Nick Davies seemed to surprise a few people with a scathing critique of modern journalism which he characterised as Flat Earth News. Certainly he highlighted some pretty shabby practices in a curate's egg of a book - one minute I was right behind him, the next shaking my head in frustration...
One of Davies's key messages was that modern news organisations lack the resources to do their job properly. Starved of cash, newpapers are filled with PR-driven 'churnalism' and even apparently decent journalists have little choice but to rush out a mishmash of half-baked, barely checked information. It is a sorry tale: "Journalism without checking is like the human body without an immune system."
In Can You Trust The Media?, Adrian Monck has a rather different take on fairly similar terrain. His answer to the trust question seems quite simple - a resounding No. And his reasoning is compelling: why should you?
His mission is to 'burst the trust balloon'. "We need to teach people to live in a world where trust is something that is withheld. People need to be sceptical as a matter of course. Then they won't be so disappointed."
Whereas Davies refers contemptuously to the 'news factory', a new-fangled semi-automated monster that is replacing honest hardworking journalism, Monck is less romantic: "The main role of news media is to filter and aggregate information, repackaging it with some entertainment."
Forget any idea of a Fourth Estate, fighting heroic battles in the public interest, Monck's media is about profit and commodification. "As on any other market the type of information produced and its quantity depend on supply and demand."
This brutal analysis should not be obscured by the obsessions of those who argue that trust and credibility are vital to media success; as he says, not being trusted never lost anyone a reader or a viewer.
"No significant research conclusively links drops in readership (or listening or viewing) to specific issues of credibility...."
Davies observes that today's media moguls 'have shifted their priority from propaganda to commerce, that shift has introduced a whole new set of obstacles to truth-telling." Monck respnds by arguing: "If we know that it's a rag that is published for the profit of the proprietor and as a distraction for the nation of shopkeepers, tearing our hair out over every lie and sensation is an unproductive waste of time."
Having reeled off example after example of stories that turned out to be just that - fictions crafted to shift product - Monck ends up asking rhetorical questions that he himself seems to find unsettling: "Perhaps trust simply doesn't matter - certainly not in the real world, the world of finance and power. Perhaps trust is a liberal preoccupation for journalists and editors..."
Monck and Davies identify many of the same villains, but whereas Davies calls for a raising of standards (through investment), Monck puts the onus of responsibility firmly on our shoulders. The wise amongst us realise that the media isn't there to be trusted, it is a (money-making) conduit for information that we ourselves must evaluate - if we can be trusted to do so.
We are trapped in the jaws of an age old dilemma, how to balance the stories we exchange as social animals and our need as rational beings for hard information.
Both Flat Earth and Trust will be required reading for my Media Ethics module from September; students can make of them wehat they will but I am rather more inclined to Monck's approach. I just wish he had sourced his claims, ideally including a bibliography but certainly avoided referring to 'a 2007 poll' without any indication of what poll this might be. Maybe this is a clever, knowing way of challenging the reader's trust (or guillibility). Or maybe it is just lazy...