believed that women were stupid. Not just some women. All women. I found this assumption puzzling to start with, but after a while I found it profoundly annoying, and as time went on it made me angry. Not just because of their arrogant dismissal of my personhood, but because it seemed astonishing that they could make such a ludicrous assertion without any evidence to back it up.

That early experience of intellectual laziness has been a useful one, because it taught me that the very first step in the consideration of any new piece of information should be to stop and check your own preconceptions. Whatever one’s worldview, if the evidence doesn’t tell you what you thought it would, then you need to reconsider your own assumptions before rejecting the evidence.

I tried to follow that rule in my own journalism, and now my job as a professor of journalism is to teach other people:

• To be careful;

• To ask yourself, ‘Is this plausible?’;

• To respect the evidence;

• To check your own prejudices;

• To keep in mind the prejudices of those who employ you;

• To correct the record if you find that the evidence doesn’t accord with your first impressions.

If all journalists always followed these rules, journalism truly would be a weapon in the fight against stupidity.

Of course, in a fast-moving situation, it is easy for journalists to jump to conclusions. Take the shooting of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes on a London tube train in 2005.

The shooting was just two weeks after four suicide bombs had exploded on public transport in London, and one day after four failed bombing attempts. People – the public, the services, and journalists – were jumpy and anxious; a major hunt was under way for the fugitive bombers, and the police interpreted what they saw in the light of understandable assumptions. Witnesses talked about a man running, about a bulky jacket with wires protruding from it, about a man of ‘Asian’ appearance. The journalists duly wrote down these ‘facts’ to assemble a story. In the rush to be first with the news there was little time to check them, and anyway the facts appeared to fit the police version of events: a man under surveillance, possibly carrying a bomb, had boarded a tube train and had been shot dead. Pretty soon it became clear that the shot man was not Asian, he was not wearing a bulky jacket, he had no equipment, and no bomb. The police had shot the wrong man.

The witnesses described what they remembered seeing, but misconstrued it on the basis of prior assumptions. Most journalists started very quickly to correct the record, producing new stories that started to throw doubt not only on the witnesses’ accounts, but also on the police version of events. There was a running man – in fact there were several running men: they were the police, in plain clothes, in pursuit of their target, who was not even aware that he was being pursued.

In a fast-changing situation we should expect a lot of what’s reported to be incorrect. It’s the job of journalists to check and correct as the story unfolds. This job has become a great deal harder lately as people expect to get their news in real time and journalists have to pick their way through huge quantities of misinformation circulating online and in social media. The golden rule is always to check and correct, because it is not necessarily stupid to be wrong. It is stupid to keep going with a story when you already know it is wrong.

In the case of de Menezes, most news organisations corrected the record as soon as they realised that the wrong man had been shot; but some decided to spin the story to fit preconceived prejudices and assumptions so that the victim would be judged to be responsible for his own death. One newspaper took it upon itself to investigate his immigration status, reported that he had overstayed his visa, and made the assumption that he must therefore have been running away from the police. The eventual enquiry found that he had not been running, because he was not aware that he was being pursued. In the circumstances his immigration status could only have been considered a factor if the object was to make the victim appear suspicious.

However, deliberately assembling facts in a particular way in order to mislead audiences, is not stupid. I would consider it mendacious.

Unfortunately this is not a rare event. In 2008 I interviewed a number of journalists about their work. One news editor on a mid-market British newspaper explained how he was expected to select stories: “[The paper] works on the presumption that negative news sells – always go for the negative line even if it isn’t typical. There is nothing untrue, but it isn’t a balanced representation. It’s been twisted to conform to an idea. If you leave ethics out it’s good professional journalism and it sells papers.”

While I can warn young journalists of the dangers of deliberately skewed editorial instructions aimed at satisfying particular appetites and prejudices by cherry-picking facts in order to serve a preconceived worldview, I know they’ll have little power to resist the pressure to conform. But powerlessness is not stupidity, and we have no laws or regulations in Britain that can protect a journalist from the demands of his or her employers – something that the National Union of Journalists highlighted during the Leveson enquiry into the ethics and practices of the Press in 2011.

What Is Stupid Journalism?

So what then is stupid journalism? I would see it as journalism in which facts are assembled in order to fulfil unexamined assumptions about what is important, who is likely to be reliable, and, all too often, which version of events is most likely to attract the attention of the public. Often this information has not been tested by asking four simple questions: “Who stands to gain?”; “Who stand to lose?”; “Where does the power lie?” and “Who is responsible?”

Take the news coverage of the fire at Grenfell Tower [a fire in a residential block in London in 2017 in which seventy-two people died, Ed]. Some journalists realised that the speed of the fire was anomalous and quickly deduced that this must have had something to do with the way in which the building had been renovated. They spent that night trawling the internet to find who was responsible for the building’s refurbishment and downloaded documents from the companies involved before they could be taken offline. They then wrote excellent stories about the way in which the tower had been constructed and refurbished and the responsibility of the authorities. This informed the subsequent debate, just as good journalism ought to do. Others set out to find out the name of the resident in whose flat the fire started. Journalists at the Daily Mail assembled a story in which they named the man who called the fire brigade, and provided photographs of him taken from his Facebook account, publishing suggestions that he had been tardy in alerting other residents. He was not responsible for the tragedy, and this story was so stupidly irresponsible that the editors took it down from their website within days. A number of news organisations also published stories of a child being thrown from a fourth, fifth or eleventh floor window and being caught below. Except that it never happened. The journalists who repeated the story had not asked the most basic question: could a child survive being dropped from the fourth, fifth, or eleventh floor? However, some BBC journalists did ask the obvious question: is this plausible? They investigated and found that it was most unlikely that such an event could have happened without serious injury to both the child and the person catching it. No such injuries were reported that night.

