Nick Robinson: New Media is On a Mission to Create Distrust
In the era of 'fake news' and clickbait, Nick Robinson believes that new media outlets are on a mission "to convince people not to believe the news."
At the inaugural Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture, the BBC’s former Political Editor asked why, and pondered what news organisations could do to help rebuild trust in the media.
Robinson defines news as the “stories about the world we live in. It is the things that we don’t, but ought to know”. It is a powerful tool, one that is “too important to be reduced to three letters: an OMG, an LOL, or a WTF”.
However, he based his lecture on one simple principle: that the way the public interact with news is changing.
Changing media habits - and accusations of bias
Fifty percent of young people engage with the news in bed, and 33 percent whilst on the bog. Simultaneously, in this time of political extreme on both sides of the Atlantic, all major news organisations are being regularly accused of bias. Some of them - the BBC included - to both the left and the right.
“People are convinced that the media is biased because they’re not hearing people like themselves”, said Robinson; “they believe that their views have been deemed unacceptable”.
This is no longer passive consumption, however. Those who feel unrepresented are “not just complaining about the mainstream media, but setting up their own alternatives”, marking the growth in what he calls ‘identity journalism”.
The Canary and Westmonster were just two of the new outlets he mentioned throughout the evening that are engaging in this new form of writing. These outlets work tirelessly to affirm a political identity, “seek[ing] out, read[ing] and shar[ing] stories that reaffirm their sense of who they are”, but at the same time, confirming “prejudice about their opponents or anyone who criticizes their cause or leader.” It is in their political interest to “convince people not to believe the news” from ‘mainstream’ outlets.
How do we broadcast the best version of the truth?
As Robinson gave his lecture, accusations of Laura Kuenssberg’s planned appearance at the Tory Party Conference were rife on Twitter. The debate, arguments, and personal attacks on Kuenssberg that lasted long after the claim was disproved, proved his point entirely.
In response, he said that journalists need to change how they engage with their consumers, appealing directly to the broadcasters who made his name.
Newsreaders in the UK have arguably had their busiest year in a long time: a General Election, the Grenfell Tower Fire, and multiple terror attacks have kept the kept the updates coming at an alarming rate. But, with so much to report, Robinson asks “how do we broadcast the best obtainable version of the truth?”.
Firstly, he thinks that the extremists often at the heart of these ‘fake’ stories should be allowed their air-time; “They should be interviewed. They should be challenged. If they get their facts wrong, we should say so, but they should not be silenced”.
Explaining how we make the news
More importantly, he concludes that journalists “should be much more open and much more explicit about what [they] do and why [they] do it”. Channel 4 broadcaster Jon Snow has openly discussed the anger directed towards his profession at Grenfell Tower - “why weren’t you here before?”, asked residents - but Robinson encountered similar frustrations broadcasting from the scene of the Finsbury Park Terror Attack.
When the BBC - in line with Met Police statements - did not initially refer to the incident as terror, “people who were there thought that we were trying to cover something up”. As a result,he as a newsreader became the target of ‘attack’.
Those in the street “trusted their own media more”, and took to broadcasting Robinson live on Periscope, criticising his reporting and making accusations of racial bias. Robinson proposed that, had journalistic processes been more transparent - if people knew why the incident had to first be called a ‘collision’ rather than a terror attack - this tension wouldn’t have existed.
He suggested “translating Producers’ Guidelines into fluent human that can be written down, tweeted, blogged and broadcast”. By “showing [their] workings more” Robinson asserted that journalists would be able to “confidently assert why they’re doing what they’re doing”.
Closing the lecture with this recent and resonant example of the literal interaction between the media and its consumers, it was clear that Robinson is determined to improve the relationship between his industry and the public it intends to represent, and it would be hard for any other journalist to refute his cause.