Sadly a lot of stupid journalism is still being churned out – almost all of it for the sake of sensationalism. And we, the audience, encourage it because we do like a bit of shock and horror. Here are a couple of examples:

• When one piece of evidence suggests that vaccinations might cause autism, it would help to take a step back, take a look at the other evidence, and ask, “Who stands to lose if we get this wrong?” Of course it is possible that the experts might be wrong, but it is stupid to reject the rest of the available evidence in favour of a sensational story, because in doing so you are ignoring the possible consequences of misrepresenting evidence, and children might die as a result.

• When a civic authority makes an unpopular planning decision, it’s stupid to rely solely on the opinions of the people making the decision, but it is equally stupid to rely only on the protestors without first considering the possibility that the protestors might have an agenda of their own, and secondly asking yourself in whose interests the authorities are working. Of course the planning officer might have a hand in the till; but assuming ill-will without the necessary evidence is both stupid and unfair. The sensible course is to ask yourself: in whose interests are these people working? Then lay out the evidence and allow your audience to weigh it themselves.

Check Benign Assumptions Too

If people are to be properly served by journalists they need to be given information, that has been properly considered and checked for errors of fact, that they can then evaluate themselves. This is not to suggest that news companies should never be partisan. The British press is thoroughly politically partisan, but you do not serve your audience well if you allow political preconceptions to take precedence over critical analysis of events.

The coverage of the European Union in Britain recently has demonstrated only too well how easy it is for news organisations to exacerbate political divisions rather than trying to bridge them. Our print press and its online extensions took sides on this issue long before the decision by David Cameron to call a referendum. It would have been very hard for anyone with a favourite newspaper to find anything at all in its pages suggesting that those on the other side of the debate might have a case to make. The BBC produces the only news material that’s consumed and trusted by the majority of British citizens. It should have provided a counterpoint to this partisanship. But the BBC’s political editors, focussing only on the need to remain impartial, decided to ignore party affiliation in their calculations of air-time. In making that decision they were assuming that arguments for both sides of the debate could be plausibly presented by people from just one political party. So in practice they reported the referendum on whether Britain should stay in or leave the European Union as though it was a cricket match between two wings of the Conservative Party, rather than a complex event in which every viewer or listener was actually a participant, rather than an observer. Researchers at Loughborough University found that the BBC fulfilled their duty to give equal time to each side of the debate. But they also found that of the thirty most interviewed people during the referendum campaign, Conservative Party politicians were given 73% of the exposure. So the BBC coverage was based on the erroneous assumption that arguments within that party were the only arguments worth making, and would be as compelling for unemployed steel workers in the North East as for stockbrokers around London.

BBC news was also criticised for being so anxious about impartiality that it failed to correct even clearly erroneous statements made by politicians – such as the suggestion that Turkey was about to enter the European Union. In fact, Cardiff University researchers found that three out of four claims made were not questioned by journalists. Their jobs had been reduced to that of game show hosts, merely introducing the contestants. So it is hardly surprising that, in the days before the vote over whether to leave the EU, fewer than a third of voters felt well-informed. But the BBC’s assistant political editor, Norman Smith, reasoned that the BBC didn’t need to inform or educate the audience on the issues (rather than simply report the debates the politicians were having), because, “I don’t think it’s up to us to, as it were, go AWOL and say well, fine, but we’re actually going to talk about this because we think that’s what voters are interested in” (Feedback interview). Given the role of the BBC as Britain’s most trusted news source, this was not just a failure of policy, it was a stupid failure of journalism.

Journalism and the Internet

Angela Phillips
Angela Phillips

Having criticised the BBC for being stupid in this instance, we are at least fortunate that Britain’s main news network can to some extent be held to account for its stupidity. However, journalism is now increasingly dependent on platforms such as Google and Facebook to find an audience and an income, and these companies are entirely unaccountable. So my stupidity award of the century so far would go to those oh so clever men (it is mainly men) who design the algorithms which organise knowledge online. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to organise information along the lines of a supermarket has done humanity no favours. Just as supermarkets are designed to ensure that unhealthy sweets, fizzy drinks and ready meals are always in view to tempt unwary shoppers, so the internet is now controlled by companies whose primary goal is to tempt us to keep coming back to their sites. They do this by delivering the emotional equivalent of a sugar high. Posts which major on emotion and drama shoot up the page rankings, where they are further boosted by likes and shares. The potatoes and greens of solid analysis have trouble finding a way in.

The internet should have been a brilliant ally in the fight against stupidity, but in the hands of people who merely want to profit from our attention this amazing technology is in danger of feeding stupidity with half-baked ideas, untested assumptions, and uncorroborated facts. Information doesn’t need to be organised in this way. Search could be organised along public service principles so that the internet serves knowledge rather than serving emotion. I think we would all feel a little less stupid if it did.

© Professor Angela Phillips 2019

Angela Phillips has been a practising journalist for 40 years and has taught journalism at Goldsmith’s, University of London, for more than 20 years. She has carried out extensive research into the ethics and practice of journalism in the social media age, and has written several books on journalism including Journalism in Context (Routledge, 2014) and Misunderstanding News Audiences (Routledge, 2018). She is also the founder of the local news website EastLondonLines.

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